So Why Do Even the Homeless Seem Happier?

There are two societal traits that appear to be more important than poverty (or lack thereof) when it comes to that society’s level of happiness.

As my sons grew into young adulthood, I told both of them that there were two things I wanted both of them to learn: to be able to adapt, and to be happy. Of course all parents want those for their children - what good parents don’t want their children to be happy? Yes, there are as many different definitions of happiness as there are people, but whatever the source of the joy, the smiles are universal. What, then, is the secret, the key to happiness, not just on a personal, but even on a societal level?

There’s a Polish proverb that says, “The guest sees more in an hour than the host in a year.” In my experience, the same is true of visiting other nations. In all the first-world nations I’ve visited, it seems that the common societal denominator is “busy-ness”, and the more prosperous the nation, the busier the people are. When one approaches other people, the interaction will normally be polite and courteous, but there will almost always be an undertone of “Okay, happy to see you, but let’s make this quick because I’m really, really busy.” It’s as if Jim Croce’s song “Cats in the Cradle” is applied not just between parent and child, but on a national scale. Attention (even more than the time required to pay said attention) to each other seems to have become a currency, a mode of barter and exchange. There was an old joke that went “I’m too broke to pay attention”; unfortunately, when it comes to one’s abilities to budget time and attention to others, much truth appears to be contained within that joke…and the poorest of all are the elderly, which led Margaret Willour to the observation that “Old age needs so little, but needs that little so much.”

Contrast that with all (but one) of the third-world nations I’ve visited. The grinding poverty is endemic, and the gap between rich and poor is a great yawning gulf forever beyond the ability of most of the poor to cross. The poor know their own poverty, and they know that real hope of improving their station in life is minimal at best. Note that the frustration is not the poverty as much as it is the dearth of real hope to escape that poverty. In this sense, it’s not unlike prison. This absence of hope is dangerous, bone-dry tinder all too easily lit by the words of demagogues and revolutionaries. Such was true in the time of the French Revolution and the Terror that ensued, and it is true today in Syria.

In my experience, the one exception that I’ve found is the Philippines. I’m sure that many will read that previous sentence and feel a rise of cynical bile, an impulse to read no further, that the author must have had rose-colored Lasik surgery or is otherwise mentally challenged…but please, hear me out. In my experience, the people of the Philippines are generally happier than people in America.

Over the years I’ve written quite a bit about lessons I’ve learned in the Philippines (though only once on Medium). I’ve lived there and most of my adopted family lives there. If one looks at the news and the statistics, one will see stories about a low-level war in a southern province, Duterte’s war on drug dealers and corruption (with little consideration for due process), the travails of the overseas Filipino workers who have sometimes endured conditions little different from slavery. And of course there’s the endemic crime, the domestic violence, the lack of access to medical care, and all the other everyday heartbreaking tragedies and injustices of life in the grinding poverty of a third-world nation. How, then, could I possibly state that the people there are generally happier than here in America?

It boils down to one word: gratitude. This refers not to the meaner, more mercenary definitions where gratitude becomes merely a fulfillment of quid pro quo, but gratitude for even the little blessings one encounters in everyday life.

Cicero once said that gratitude is the greatest of virtues, and the parent of all other virtues. Think on that for a moment. Consider every virtue; no virtue can be sincere without real gratitude for the deeper meaning of that virtue. Thus it is gratitude that lends true sincerity to every virtue. It is that gratitude that provides the sincerity behind the traditional and ubiquitous Filipino courtesy. Mind you, there are other nations and societies where courtesy is at least as important if not more so, but I have seen none where the courtesy is half so sincere…and I believe it is the gratitude on a societal level that makes the difference.

I grew up in the very deepest of the Deep South, and we were expected to say “please” and “thank you” and “yes sir/ma’am” for just about everything. The same is true in the Philippines, but to an even greater extent, and it has engendered a general level of courtesy and mutual appreciation even between rich and poor that I’ve not seen anywhere else in my travels. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the popularity of the television shows Eat Bulaga! and Wowowee! where the poor and unskilled are often invited to perform, and who are sincerely applauded for their efforts (which often draw tears from all and sundry). The former of these two shows is the longest-running television show in the Philippines, and the latter was cancelled not due to lack of popularity, but for internal conflicts between the host and crew.

It’s as if the Southern Hospitality of America’s Deep South were made the national attitude. But there’s one more national trait that the Philippines has that America is only now learning: tolerance. The Philippines is a deeply religious nation, with (as far as I can tell) a greater density of churches per capita than even our Bible Belt (also in the Deep South, remember). Divorce and abortion are still illegal there, and there is no serious possibility of LGBTQ marriage rights in the foreseeable future. That being said, those of the LGBTQ community are generally (and traditionally) accepted for who and what they are. The difference is that in America, those of the LGBTQ community have rights and protections, but not always social acceptance, while in the Philippines, they have no special rights or protections (or even the right to marry), but they do have general social acceptance.

That social acceptance of the LGBTQ community in the Philippines is not, however, a standalone feature, but is instead merely one indication of the tolerance people there have for each other. If a woman sings karaoke with a terrible voice, the people normally smile and encourage her. If a small family is homeless on the street, they are not despised and avoided by passers-by. This last observation is the source of the title of this article, for in America, the homeless are disparaged and not trusted at all, while in the Philippines, the homeless are still accepted and tolerated.

And there you have it: a nation where gratitude and tolerance are traditionally normal and expected. Yes, the problems there are legion indeed: there is still all the crime and injustice and domestic violence and corruption found in any third-world nation…but the overall level (as far as I can tell) is generally significantly less than in many other third-world nations.

There is one more important observation that applies. Metro Manila, a true megalopolis with more people than either Illinois or Pennsylvania all packed into a city less than sixteen miles square in size. Major cities are often seen as cold, tough, hard-bitten places where one is never so lonely as in a crowd; the paradigm of the insults and attitudes of New Yorkers comes to mind. But even in Metro Manila, with a population density much higher than has ever been seen anywhere in America, the ubiquitous Filipino courtesy borne of gratitude and tolerance helps the city function with much less friction than might otherwise be expected.

Would that American society learn and embody the virtues of gratitude and tolerance!

Retired Navy. Inveterate contrarian. If I haven’t done it, I’ve usually done something close.

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