I had a chat with an old friend some time ago and the topic somehow shifted towards Happiness. She, I observed, considering her current status, job plus financial stability, and love life wasn’t that happy. She ‘created’ her own happiness she confessed. I argued, that happiness is given and we don’t really create it simply by ourselves.

She might be right, to a certain degree. But to think about it, can we create our own happiness? Or does happiness solely equate with financial prosperity? How does one measure happiness? Is happiness identical to the quality of life?

Happiness is subjective and difficult to measure, I realized. It does not necessarily increase correspondingly with the comfort that results from increasing income. As a result, the standard of living should not be taken to be a measure of happiness. Consequently, quality of life should not be confused with the concept of standard of living, which is based primarily on income.

In Manila or many key province cities, does the quality of life or living matter at all?

Quality of life is defined as the general well-being of individuals and societies, outlining negative and positive features of life. It observes life satisfaction, including everything from physical health, family, education, employment, wealth, safety, security to freedom, religious beliefs, and the environment.

Many urban centers in Pinas, have ‘modernized’ – only to be dotted with massive shopping malls and stretched out with concrete roads. Urban planning with an emphasis on Quality of Life describes something else.

According to the Mercer Quality of Living Ranking in Cities Worldwide 2018 Survey, in Asia only Singapore (the Garden City) made it to 25th position, whereas Kuala Lumpur ranked 85th, Bangkok placed 132nd, Manila reached 137th and Jakarta took the 142nd place.

Mercer annually evaluates and analyses local living conditions according to:

– Political/Social environment (political stability, crime, law enforcement, etc.)

– Economic environment (currency exchange regulations, banking services).

– Socio-cultural environment (media availability and censorship, limitations on personal freedom).

– Medical/Health considerations (medical supplies and services, infectious diseases, sewage, waste disposal, air pollution, etc.).

– Schools and education (standards and availability of international schools).

– Public Services/Transportation (electricity, water, public transportation, traffic congestion, etc.)

– Recreation (restaurants, theatres, cinemas, sports, and leisure, etc.).

– Consumer goods(availability of food/daily consumption items, cars, etc.).

– Housing (rental housing, household appliances, furniture, maintenance services).

– Natural environment (climate, a record of natural disasters).

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s published 2018 ranking, which surveyed 140 cities for urban quality of life based on assessments of stability, healthcare, culture, environment, education, and infrastructure the top ten most liveable cities are :

  1. Vienna, Austria
  2. Melbourne, Australia
  3. Osaka, Japan
  4. Calgary, Canada
  5. Sydney, Australia
  6. Vancouver, Canada
  7. Toronto, Canada
  8. Tokyo, Japan
  9. Copenhagen, Denmark
  10. Adelaide, Australia

Ironically, big metropoles are not amongst the top ten. Global business centres tend to be victims of their own success. The ‘big city buzz’ that they enjoy can overstretch infrastructure and cause higher crime rates.  New York (57th), London (48th) and Paris (19th) are all prestigious hubs with a wealth of recreational activities, but all suffer from higher levels of crime, congestion, and public transport problems that are deemed comfortable.

The cities that tend to score best are those that are mid-sized and based in wealthier countries. Several cities in the top 10 also have a relatively low population density, resulting in lower crime rates and less overburdened infrastructure.

But must Quality of Life define Happiness and be limited only to highly developed cities?

Not necessarily.

Bhutan and Gross National Happiness came into my mind. Bhutan is an Asian neighbor to Pinas and located south of China. It is situated in the Himalayan Mountains and well over 60% of their country is untouched wilderness. The country is known for being really small and for being really happy.

The Bhutan government measures happiness through a system called Gross National Happiness (GNH). They are not perfect at providing happiness to their citizens but the fact that they acknowledge and measure happiness probably make their administration better than any government in the world.

For Bhutan, Gross National Happiness is emphasized on the following: sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, the preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance. With it are nine sub-domains of the GNH: psychological well-being, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

A distinct feature of Bhutan GNH Index from the others is that they manage spiritual and material happiness equally.

Even after globalization, Bhutan managed to make the right balance between spirituality and materialism. They don’t care for materialistic things instead they are urged to be content.

Television, Radio or even the Internet are the real waste of time – the citizens of Bhutan are encouraged more into socializing and to ‘hang out’ around with nature.

No traffic lights can ever be seen on the main thoroughfares. Instead, traffic enforcers regulate traffic flow the old-school style.

For the Bhutanese, the environment is extremely important so much that half of the country is a national park. The forest, animals, environment are strictly protected.

Other countries like Costa Rica and Denmark both scored the highest in Happiness polls in 2015 even though Denmark, with a per capita GDP of $43,400 (US), is nearly four times richer than Costa Rica with its relatively meager per capita GDP of $11,400 (US).

Why are the residents of both these countries the world’s happiest, even with such disparate levels of national income?

The essential factor is responsible governance in the public interest—to maximizing their citizens’ equality, security, health and living standards (hence their happiness), and minimizing their ill-health, poverty, and stress. This means their governments steadfastly resist the influence of large corporations, maintain a fair tax system, and scrupulously deter political corruption.

These qualities of good governance are evident in all the happiest countries, regardless of which of the two global polls they are ranked in.

Now that Puerto Princesa is becoming a highly urbanized city, would Gross National Happiness or Quality of Living be carefully considered as vital by key players or governance especially in the upcoming elections?

Filipinos are undoubtedly one of the happiest and resilient, and if not the friendliest people on this planet. However, stress, crime, poverty coupled with bad governance have taken a toll on the Quality of Life of our many ‘kababayans’.

I’ve asked some of my ‘barkadas’ who migrated to different countries which Puerto they loved better-the Puerto we knew back then or the ‘modernized’ one nowadays. Their answers implied a sadness due to the sacrifice environment had to undergo for modernization to realize.

Going back to Bhutan’s model for Gross National Happiness – apparently, they cut down the criteria to the very basic needs of the human being with high regard for their environment, their home. They also considered the very essence of their spirituality as the binding catalyst for the general public GNH. Even if they only rely on meager resources for daily living, contentment plus gratitude spelled happiness for their citizens.

I reminded my friend whom I described ‘not really happy’ with the happiness she herself created, about a passage from the Bible, “Happy are those who are conscious of their spiritual need.- Matthew 5:3.

Perhaps, the Bhutanese were right in recognizing that happiness is provided by another Higher Being. And that maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue.