Do most Jamaicans seem happy? Our professional naysayers here would scoff at the thought - how ridiculous to even ask such a question when the country is sinking in a mire of violence, corruption and poverty! But visitors and foreigners who live here usually say yes.


I recently met a globe trotting travel writer who had just traversed the island to update his guidebook on Jamaica. And he felt Jamaicans were a pretty contented bunch compared to most peoples he had seen. They definitely appeared a lot happier than Cubans for example. There were pockets of real poverty and a fair amount of physical discomfort here, but the Jamaican psyche on the whole was pretty optimistic and upbeat.


This reminded me of a phone conversation I had last year with Mark Wignall, whose polling work makes him quite familiar with inner city realities. Did he think most ghetto residents were happy in general? “I hate to admit it” he answered, “but I have to say yes”. And he told me a little story.


“I remember talking to one of these unemployed and uneducated youths you see so many of. To me his future seemed pretty dim. But the man was so cheerful and content that one day I exclaimed to him that ‘You have no right to be so happy!’ He just laughed at me. He had a girlfriend he said, and he could juggle a little money, and he loved his music, and there was a dance every weekend. Why shouldn’t he be happy?”


Some intellectuals will argue that either a) this apparent contentment is only a public façade and most Jamaicans are in reality miserable or b) even if they do think they are happy it is only because they are ignorant and don’t know any better. But surely the only judge of someone’s contentedness or lack of it is himself. Is it not the height of arrogance to tell a man who says he is happy that he is not?


There was an Economist piece last December entitled “The anthropology of happiness”. How is it, the author asked, that Hong Kong’s most downtrodden residents, its Filipina maids, are by all appearances its happiest? And why do Asian surveys on happiness contradict all the assumptions of western economic theory, with the poor Filipinos considering themselves the most happy and the rich Japanese and Hong Kong Chinese the most miserable? The article felt social inclusiveness and a strong belief in God played a great part in Fillipinos’ contentment. Perhaps this also applies to Jamaica. For as a supreme thinker once said, man does not live by bread alone.


Now most resident expatriates I talk to have a genuine affection for Jamaica. Yes they complain about the crime and the roads and power and water cuts, but on the whole they really seem to like the people and the country. And what many of them find most attractive about this island is the lack of pretence. As one told me


“Look, Jamaicans are not ‘happy smiling natives’. If a man is feeling miserable here you will see a frown on his face. But if he is feeling good about life, which most Jamaicans usually are, he will laugh and joke. Whatever they are Jamaicans are not plastic people. What you see here is what you get.”


This brought to mind an Alton Ellis radio interview I heard last year. Audiences abroad, he said, are usually gracious and even if you really don’t do a good show they still clap politely. But if a Jamaican audience isn’t pleased it is certainly not going to clap, and might even boo you off the stage. But if it does like what you are doing it will let you know it in no uncertain terms and keep calling you back on stage all night. That was why his greatest satisfaction as an entertainer was getting cheers from a Jamaican crowd. Because when he got applause here, he knew he had really earned it.


And in my opinion it is this emotional authenticity that makes music from this tiny island resonate so strongly around the globe. Foreign audiences may not always be able to understand the lyrics, but they can feel the genuine passion. I once asked Toots Hibbert, the man who named it, just what reggae was. Part of his answer was “Reggae is real music that come from the heart. Everything I write about happen to me or to somebody I know. It’s not no make up or pretend something.”


This ‘heart on a sleeve’ attitude makes everyday life here, depending on the circumstances and one’s outlook, either infuriatingly frustrating or engagingly unpredictable. Look at the recent Digicel million dollar giveaway. Could even the world’s greatest script writers have penned a more hilarious scenario? Unfortunately uncontrolled passions can also produce tragedy, as in the recent Spauldings’ riot that led to the death of an innocent boy.


This country really is an amazing mix of political stability, religious conviction, and social chaos. For we have at the same time one of the world’s most stable democracies, conceivably the planet’s highest church per population ratio, and probably the world’s highest out of wedlock birthrate. It’s almost as if the Jamaican populace has subconsciously calculated that cleaving to the certainties of Westminster and the Bible will allow it to indulge every emotional whim and yet still have a functioning society.


It is no doubt this “carpe diem – seize the day” approach to life which leads to over 85% of children here being born out of wedlock. But it is virtually impossible for a country where the vast majority of boys grow up without their biological father not to be prone to violence. And our murder problem surely has a lot more to do with our social structure than poverty or politics.


Now our out of wedlock birthrate may well in part be a legacy of slavery. But it has actually increased from about 70% in 1950 to 85% today, suggesting a strong element of modern social choice. Jamaicans apparently have decided that the benefits of having virtually complete emotional freedom outweigh the negative consequences. Perhaps this partially explains why despite our low per capita GDP and high murder rate we score so well on the healthy life expectancy scale.


Now whatever situation Jamaica finds itself in today, it is one it has chosen for itself. For few countries on earth have been less subject to external historical forces. And it is not dictatorship or civil war or natural disaster or ethnic strife that have plotted our course, but the will of the people. Certain commentators are forever lamenting the ‘disastrous’ choices we have made. But if Jamaican people are generally happy, and there can be few places where people laugh as easily or as often, who is to say they have not in the main chosen well? changkob@hotmail.com

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