Poison Paradise

Ms. Añonuevo, formerly a faculty member of the Psychology Department of the University of the Philippines Diliman, is one of the young fellows of Action for Economic Reforms. This article came out in the BusinessWorld on September 29, 2008, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

With a taste of your lips,
I’m on a ride.
You’re toxic,
I’m slipping under.

~ Britney Spears, Toxic

No, I am not appropriating Britney’s song for a boy; Metro Manila’s the villain this time.  Now that I am using the MRT (and other public transport modes) more regularly than ever, the desire to leave this energy-sucking monster is at its peak. Much as I would like to trade this theme song for another, the hankering-to-be-heard honking of horns; the bombardment of too-pop or silly novelty songs from vehicle radios; and the hordes of fellow tired commuters will never be come-ons.

And I don’t think this is just a petty, OA reaction from a middle-class brat.  In fact, while humans are famous for habituating to many situations, noise and overcrowding are stimuli which people never adapt to (Frederick and Loewenstein, 1999).  My point?  That the ick of being harassed will never shrink to an iota.  In other words, by making us perpetually irritated and by turning us into impolite shover-maniacs, the megamanila noise and ultracrowding take away from our well-being.  And that’s not even the end of it— according to the World Database of Happiness (as cited in Weiner, 2008) people are least happy when they commute to work.  It seems we Manileños have lucked out in the domain of transportation— we use it most and feel its inefficency the most when we are at our most vulnerable.

But wait, there’s more! Apart from the noxious rides, our dear MM has other dangerous hits, such as lack of safe pedestrian crossings (which is why BF’s pink fascism is somehow a breath of relief), an inequality that slaps you where it hurts the most, and an illusion of happiness, the most poisonous of all.  I admit, the first two are more reflective of my own proclivities than of Manila’s flaws.  My biggest daily challenge is crossing streets and my underground wiggly wisdom has yet to figure out how to be most compassionate when I see children selling or begging on the streets.

Once upon a time, equality was thought to be important to a nation’s happiness.  But it’s not (Diener & Diener, 1995; Veenhoven, as cited in Weiner, 2008)—nations with enormous economic gaps are no less happy.  However, that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook as many have previously claimed.  Which brings me to the third, most toxic element of all: the illusion of happiness.  Not being into comforting chimeras, I’ve always wanted to shatter the myth of the very happy Filipino (and, by extension, very happy Manileño).  Yes, we are always smiling, we are friendly and hospitable to foreigners, and it takes little prodding for us to dance the papaya, spaghetti, and even bulaklak dance steps, but that doesn’t mean that we’re happier than others.  The good news is that we’re not miserable either; according to the literature in Positive Psychology, we’re average in well-being compared to other nations (Diener & Diener, 1995; Diener, 2000).  My guess is we only seem above average in happiness because we surround ourselves with a pile of people and a cacophony of glorious noise. (I wonder, is this the explanation for the unbelievable growth of mall crowds? )

Perhaps this fondness for loudness is to distract ourselves from life’s discomforts, rather than an expression of innate cheerfulness.  As Dr. Greg del Pilar (of the UP Psych department) has observed, Filipinos are not really an extraverted lot (extraversion’s subdomains include gregariousness, cheerfulness, and activity among others).  I personally feel that what seems like happiness is nothing but a craving for amusement.  When one is amused, one need not ponder the blatant corruption of the government, or the exorbitant rates of pre-schools.  Far from having the capacity for simple, unencumbered joy, maybe what we possess is an uncanny ability to entertain ourselves, escapist-style.

What do these all mean? That despite pockets of pleasure (the UP Diliman campus, especially its tree-lined oval, Figaro and Fully Booked branches), Metro Manila sort of sucks.  Sure, Metro Manila has jungle appeal, but this is mostly true for foreigners who know that they will leave this semi-shithole.  I must admit, there was a time that I was almost in love with MM, but that was only because I was exploring it with someone whom I was falling in love with.  To turn around Manila Manila’s lyrics, “But when the love is gone, it’s only smoke in the air.”  They say we must love our own.  However, I see more sense in liking and wanting what is good for us, in spite of its origin or location.  Desolèe, but despite my family and friends (and the occasional cool film fest), happiness just isn’t happening in Manila.  I feel that the balance of a pleasurable, engaged, and meaningful life exists somewhere else. Reykyavik anyone?

It has been suggested that one’s state of mind is much more important than where one is, making this essay seem like nothing more than indulgent drivel.  However, the influence of cities on one’s mood must not be discounted.  New York’s modern buzzing energizes; the streets of Paris sing Charles Trenet’s Boum into your ear; Hamburg’s splendid order and beautiful Alster are not unlike warm-but-pat hugs; Bamako’s salmon terrace tops and laidback ambiance are relaxing; and Manila, oohlalala Manila! Manila builds character like no other city can.

How can you stay outside?
There’s a beautiful mess inside.

~Yael Naïm, Far Far

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