In pursuit of happiness

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By Mags Z. Maglana

The Point Being

Friday, March 21, 2014


YESTERDAY, March 20 was the International Day of Happiness, if we go by a United Nations (UN) resolution issued in 2012. No less than the General Assembly of the UN recognized “the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.”

In the past, such a position would have been unthinkable; imagine something personal, with myriad manifestations, and difficult to measure being made a standard for a societal condition. But apparently the concern for happiness is no longer a personal pursuit but one that is a national aspiration.

During the 2011 UN High Level Meeting on “Happiness and Well-Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cited the global need for “a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness.”

Gross global happiness sounds akin to the Gross National Happiness (GNH) measurement being advocated by the Kingdom of Bhutan as its leading economic indicator. Rather than the globally common Gross National Product (GNP), Bhutan analyzes the same economic factors used for measuring GNP such as production and employment; but looks at them in light of their effects on the happiness of the Bhutanese.

This novel concept, valuing happiness over plain material gain, signals what is prized more by Bhutan’s public policy. Not to say that Bhutan does not have its problems and contradictions, such as the more than 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees who had been ejected from their own country. Nevertheless, by getting its big picture and bottom line right, Bhutan’s change in metrics cannot be easily dismissed. GNH has been described by scholars such as Frank Dixon as taking account of whole systems and is a critique of reductionist and unsustainable Western economic systems.

Speaking of metrics, another interesting measurement is the Power Distance Index (PDI) espoused by the Hofstede Centre. A cultural scale, the PDI measures the “extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.”

The Philippines is ranked fourth among countries with the highest PDI, after Malaysia, Guatemala and Panama. Austria is ranked lowest, while countries like China, Kuwait, Libya, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are clustered together.PDI is “inequality…defined from below” and suggests that followers and leaders alikecan foster a culture of inequality.

The Hofstede Centre characterizes the Philippines relative to other cultures as a “hierarchical society… highly collectivistic… masculine… has a low preference for avoiding uncertainty… more normative than pragmatic… and one of restraint rather than indulgent” (http://geert-hofstede.com/philippines.html).

The high rating in power distance means that Filipinos accept an established andstratified order “in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification.”

The low rating on individualism references a collectivist view that values adherence to a group, and expects loyalty and devotion, as well as face-saving behavior.

But this seems to be balanced by a masculine orientation, suggesting premium on achievement where “managers are expected to be decisive and assertive, the emphasis is on equity, competition and performance and conflicts are resolved by fighting them out.” The Hofstede Centre differentiates masculinity from femininity in terms of motivation. Masculine cultures are about “wanting to be the best” while feminine cultures are driven by “liking what you do.”

On the one hand, our low uncertainty avoidance index (UAI) indicates relaxed attitudes and tolerance of deviation. Flexibility in rules and schedules, as well as not very strict adherence to precision and punctuality characterize societies with low UAI. So perhaps the so-called “Filipino time” is not unique to us after all.

But on the other hand, our very low score in pragmatism signals a “strong desire to explain as much as possible.” Hence, our culture has very deep respect for the past and tradition, a “relatively small propensity to save for the future, and a focus on achieving quick results.”

Viewed from the dimension of indulgence, the Hofstede Centre ascribes to us the trait of restraint, having the tendency to be cynical and pessimistic, controlled by social norms, and critical of indulgent ways.

Of course, it can be argued that the Hofstede Centre likely concentrated its research on what is called lowland, Christian and mainstream society in the Philippines, and that a closer look at other cultures in the country (say, of indigenous communities and Muslims) might yield another perspective.

Nevertheless, the Power Distance Index analysis does hold potential in explaining why many well educated, rational and technically proficient career personnel in government have problems standing their ground against corrupt practices of elected officials who are perceived to have higher stature; and why an elected politician still gets addressed using the honorific title, even if he/she no longer holds the position. PDI has also been cited to explain the deferring and servile attitude of Filipinos to their higher ups and to foreigners, and to the excessive and sometimes unwarranted use of “sir and ma’am” in day-to-day exchange.

Back to happiness, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is of the view that “happiness may have different meanings for different people. But we can all agree that it means working to end conflict, poverty and other unfortunate conditions in which so many of our fellow human beings live.”

In the Philippine context, this could mean, among others, applying brakes on the masculine orientation of power and encouraging what the Hofstede Centre claims are traits highly valued by the feminine view: caring for others and regard for quality of life.

Human and social behavior and motivations are obviously complex and cannot be readily pegged down to a singular driver. But working together “to end conflict, poverty and other unfortunate conditions” because they stand in the way of the happiness of Filipinos seems a compelling enough reason.

Email feedback to magszmaglana@gmail.com

Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on March 22, 2014.

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