Behind the Filipino Smile: What Makes Pinoy Optimism Unique

Why is the Philippines one of the happiest places on Earth? It’s not uncommon for this question to arise in anyone’s head when he hears of news and surveys that make that claim. Factors like corruption, poverty, and unemployment continue to plague the country, so how does happiness persist in conditions that are seemingly not conducive for it? Psychology and culture might have a few answers.

According to Filipino psychologist Adrian Galang, we must always take note that what is being measured in these surveys is “subjective well-being.” This means that the one who is answering the survey gets to decide if he is living a happy life. Whether or not we believe him is another story. “They tend to measure a self-assessed life satisfaction. As long as you keep that limitation in mind, the data seems quite believable,” Galang points out.

You may ask, what is happiness but the conviction that everything in your life is going well? But that only forms part of the story. “Optimism is partly based on beliefs. If I were to try to sketch Pinoy optimism based on mere personal observation, most Filipinos believe in God’s grace, believe in luck, believe that family and friends are an important part of their happiness, believe that good wins over evil,” Galang says. “There might be nothing uniquely Filipino about them, not even in combination, but it is definitely true that the particular beliefs that people have will be based on Filipino concepts and world-views.”

Galang gives the Filipino adaptation of the karma concept as an example. When confronted with a world of unfairness, Filipinos might take comfort in the notion that justice will be served in a matter of time. The idea that family and friends will never abandon them and will help them find a way to work out the problem could also serve as a buffer to stress or anxiety that usually comes with hardships. “As a conjecture, the average Filipino might rationalize less about the actual problem and instead be initially more concerned with how to rationalize possible actions to family and friends or even to God,” asserts Galang.

The tendency of Pinoys to laugh first in the face of problems before solving them can also contribute to understanding why Filipinos are perceived as optimistic. However, do not misunderstand. It’s not that they don’t take difficulties seriously; they just use laughter as “a way of managing expectations (it’s not that bad) and an invitation to share the burden (if we both laugh we’re in this together). Filipinos are no less problem solvers. It’s just that they perceive the problems simultaneously as logical and relational problems,” says Galang.

Having a good sense of humor, of course, transcends any cultural differences between countries and races. After all, humor has the ability to diffuse tension temporarily.

All in all, what primarily sustains Pinoy Optimism is the communal nature of Filipinos. It’s easier to face a lot of things, as long as there’s someone there to face them with: “Optimism here almost always involves shared hopes. Expats and foreigners should learn what they ought to learn anywhere else where they are strangers: be humble in the face of a strange culture and try to recognize the common human threads that will allow you an entry point (into the community).”

And since we are relying on self-assessments of happiness, it couldn’t hurt to be wary of the answers. A smiling face could be the easiest mask to sport, even when someone is undergoing trials and tribulations. Galang concludes, “Try to remember that we Pinoys also have individual personalities and aren’t always all sunny and smiling, not even when we are laughing.”

-published in Expat Newspaper (2011)


Son: Dad, will I still be able to go to school?
Dad: It’s okay, son. As long as there’s life, there’s hope.

Editorial cartoon via arlenepasajecartoons

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