No Free Lunch

Examining Filipinos’ happiness

/ 04:20 AM February 28, 2020

I recently wrote about gross national happiness (GNH) and how it is now measured, noting that contrary to what many of us would probably expect, the Philippines is nowhere near the top of the list of happiest countries in the world. In the United Nations’ World Happiness Report 2019, we rank 69th in a list of 156 countries, or just above the middle in the list. Still, we rank higher (thus happier) than most of our Southeast Asian neighbors like Malaysia (80th), Indonesia (92nd), Vietnam (94th), Laos (105th), Cambodia (109th), and Myanmar (131st). Singapore (34th) and Thailand (52nd) are our only Asean neighbors that outrank us in the Happiness Index (Brunei is not included in the UN listing). Bhutan, for all its pioneering of the GNH concept, is actually only 92nd in the list, well below halfway in the list.However, we are among the top (12th) countries with the greatest improvement in the Happiness Index between the 2005-2008 and 2016-2018 periods. In the index that measures happiness on a scale of 0 to 10, the Philippines gained 0.860, that is, from 4.771 to 5.631. The biggest improvement in happiness came in Benin (which improved by 1.390) and Nicaragua (by 1.264), while the worst decline in happiness was seen in Venezuela (whose index dropped by 1.944), followed Syria (by 1.861).

If there’s income inequality, then there must also be inequality in happiness. In determining a country’s Happiness Index, the Gallup World Survey polled 1,000 respondents who are statistically representative of the entire population. Respondents are asked to imagine where they stand on a ladder with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom (worst possible life) to 10 at the top (best possible life). Thus, the survey results from the 1,000 samples also make it possible to determine the range of variation among the answers, as an indicator of the inequality of happiness in each country surveyed. Based on the statistical standard deviation in the survey results within countries, the Philippines comes out among those with highest happiness inequality, ranking 119th in the list from most to least equal. This mirrors the relatively high degree of income inequality in the country, with the income of the richest 10 percent of Filipinos about 8-9 times that of the poorest 10 percent.


The other interesting feature of the World Happiness Report is in how it examines six factors contributing to happiness: GDP per capita (average income), social support, generosity, perception on corruption, freedom of choice, and healthy life expectancy. How do Filipinos rank on these? Our best suit (where we rank 15th) is in freedom of choice, where the question posed to the respondent is: “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?” The result suggests that Filipinos still feel better off than most people in the world regarding personal freedoms.

Our worst showing, on the other hand, is in generosity (ranking 115th), where the question posed is: “Have you donated money to a charity in the past month?” But I question whether that is a good question to ask to assess generosity, as it need not be manifested in monetary donations alone. Filipinos pride themselves on our legendary hospitality, for example—and that’s generosity. We, as individuals and as communities, are quick to respond to help victims of calamities; that’s generosity.


Surprisingly, our next best showing among the six indicators is in perception of corruption, where we ranked 49th, where the question asked is “Is corruption widespread in the government and businesses or not?” In social support (“If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help whenever you need them, or not?”), we ranked 75th or just around the median. In GDP per capita and in healthy life expectancy (both derived from official statistics), we ranked 97th and 99th, respectively. The last points to a serious gap in our development agenda, which shows in high rates of severe malnutrition and stunting among young children, among other things.

The Happiness Index clearly remains far from perfect, but it’s important that we’re measuring it at all.


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TAGS: GDP per capita, Gross National Happiness, United Nations’ World Happiness Report 2019
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