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Uplifting message from Manila's optimistic and hopeful poor

Despite a decline in the percentage of the Filipino people (Filipinos) perceiving that their lives have improved in the past year (from 32 percent in March to 28 percent in June 2015), the latest Manila-based Social Weather Stations (SWS) poll shows that Filipinos remain optimistic, as indicated by a high 36 percent net personal optimism score.

More compelling was the finding that the highest net personal optimism score came from economically disadvantaged class E households (21 percent) compared to a paltry 9 percent in their more economically privileged class ABC counterparts.

These trends challenge our taken-for-granted assumption that the poor are a depressed lot suffused with pervasive feelings of gloom and doom.

Instead, is there evidence showing the coexistence of poverty and optimism or happiness, two seemingly incompatible precepts? Yes, there is and definitively so, according to findings of my pioneering 2014-2015 study of blighted Pasig River tributary communities, Estero de Aviles and Estero de Uli-uli in Manila. Women represented an overwhelming 62% of the total respondents.

Notwithstanding a dismally low economic well-being index score of 25 percent (100 percent corresponds to excellent economic well-being), Aviles and Uli-uli respondents manifested a happy and optimistic outlook, as evidenced by their high average happiness index score of 82 percent (a score of 100 percent implies a perfectly happy and optimistic outlook).

Such distinctly palpable optimism was significantly reinforced and enhanced by good health of family members (83 percent out of a possible 100 percent denoting excellent health), a low-pollution environment (84 percent of a possible 100 percent indicating the absence of pollution), and moderate level of violence in the community (69 percent out of 100 percent suggesting the absence of violence).

Parenthetically, the economic well-being index is an original aggregate measure formulated by the writer to capture self-reported levels of household income, household savings, community sources of livelihood, transportation costs, and recreational expenses.

On the other hand, the writer’s happiness index is a comprehensive parameter eliciting self-reported degrees of improvement in life satisfaction and quality of life, harmonious relationship with family members, cordiality with neighbors, the surroundings’ aesthetic appeal, environmental integrity, and the quality of landscaping in the community.

At a 95 percent confidence level and a margin of error 6 points, my study demonstrated that poverty’s daily assault on body, mind, and spirit need not extinguish a happy and optimistic mindset. What could explain this intriguing paradox? Insights about the world’s happiest countries provide tantalizing clues.

Recent Gallup surveys of countries’ well-being reveal that although some countries may have negative experiences, the impact of such experiences do not overshadow positive experiences. T

This generalization is supported by implications from Wall Street’s list of the world’s happiest nations which includes Costa Rica. Not a particularly wealthy country, Costa Rica boasts of a high life expectancy of 79.3, an army-free society, picturesque tourist destinations, and a strong philosophy of “la pura vida” or “life is good”.

Another noteworthy case is that of Vietnam, which Wall Street named as Asia’s happiest country. Contributing to this distinction are resilience, the Vietnamese’s genuine appreciation of what they have, quiet beaches, booming and vibrant cities.

Fair in its selection, the Wall Street honor roll includes rich countries such as Norway holds the distinction of having the highest per capita GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of USD 53,000; Denmark, and Canada among others.

It is, however, critical to consider that even in these top-tier countries, economic well-being is not the only determinant of life satisfaction. For instance, the Danes embody the philosophy of “hygge”, a complex mix of intimacy, community, and contentment generally felt within the context of family and friends.

Along with Denmark, the world’s happiest societies not only pride themselves in high average incomes, but most relevant to Filipinos, a robust combination of high life expectancy, strong social support systems, generosity, the freedom to make life choices, and negligible corruption.

Let it not be said, however, that material prosperity is unimportant because we indubitably need to satisfy, with dignity, our basic needs of nourishment, decent housing, health maintenance, education, and security.

Let it be borne in mind, instead, that as Estero de Aviles and Uli-uli residents so eloquently communicated, a healthy, positive, and constructive outlook in life transcends material considerations and encompasses the realm of the spiritual, the ideational, and the intangibles of human existence which, ultimately, are far more deeply satisfying and edifying.

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South and Central Asia
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