Happiness as public policy | Inquirer Opinion
Editorial

Happiness as public policy

/ 05:07 AM March 27, 2022

The Philippines is the second happiest country in Southeast Asia, according to the 2022 World Happiness Report published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. It ranked 60th out of 146 countries, an improvement from last year’s 61st, but still far from the 52nd—the country’s highest rank so far—two years ago.

The report, released last March 20 — International Day of Happiness — said majority of people in almost every country prefer a calmer life to an exciting one; this preference was particularly high in poorer countries, especially in Africa. It added that balance and peace contribute strongly to a satisfying life in all regions of the world. The report also took into account COVID-19, which, it said “had a strong impact on popular conceptions of what is most important for a good life, and indeed on how society can foster collective improvements to well-being.”

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The reaction on social media to the Philippines being in the top half of the happiness index was laced with the typical Filipino humor: “This is probably in a parallel universe.” “Our government and the politics are a joke, please don’t mistake it as us being happy.” One Twitter user asked: “Are we already rich?” referring to a study by Texas-based firm Expensivity released last year that suggested Filipinos’ “happiness premium” was at $28,264 annually, or about P1.5 million a year or P125,000 per month at current foreign exchange rates. This was based on purchasing power ratios sourced from the World Bank and the local cost of living. But various data suggest the average Filipino earns only half a million pesos annually.

“A reliable, comfortable income salves your worries and just makes life easier. Poverty is stressful and leaves long-term damage,” Expensivity said. It, however, noted that money isn’t everything, but “if your environment is right, then having enough of it gives you the cushion you need to build a masterplan for being happy into your routine.”

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The World Happiness Report, in fact, cites environments as a determinant for happiness. It pointed to evidence that people are happier when they have a sense of ownership and participation in the intervention or policy design process, i.e. autonomy, empowerment, and social justice. It also weighs happiness “based on life evaluations as the more stable measure of the quality of people’s lives,” noting that the happiness of each country depends on factors such as gross domestic product per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, personal freedom, and perceptions of corruption.

The link between happiness and corruption — or the absence of it — is not far-fetched: Finland, which topped the 2022 happiness index, also topped the latest edition of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index — together with Denmark and New Zealand, which were also among the 10 happiest countries in the world. The Helsinki Times, dissecting why Finland topped the happiness ranking for the fourth year in a row, cited three critical factors: low crime rate that makes the Finnish feel safe, secure, and happier; an education system that is based on learning rather than testing; universal health care; and equal opportunity regardless of socioeconomic background. “Finland has a very large middle class, and very little poverty. The rich in Finland have also traditionally been shy in showing their wealth … Even the poorest people would get the best education and health care, and no one needs to be homeless,” the paper said.

That kind of life remains a pipe dream for most Filipinos who have been known for their resilience and are praised for being happy despite being poor (poverty rate was at 23.7 percent as of last December). An Ateneo de Manila University study, “Income and Happiness: A Philippine Context,” conducted in Koronadal City, South Cotabato, last year showed that while income had minimal impact on the happiness of Filipinos, factors such as having savings and no outstanding loans to worry about, membership in a credit cooperative that could help in financial emergencies, and decent housing all contribute to their relative well-being. “… [I]ncreasing accessibility and affordability of goods and services that make daily life convenient and comfortable as well as free of financial uncertainties and worries may be more effective in raising people’s life-satisfaction or well-being …” the Ateneo study concluded.

Over the past decade, the World Happiness Report noted, policymakers have increasingly seen the happiness index as an important and overarching objective of public policy. This should shape the programs of the next administration, especially coming from the economic slump brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic: job security, universal health care, public housing, quality education, low crime rate, and good governance. Life satisfaction and happiness would then be attainable for all Filipinos.

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TAGS: Editorial, happiness public policy, World Happiness Report
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