Are we really a happy nation?
HIGH GROUND By William M. Esposo 2005-03-07
I had mixed feelings when I read last month’s news stating that Filipinos were among the 10 happiest nations in the world. I was not surprised at all that the Macapagal-Arroyo administration had grabbed the opportunity to feed that bit of information to the public. A people unhappy in their poverty and despair can be most vulnerable to illusions and will readily accept even tales of the bizarre and unthinkable. True to form, Malacañang had used the findings (assuming they are accurate) as a smoke screen against a reality far too contrary. By riding on the false ‘happiness’ front, Malacañang has mocked our national wretchedness and sends a chilling message that it will use anything to conceal the truth about the grim and pathetic condition of the present day Filipino.
The report was attributed to the World Values Survey (WVS) and the Malacañang release listed the happiness index as follows:

Venezuela (55%), Nigeria (45%), Ireland (42%), Iceland (42%), Netherlands (40%), Philippines(40%), Australia (39%), USA (39%), Turkey (39%), and Switzerland (38%)

If the survey was done in the euphoric aftermath of the 1986 People Power Revolt, I would not have had a problem accepting the findings. But because this is passed off as the findings of survey work completed only last year, I cannot simply accept the results because these contradict independent national surveys conducted by the SWS, Ibon and Pulse Asia. In addition, this is inconsistent with the generally accepted prognosis that all our worsening poverty and misery are packing more than enough steam to bring about a social explosion in the near future.

I did my own research on the web and found it difficult to find the exact set of data from the World Values Survey website from which Malacañang was supposed to have derived their information. The WVS official website had a November 2004 report where the Philippines ranked number 31 among 82 countries. The only web site which carried the same figures in the Malacañang release (also quoting WVS) was one with the address and it claimed it used the WVS happiness survey results which it drew alongside per capita income data of the countries from the CIA Fact Book. How the latter report, where the Philippines ranked 6th, varied from the former where we ranked 31st was never explained.

By no coincidence, Reuben Abati, a highly-regarded Nigerian journalist, had a similar reaction to an even earlier World Values Survey done in 1999 to 2001 where Nigeria was listed as the “happiest” nation (Nigeria was named number 2 in the Malacañang released survey).

In a January 17, 2005 article, Chris Ajaero of Newswatch (not the RPN-9 news program) described Reuben Abati as a “Leader of leader writers.” Of Abati, Ajaero wrote: “He is one of the most prolific and respected newspaper columnists in Nigeria today. Reuben Abati, chairman, editorial board of The Guardian newspapers, is a very brilliant scholar cum journalist who has contributed greatly to nation-building through his unique style of discussing topical issues in his columns.”

The following is part of Reuben Abati’s reaction to the World Values Survey as published in the October 25, 2003 issue of The Guardian which was titled “They say we are happy?”

“Did the social scientists interview Nigerians? I do not want to believe that they merely listened to Adewale Ayuba, the Fuji musician and then jumped to a conclusion. It was Ayuba who sang: We are happy people, we make you happy... we are h-a-p-p-y..." Or that the popular song with the refrain: "Don't worry, be happy" was recorded on the streets of Warri and Kano. I guess then that we may accept the compliment in good faith. The search for happiness is at the root of all human endeavours. Happiness is beyond class and riches. The researchers make this useful point which is at the heart of African folk wisdom. It is equally a pillar of the wisdom of the ancients as revealed to the knowing. There are many who are rich but whose joys are incomplete. They may live in the best mansions, ride the best cars, have the fattest bank accounts, but there may well be something which makes nonsense of their wealth, gnawing at their heart, eating away their riches.

“There are rich men who are not as lucky in other departments of life: the rich man's driver may be the one whose child succeeds in the end, while the rich and their children contend with private sorrow. Happiness is tricky because it is so personal. There are many who are in privileged positions but who find themselves envying their subordinates: they may have become slaves of their own ambitions, pursued by fears and anxieties. And yet there are many who are poor, who have neither position nor riches, but who are nevertheless contented and as fulfilled as the birds in the air, with a deeper sense of humanity. Contrariwise, a rich man may be driven by fear and angst. He is possessed by his wealth, except he has the fear of God. In the same fashion, there are many who are poor who are genuinely unhappy with their lot in life. This is the super-normal context therefore, in which Nigeria, otherwise hitherto labeled one of the most corrupt and poorest countries of the world is today the happiest country in the world. I now intend to define the nature of our happiness.

“I begin by noting that we live in a country where human lives mean nothing. The roads are impassable because the authorities have refused to repair them, or even when they attempt to do so, the contract funds end up in private pockets. Air transportation is so bad that foreign diplomats resolved long ago, never to travel by air inside Nigeria. The railway is dead. There is no water transportation. Because the roads are congested, inadequate and in a poor shape, road accidents occur daily. From 1999, the country's death rate has increased. Ritual killers have taken over the streets, killing and maiming. But the people are said to be happy. Perhaps they are happy because in this country, the loss of human lives no longer moves us. When there is an accident, Nigerians can be heard reporting: "oh, what an accident, but we thank God, only five people died." In Lokoja, nearly a month ago, close to a hundred persons reportedly died in an avoidable road accident, and yet Nigerians used the world "only". If one man dies in Australia or America, the entire nation feels diminished. In Nigeria, the same event evokes a feeling of contentment: "Thank God, it is not me".

