STRANGE SMILES

Happiness

Someone’s smiling grandmother, a little girl in pink, and a man in a baseball cap pointing his gun directly into the camera lens.

Maybe you’ve already seen it– the family portrait was snapped by Manila Councilman Reynaldo Dagsa, and quickly made it to the top of Time Magazine’s Best Viral Photos of 2011. The man with the gun? That’s Dagsa’s own murderer.

As the shutter closed, the assassin fired. Tragic for the cheerfully unwitting family, but nothing new in a city where at least 300 political murders have been committed since 2001. Deep corruption and political instability make life in the Philippines a little tense, but residents are famous for coping with good humor. That’s why, at first glance, Dagsa’s relatives just seem to be taking the indefatigable Filipino smile to a new extreme.

The snapshot should be added to a collection of weirdly cheery images that have been recently broadcast from the Philippines. When eight Hong Kong tourists died during a botched hostage rescue in 2010, President Benigno “Noynoy”Aquino III gave his official statement through a wide, irrepressible smile. In front of the dead tourists’ hijacked bus, Filipino schoolgirls and policemen have been photographed laughing and posing. And then there are the dancing prisoners of Cebu Provincial Detention Center.

Is the island nation incapable of taking things seriously? After all, it’s where “Asia Wears a Smile”, according to one 1980s tourism slogan. But even at a safe distance from Filipino-style politics, there isn’t much to smile about. The ravages of urban poverty here are punctuated with regular typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic ash, landslides, and floods that have earned the Philippines the title of “the world’s most disaster-prone nation.” Only a week ago, 88 Filipinos were dead or missing in a 6.9-magnitude earthquake.

If anything, it seems like Filipinos should forgo the concept of pakikisama (“getting along with others”), and just focus on getting along, at all.  But scientists say that any kind of smile, fake or sincere, makes you feel happy. Maybe that’s why the University of Michigan’s 2004 World Values Survey found that, despite just about everything, Filipinos report higher happiness levels than their wealthy Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese neighbors.