The Bacolod Formula for Happiness

I have been in my fair share of orphanages and abused-children shelters. Calvary is an anomaly. It’s probably the happiest group of people I have ever met. When you boil life down to its core, one could argue it’s all about happiness. An individual may say, “I want more money,” but it’s not money they want, it’s the happiness they believe more money will bring them.

No matter what we seek in life, the core fundamental all of us as humans want is simply to be happy. As Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in the US Declaration of Independence, every person has the right to, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Wise leaders recognize this. When King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan declared in 1972, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product,” he made headlines around the world. People were deeply intrigued by such a simple yet profound observation.

By 2011 the United Nations had formally recognized the concept of “Gross National Happiness” or GNH, passing a resolution to encourage more nations to follow Bhutan’s lead. In 2016, one of the world’s most progressive cities, Dubai, named its first “Minister of Happiness” for the entire United Arab Emirates. The mission of this cabinet-level role: “To promote happiness and a positive attitude in government and life.”

Think of all the cities and mayors you read about: budget cuts, transport strikes, garbage crises, crime rates, traffic, pollution. The same old sh*t. But then you have Dubai. Their leaders are focused on making people happy! Wow.

Despite these admirable efforts, happiness remains an elusive goal for so many. An opioid epidemic ravages the United States. We can debate the reasons why so many people need to find an escape through opioids, but one suspects if people were happier, they wouldn’t have such a need to find escape.

The same parallel is true when it comes to the anti-depressant surge. By 2020 the global market will be $17 billion in sales for anti-depressants. It’s the world’s largest drug category — a steady clip of growth, each year bypassing the prior year. Mental health is a real and legitimate issue, and one can debate a myriad of causes. But if we as a society were happier, wouldn’t it make sense there might be less of a need for Xanax or Prozac?

Not everyone in Bhutan is happy (although it is definitely one happy society!) and not everyone in Dubai is happy (although it is one amazing and vibrant city!) and clearly, there is not one single solution for all of mankind. But there are solutions to help some people and these make the pursuit of these solutions worthwhile. I found one which, for lack of a better term, let’s call the “Bacolod Formula.”

It starts in the city of Bacolod, located in the Negros Occidental region in southern Philippines — a wonderful part of a simply wonderful country.

Drive about 30 minutes outside of central Bacolod, into the fields and small villages and in the middle of meter-high grass, and on a lonely stretch of dirt road, you come to a gate. You see a hand-painted sign on a nondescript wall that reads, “Welcome to Calvary Chapel Bacolod.”

It’s as basic as you can get. But behind that sign is a world that offers a formula for happiness.

Behind the gate indeed lies a chapel. But it’s much more than this. It’s a home to 173 children (at present). It’s been home to literally thousands of children for the past 30 years. And these aren’t just any children — these are the kids society often forgets about. Every child living here — all 173 — has a story, a sad and often horrific story.

The only children that live here are handicapped, or have suffered from sexual abuse in their homes.

Calvary is run by a couple in their 70s, by the name of Joe and Billie Rosmarino. Whenever I think of “the best of humanity,” well, Joe and Billie always come to mind first. Sometimes in life, in rare moments, you meet someone who is so good, so pure, that it takes your breath away, the kind of people who can singlehandedly restore one’s faith in humanity. Well, that describes Joe and Billie. Their 30-year calling has been to provide a loving home for the kids society often forgets about. The kids maybe nobody else wants. Call Calvary an “orphanage” at your own risk. Joe and Billie will tell you there isn’t an orphan in the place: they take in everyone as their own children!

One walks into this home, surrounded by kids who have every reason to be sad, and find nothing but happiness. Smiles surround you. When these kids sing, they sing with pure joy. They laugh. They play. It’s nothing short of incredible. I have been in my fair share of orphanages and abused-children shelters. Calvary is an anomaly. It’s probably the happiest group of people I have ever met. It’s not only the kids; it’s Joe and Billie.

