I have to acknowledge Spike Milligan’s take on the old cliché that, “money can’t buy you happiness, but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery.” Why is it that we go to the Philippines and many of us discover happy, friendly, contented people? Something seems wrong with that picture. It’s a shock because as first worlders we’re trained to believe that the only thing that creates true and lasting happiness is cash and plenty of it.
OK, there’s love too; lots of people believe that true happiness comes from love. But sometimes love requires a bit of money also, especially if you’re planning a big Jewish wedding.
And some people will tell you that good health is the key to lifelong happiness. But try finding a decent doctor when you have $1.95 in your bank account.
So, now I have proven that happiness requires money, preferably in dollars not pesos. Why then do Filipinos, most of whom are poor with limited prospects of every being anything but poor, seem so happy? Is it possible that in fact poverty creates happiness?
Why then do Filipinos, most of whom are poor with limited prospects of every being anything but poor, seem so happy? Is it possible that in fact poverty creates happiness?
I first wondered about this question many years ago when I was on my honeymoon (with wife #2). We went to the Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago. The island of Trinidad is bustling and industrious; but Tobago is tropical, poor and laid back. In Tobago, you would not see a car under twenty years old. Few people seemed to have jobs; the few jobs were in tourism and labor was dirt cheap. And yet I observed that the people smiled – and not just while they were waiting for tips. Children laughed and played and I couldn’t help but wonder why; after all, they didn’t live in the U.S., which I had been taught was the universal source of all happiness.
Four years ago I went to Kenya for safari and vacation. Once again I observed that very poor people smiled and seemed pretty damn happy. I actually met many people who lived in mud huts and invited me into their poor homes to share a meal. What the hell did they have to smile about, I wondered? My flooring is oak hardwood; their’s is hard dirt. It made no sense and yet I loved the discovery.
It emphasized what I intuitively knew – that human happiness existed outside of our Western notion of the crap we buy to create it.
And then I came to the Philippines and met many seemingly happy people. OK, mostly I met many happy, cute Filipinas, but you get the idea.
Last month we returned to Alcoy, Cebu for our wedding party. The entire neighborhood gathered to celebrate, play games, sing and dance for hours. They seemed happy and witnessing it truly made me happy. Why such happiness over the wedding of a daughter and a foreigner? Perhaps it was the delicious lechon that kicked off the party. Whatever the reason I loved it and my inlaws were happy that their daughter had married a foreigner who loved the Philippines culture. I don’t know whether I know the culture well enough to love it, but I love the people, or more accurately I love their happiness.
So, what’s the reason for it? I have no easy answers. I have had a lifetime of access to all that a sophisticated culture provides: a consistently full belly, nice home, good job and opportunities, a certain amount of toys, travel. And yet, like many Americans I’ve often struggled with unhappiness, sometimes breaking down into depression and despair.
When I met Janet and we began our journey together our daily online chats would emphasize the differences:
Sometimes I was worried; she was generally confident.
“What if…?” I would ask; “you mean when,” she would answer.
“I’m afraid of the future,” I would say; “life is short, live it now,” she would reply.
And always she would tell me, “be happy.”
Janet is still a newcomer but she’s lived in the U.S. long enough to know that despite our positive cash flow, Americans are not a bunch of happy campers and even her wonderful, guapo husband can be a depressed mope at times. She doesn’t understand it but gets her happiness fix by singing aloud and calling home, where the latest news is met with laughs and screams of delight.
I hear lots of expats complain, often vehemently about Filipinos and the Philippines. The air is polluted, the traffic sucks, the government is corrupt, the people are unethical, customer service is terrible, street food sucks, and worst of all – the Internet is slow. Yet most of them keep coming back and back. Why? Because Filipinos seem happier; happier than they are. And they hope some of it will rub off. So do I.
Of course, going back to my original question, it’s ridiculous to say Filipinos are happy because they are poor, any more than to suggest that many Americans are miserable because they are rich. It’s a conundrum and I’m still searching for the answer.
Yep, it’s gotta be the lechon!