When the Philippines ranked the second happiest country in Southeast Asia in the 2022 World Happiness Report (WHR), I was not surprised.
Where else can you find flood victims posing for cameras during livestreams, commuters comparing increasing gas prices to passing exam grades, and businesses called “QuaranTEA” and “Swab Taste”? Only in the Philippines. In times of chaos, when most people might be depressed and distraught, Filipinos summon the energy to face them with a smile.
Still, I wonder if it’s really possible to be joyful in spite of our daily troubles. I grew up in a loving home, creating art out of everything I could get my hands on and believing I could achieve anything I put my heart into. But adulthood happiness, I later realized, is different. Since deciding to freelance, I have had this fear of not being rich enough, good enough, and near enough to where I should be at this point in my life. Even when my life is good for a second, as an empath and writer, I feel guilty to live in joy when so many others are suffering. So, how could others? I had to ask for myself.
Lorna thinks it’s difficult, even impossible, to be constantly happy. To her, joy resembles a complete family. “Masaya na nagsasama-sama kahit mahirap ang buhay.” But in order to provide for her family and their families in the province, she took a restaurant job where she waits tables six days a week with shifts sometimes stretching to 15 hours. Calling her son during breaks to hear his laughter makes her forget she was ever tired. Even so, it helps to pray for strength, she suggested.
Religious coping can be powerful in transforming grief into gratitude. Arman, our family’s store’s caretaker, urged me to find a positive side in everything: “Magpasalamat lagi sa Diyos.” When burglars broke inside our store last New Year’s Eve, we found comfort in knowing that, with a higher power watching over us, we could overcome any challenge. I can still recall the day my mom, with tears in her eyes, told us we made six times more in sales than we used to even after the robbery.
Those circumstances also led Jaja to us. “Sa gitna ng pandemic, wala kaming naging sakit, hindi kami nagutom, at may trabaho kami ng panganay ko,” beamed the solo mother. When asked how she could turn bad days around so easily, she replied: “By replacing them with good deeds.”
I can imagine wealthier countries wondering how could those who have been through so much and have so little find reasons to celebrate. “You could be happy even with little money,” Eric argued. As a nurse, caring for patients who have been stripped away of all they have, he became aware of what was much more valuable. Our loved ones, to him and almost everyone else I asked, are the biggest harbinger of happiness.
Isn’t it ironic that we’re built to endure? Resilience, however, doesn’t mean simply accepting our fate. To us, it means letting our inner values, our true humanity, be the light on the way out of the tunnel. Bayanihan, strong family ties, and unwavering faith overpower any feeling of hopelessness. The happiest Filipinos know they don’t have to carry the weight on their own. They intentionally adapt not only for those relying on them, but also for those rooting for them.
With this power comes our responsibility to cultivate our own joy each day. COVID-19 made Magayon rethink much of her life. “Everybody wants to live comfortably — no stress, no problems, free from financial concerns. But for me, I just want a peaceful life.” She left me with a piece of advice: “Happiness is a choice.”
It wasn’t until Tita Pam, my partner’s mom, shared what she learned in her 50s that I understood what choosing happiness meant. “People only give themselves permission to be happy when they achieve something they desire,” like landing a job, falling in love, or getting rich. “But contentment is the key,” she continued. “You must find it with what you have or with little things.”
There was something relieving about knowing that happiness didn’t require a rejection of the simple joys of life, like a nourishing meal, feel-good music, or quality time with people or pets that care for you. Choosing joy means appreciating the good problems that come with building our dream business or a family of our own. Choosing joy means moving beyond our own pain to share the load of others or lighten it with humor. Ultimately, choosing joy means adjusting our understanding of happiness in a way that’s authentic to us at this moment and sustainable for the long term.
“Why do you think a lot of people are still unhappy?” I asked my internet friend and writer Paul. “Their reality fails to meet expectations,” he replied, admitting he feels “just okay” these days. I used to obsess over my happiness streak, too. But I learned that part of keeping up with life is grieving losses — professional decline, heartbreak, even death — as they come, to honor what was and open ourselves to what we still have. Twenty-six-year-old entrepreneur Isabella has experienced all three, one after the other. Though her situation may feel unbearable on some level, she told me she wouldn’t trade it for a fantasy of tomorrow. Happiness to her is “riding the wave of life with other people,” bumps and all.
In my quest to find happiness, I discovered that the more important question is, “How can I make a conscious choice to be joyful each day?” I found that the answer is living in the present, whatever it looks like for each of us, while staying hopeful for the future.
I’m not earning as much as I used to when I was working full-time, but because of that, I’ve done lots of things that I never would have been able to do, including engaging in creative pursuits and positively impacting people along the way. When I’m writing from the heart or baking with love, I get to rekindle the joy I knew as a child. I have been waiting for the dust to settle when everything I need is already here: rich relationships, untapped potential, and many years to evolve into everything I dream to be. Embracing that, I can finally say I’m truly happy.