Monday, January 02, 2006

Puzzling Filipino Optimism

As a liberal, I don’t like stereotypes and try to avoid them as much as I possibly can. But, in certain situations, it is hard to resist generalizations. One such case is the discussion regarding an important collective character trait of the vast majority of Filipinos I interact with on a daily basis: With very few exceptions, these people are friendly, happy and - overtly optimistic.

The stereotype of the happy and confident Pinoy is substantiated, on the macro level, in the annual surveys conducted by the Social Weather Stations. Every year, SWS asks a representative sample of Filipinos how they view their prospects in the coming year. This time, eighty-five percent of adult Filipinos entered the New Year with hope rather than fear, the institute said. Remarkably, the hope levels are higher than last year’s.

For more than one reason, I find these results mind-boggling.

Filipinos’ hopefulness stands in stark contrast to the generally perceived realities - politically, socially or economically. While well over four fifths of the people say they have hope for the New Year, many of the same people live along the poverty line and in all but merry social conditions. Also, in other polls, the same individuals claim to believe that their president has cheated in the last elections and nearly two thirds are so unhappy with GMA that they want her out.

Particularly remarkable I find the pollsters’ finding that optimism is more pronounced in the less affluent (or poor) groups of society than in the middle and upper classes. In other words: In the Philippines, the better-offs are more worried about their future than the have-nots living in or on the verge of misery.

This leads to the conclusion that, in this particular case, the objective living conditions and prospects don’t seem to determine the mindset of the people. While Marxists wont like this conclusion at all, this observation is substantiated by comparable polls conducted in my own country, Germany.

The economic and social situation of the vast majority of Germans is doubtlessly much better than that of the people in the Philippines. Still, compared to Pinoys, Germans may be called collectively depressed: According to a recent survey conducted by the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach, only 45 percent of Germans entered the New Year with hope.

Seen collectively, Filipinos may be called double as happy as Germans!

The discrepancy between the German and Philippine figures is remarkable. Having lived in the Philippines for nearly four years, I have come to the conclusion that more than anything else this country’s “peculiar brand of optimism”, as one local commentator has called it, has to do with its’ people’s spirituality and religious faith.

“The Filipino views what’s coming up with more hope than fear because he finds it easy to forgive and to forget what had gone before,”

the commentator opines.

On a personal and subjective level this may be an enviable quality as it may lead to a life void of anxiety and angst. On the other hand, the collective inclination to forget and forgive produces less positive results for society as a whole. If you prefer to forget, you tend to be distracted easily. This may lead to a situation in which words count more than deeds, which according to my Philippine friends is a typical trait of this country’s politicians. This said, forgetting and forgiving is particularly hazardous in the political and legal spheres. There it may lead to impunity, the worst enemy of the rule of law.

“It may well be that Filipino optimism is actually what is holding the country back, rather than pushing it forward,” writes the commentator, and I tend to agree.

Think about it. As you wrench your mind, don’t be surprised if you start philosophizing. Looking at the Germany-Philippines comparison, you might end up believing that the choice is between either poor and happy or rich and unhappy.

I hope you don’t get stuck there. Life is more complex than black and white. At least from a liberal view point, it is always useful to examine also the grey.


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Blogger cvj said...

I'm a Filipino working in Singapore in the IT sector. Whenever i work with the locals on projects, i get branded as the 'optimist'. I explain to them that i'm actually a fatalist.

Speaking of the happiness index, i think similar results are seen in Nigeria, another country where deprivation is prevalent. A number of books make the point that having the capacity to acquire durable goods actually leads to greater disappointment. So not having the means to buy these may actually have the effect of shielding people from such disappointment.

12:29 AM  

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