FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Notwithstanding the calamities that befall us, the burning issues that divide us and the grinding poverty we still have to defeat, Filipinos now rank among the happiest people in the world.

The yearend Gallup poll confirms that. The Philippines is the third happiest country in the world, behind Fiji and Colombia. Our net happiness score posted a five-point increase from 79 in 2016 to 84 in 2017.

In addition, the Philippines ranks as fifth most optimistic about the country’s economic prospects. We rank as the ninth most hopeful nation regarding prospects for 2018.

The Gallup report reinforces the findings of the SWS optimism poll. The local survey group found that 96% of Filipinos are optimistic things will be better in 2018. That breaks all previous records. 

The Palace spokesman cannot be blamed for claiming credit for the administration he serves. He cited the economy’s fast growth, the record-breaking stock market numbers and the unprecedented investment inflows as factors underpinning our people’s happiness and optimism.

He might have added that the same factors explain President Rodrigo Duterte’s very high job approval ratings. All the obvious gaffes notwithstanding, the bellyaching of human rights advocates and the tedious moralizing of the residual members of the Liberal Party, Duterte’s base of support remains at its strongest.

The political capital he has at his disposal is awesome. He has used that immense reserve of political capital to get through the first tax reform package and the Congress’ overwhelming approval for the continuation of martial law in Mindanao. 

Duterte’s no-nonsense leadership style is impressive even in non-core concerns.  No one thought it possible to separate Filipinos from their firecrackers on New Year’s Eve. We all saw the extent to which Executive Order 28, imposing a firecracker ban, was observed last Sunday. Firecracker-related injuries dropped remarkably and our streets were spared the usual chaos that accompanies New Year celebrations.

What happened Sunday night is nothing less than a cultural sea change. It signals that discipline is possible in a society once described as “ungovernable.”

If Filipinos could be separated from their firecrackers, it should be easy to separate him from his beloved jeepney.

This month, the jeepney modernization program begins. The drivers and operators of this obsolete but highly cultural artifact will be dragged into the program kicking and screaming.

They have attempted several strikes the past few months in an attempt to stop the modernization program by way of blackmail. All those strikes fizzled out. The reasons for phasing out these mechanical dinosaurs overwhelm whatever excuses the conservatives may have to keep them.

A small cottage industry developed the past few months, consisting of people who seem to fear the public support Duterte enjoys, warning about “creeping dictatorship.” Those who make such warning fail to distinguish between hard-nosed leadership and iron-fisted rule.

Duterte is simply a hard-nosed leader. His goals are not overarching. He wants to deliver a telling blow on the drug problem and bring some peace to communities disturbed for generations by insurgencies that refuse to die. He wants an economy that is kinder on his people and a bureaucracy that serves sincerely.

He is in no way a “constructivist” in the social science sense. He does not see himself in the business of bringing forth a new society. He has few illusions. He is not a megalomaniac like some of his enemies are.

He is fully aware his time is short and his energies limited. That defines the political horizon of his rule.

Our people, it appears, have become comfortable with the leader they have. They find his cusswords entertaining and his old-style legalese quaint. They do not feel threatened by a man who constantly (and honestly) talks about the discomforts of aging.

It is that comfort about the leader we have that keeps us a happy people.

All the economic achievement we are likely to make down the road we merely extrapolate at the moment. It suffices that our people are confident economic achievement will happen. Their president told them so.

Much of the explanation for our happiness will have to be attributed to cultural rather than economic factors, however.

Even in the worst of times, we rated well on the happiness index. In the most terrible time, we did seem to be an unsinkable people.

We assign much of what happens to fate. That allows us to cheerfully accept the bad things that happen.

Or else we laugh at our own misfortune. We have a well-developed cultural mechanism enabling us to do that. It is a rare virtue not found in any other societies.

Through the many years of foreign occupation, war, internecine bloodshed and self-inflicted deprivations, we evolved sophisticated coping mechanisms. Extended families supply the social safety net the state could not provide. Quasi-kinships, such as godparents or fraternity brothers, extend that safety net even more.

Our communities are able to function as support networks for those in an emergency of some sort. The console the bereaved and raise funds for the desperately ill.

Then there is what the French call l’art de vivre, the art of living. We find joy in the simple things, enjoyment in every congregation. We get together for no other reason than to indulge in laughter. Our rituals and holidays are mere excuses to come together and bond.

Filipinos, more than any other culture I have encountered, have an on-going inclusive conversation about nothing in particular. We are just talking among ourselves all of the time.

The results of the survey should not surprise us.

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