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Emotional Filipino?

Local mass media pounced on a recently released global survey that zeroed in on the Philippines as supposedly the second most emotional people in the world (well, among 140 countries) as well as the second most stressed.

After ABS-CBN contacted me for my views about the findings, I just had to look into the survey, organized by Gallup. There it was—a Global Emotions Report 2019, conducted worldwide. In the Philippines, I know that the Gallup polls are administered by the Social Weather Stations, headed by another Inquirer columnist, Mahar Mangahas.

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It turns out that the Philippines has participated in the Global Emotions surveys since 2006, each time with a sample of 1,000 respondents of different ethnolinguistic backgrounds, including, in this last survey, Maranao respondents (but war zones in Marawi were excluded).

The interpretation of an “emotional Filipino” is not too accurate if you look at what the surveys ask, which is whether respondents had “a lot” of  particular positive or negative experiences the previous day.  The positive ones referred to learning something interesting, enjoyment, being well-rested, if the respondents smiled or laughed a lot, and felt treated with respect. The negative ones referred to worry, stress, physical pain, sadness and anger.

The Philippines actually tied with Niger, Ecuador and Liberia, with 60 percent of the respondents saying they had experienced the most experiences, positive or negative.

It’s interesting that we were not among the Top 10 countries in terms of positive experiences or of negative experiences. What the international survey showed, simply, was that we reported the most positive and negative experiences.

The problem with quantitative surveys, where you’re asked to answer yes or no to specific questions, is that you can’t quite capture the nuances for something as subjective as feelings and emotions.

That is why we keep coming up with different ranks for happiness surveys. Our local headlines crow when we come out as the happiest people in the world, but are silent when we don’t do too well. The latest World Happiness Report, released just last month, didn’t make it into the news. Our rank was 69th out of 156 countries.

The Global Emotions survey did get me thinking, though, about the need to do a study not so much on what we experience, but how we feel. Yes, there are also studies on wellbeing, but I’d like to look at the range of emotions that we can report, and in the language and languages we are most comfortable.

I suspect such a study will show we are indeed emotional. There’s much evidence there, from the range of emotions expressed in our songs, especially love songs, to our movies and television productions.

You can see it, too, in specific examples, most dramatically in the way we handle deaths. Our wakes and funerals are occasions for superemoting—“emote” carrying theatrical connotations. And we do this with the whole range of emotions in paradoxical ways, like mixing jokes, even some revelry, with the mourning. In contrast, many other cultures’ wakes and funerals are sad but solemn, with no hysterics and no vocal expressions.

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We are expressive with our emotions because our culture “authorizes” us to, even demanding that we be overacting, lest people think we don’t care enough or don’t grieve enough. We also emote because we feel, collectively, laughter and tears being terribly contagious. And if we are alone, we find ways to trigger the emotions, listening to sad songs when we’re sad because it’s not right to listen to happy songs when sad. (Get it?)

Is all this good or bad?

On one hand, I think it’s healthy to be expressive with our emotions. Japanese mental health workers actually had to launch a campaign several years back, after a destructive earthquake and tsunami, to get Japanese survivors to express their grief. The Japanese norm is to be stoic, to the point where a public show of emotions is seen as shameful.

In contrast, we Filipinos require public displays of emotions. Moreover, and here I see risks, we tend to ruminate with our emotions, particularly the negative ones. Again, because we are more communal in our orientation, we then bring these emotions around, almost demanding that other people share those negative emotions, particularly sadness and anger.

That might explain why, in the Gallup poll, we come out reporting so many positive and negative experiences, and also top the list with feelings of stress.

We’ve evolved to feel anger and sadness and stress almost as defense mechanisms, which are important for survival. But these emotions can turn into monsters, pouncing back at us and our loved ones.

Let’s celebrate our being emotional and harness that ability instead to develop empathy, an ability to feel with, and care for, others.

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