“Corpses litter our streets. Decomposing corpses can be found by the road side, now and then. They are abandoned by the local authorities to provide a special perfume for the neighbourhood. Because Nigerians are a happy lot, they actually enjoy the fragrance. Next to the decomposing body could be a bean cake seller. The people carry on their normal routines, they close their nostrils, take a casual look at the stinking corpse and they unwrap their moin-moin or bean cake. They are happy that they are not the ones lying there, in the open sun, decomposing, offending the nostrils, covered by flies and dirt. Even on the highways, abandoned corpses are a common sight. It is only in a happy country that death does not move the people to despair. We are not like the characters in Anton Chekhov's works who moan endlessly about the sadness of their lives. We belong more to the world of Baba Sala and Baba Suwe, where laughter is the antidote for despair.

“If I were an outsider too, I would quickly conclude that Nigerians are the happiest people on earth. No nation has been as battered as ours has been. Every dark cloud that would have consumed other nations simply vanishes in our land after the initial anxiety. We survived the civil war. We survived the upheavals of June 12. We survived military rule. We are surviving the pains of this democracy. Social infrastructure is in a state of decay. Power supply is epileptic. The roads are bad. But the people are happy. Whenever and wherever there is regular power supply, you can actually hear the people, including the blind and the deaf screaming "up NEPA". This is one of the signs of our happiness. Majority of our people drink from the streams, or other kinds of unclean sources. They are happy that they have access to water at all. The hospitals are ill-equipped, and expensive for the average man. In their happiness, the people are trooping to the clinics of herbal doctors, shamanists, spiritualists and fortune-tellers to find solutions to their problems. In their happiness, the people troop to the churches and mosques - these can be found in every corner of Nigeria - where the people are promised salvation for a fee by even happier Pastors. Anyone who sees Nigerians at worship, with their dancing and show of piety cannot but conclude that they are a happy people indeed.

“There is inefficiency and corruption within the system. Occasionally, the people riot or express their anger, but they are learning to do without government. Every home is a local government unto itself. That local government clears its own refuse, provides water, security, power, and it is responsible to a Residents Association which operates more like a state government. But the people are happy. Stressful as their lives may be, they prefer to stay alive. In Europe, people commit suicide routinely, there is euthanasia as well, but here nobody wants to die. Part of the reason is that the cemeteries are unsafe. Corpses are stolen from public cemeteries at night, and cannibalised. Why choose to die when the country itself is already a big cemetery with walking corpses who try their best to remain happy.

“There is so much violence around us. The majority of Nigerian youths are unemployed, under-employed or unemployable. They pound the streets daily. They swallow their own sweat as they suffer under the elements. The factories that should provide the jobs that they need have been converted into places of religious worship. The country's youths pine away. The old receive no care; pensioners are abandoned. The education system is unreliable. Teachers salaries are left unpaid. There are no facilities for instructing the young. The few who manage to escape from this system of want and deprivation are so badly educated that they are considered useless by employers of labour.

“In our happiness, we find a way out. Like water, we find our level. Helpless parents send their children to private schools or they send them abroad. And they show their happiness by boasting about this: "my son is in school in America!", a common middle class statement, which is supposed to be an advertisement of sophistication. Daily, Nigerians queue up in front of foreign embassies. They want visas. They want to leave the country of their birth, not because they are unhappy, but because going abroad is considered a happy thing to do. Nearly every street, family and neighbourhood has a representative in Europe and America. The other day, it was reported that there are Nigerians in Iraq and Afghanistan! There is no place on earth that is too far for Nigerians.

“To an outsider, Nigerian leaders have given corruption a new name. The civil service is poorly organised. The cost of living is high, if not intolerable. One fellow, Karl Maier, wrote a book and entitled it: "This House Has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria". What he didn't state in that book, which the happiness researchers have now discovered is that Nigerians are happy in spite of the tough challenges of their lives; they are as resilient as they are durable. This is the only country in the world where being a beggar is a profitable enterprise. I do not know of any Nigerian who does not have a sense of community. Aristotle tells us that "happiness is at once the best, the noblest and the pleasantest of things." Every weekend, there is always a party at every corner. Nigerians wear their best and colourful attires, every occasion is marked with a song and a dance. But is it likely that the researchers have mistaken our ebullience for happiness? If we are truly happy, would we be so greedy as we are? And could George Eliot have been stating the truth when she wrote that "the happiest women, like the happiest nations, have no history?”? (End of the Abati quote)

To my fellow Filipinos let us ask ourselves, are we really happy? After what Reuben Abati wrote, need I say more?

You may email William M. Esposo at:

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