I recently spent two days with them and the kids, alongside my family and accompanied by PBA superstar Kelly Williams. I wanted to learn from Calvary. What’s their formula?

If you sit and talk for hours with Joe and Billie, watch how they run Calvary, observe the children and talk to them, suddenly a set of life principles starts to appear. Let’s call it the “Bacolod Formula.” Basically, from what I learned, it all boils down to living each day with six simple principles in mind:

1. Embrace your future. Don’t just accept it; embrace it. You hear old sayings like, “Don’t cry over spilt milk” or “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” But embracing one’s future goes beyond these wonderful philosophies. It’s far more than putting the past behind you. It’s looking forward to the new path you are on. These kids have clearly put their horrible pasts behind them. They don’t dwell on it. They also don’t pine for “What could have been.” They set a new course in life and they love it. They embrace it! They now go to a good school. They can go to college one day. They can fall in love and have a family of their own. They may have lost prior dreams, but they replace those dreams with new ones. And this is a huge shift. We often find our dreams don’t happen. And we lose happiness as a result. But if we replace old dreams with new ones, well, we can find that spark of happiness again. It’s not accepting the future, it’s embracing it!

2. Seize new challenges. Get out of your comfort zone.  This all starts with Joe and Billie leading by example. Leaving a good life they had in the US, they decided to take a bold risk and move to the Philippines. To learn a new language and culture. To choose a life of living literally hand-to-mouth in serving children who need so much. And in this, they have found contentment and joy. Life is all about taking risks and not playing it safe, and Joe and Billie knew that in taking huge risks and trying the unknown, there comes a certain happiness that can’t be manufactured artificially. And they encourage every child in their care to chase big dreams, be it going to university or starting their own business. Only when we are taking risks are we truly alive!

3. Serve humanity. Each of us on this earth has a choice: we can leave the world worse off than we found it; we can leave it about the same as we found it; or we can leave the world a better place. The Talmud states, “If you save one life, you save mankind.” How many lives have Joe and Billie saved? With this brings the joy of knowing they made the world a bit better. And they have passed on this philosophy to each of their 173 children. They support each other in a way rarely seen in society. They dedicate themselves to serving others. Every person in Calvary puts others first, and it’s wonderful.

4. Have a higher belief system. It’s not about debating which religion is better. It’s simply a matter of believing in something bigger than ourselves. Whether your guide is the Koran, the Bible, or a belief in the Buddhist concept of karma, it’s comforting to know that someone or something has your back and that things will work out; that good things happen to good people. It’s a lonely world without this underlying belief. And loneliness is a tough spot in which to sow happiness.

5.Don’t’ sweat the small stuff. Joe and Billie worry most days about paying the bills and feeding and clothing 173 children. This is something to worry about! But they don’t let the small naggings of life get them down; they laugh them off. Focus on what really matters. Health. Family. And stop letting weather and traffic clutter your mind!

6.  Savor life’s little pleasures. To make ends meet, Joe and Billie have built a self-sustaining operation. If they have pizza for dinner, well, the dough is homemade, the sauce is made from tomatoes they grow, and the cheese is made from the milk they get from their own cows! It’s hard work milking your own cows, but there are also small pleasures: homemade ice cream! It’s a joy to one’s heart to see 173 cheering kids on ice cream day! They are so happy and savor the simplicity of ice cream! Everyone at Calvary knows how to savor those simple moments. Smile and savor some ice cream; watch a sunset. Listen to a child’s laughter. Happiness is not a constant; hence, we have to take the moments when they come. That’s it. That’s the happiness formula down at Calvary in Bacolod. It may not work for everyone, but it certainly works for Joe and Billie and 173 kids who have reason to not be happy. And yet they are profoundly happy.

We live in a world where sometimes one can believe happiness is a fleeting concept. Dying, in fact. Well, there are pockets out there where people have figured it out, without chemical necessity. If we are smart, maybe we can learn from them.

If you are ever in Bacolod, go and see Calvary. They will love to host you. And it will change your outlook on life. And if you can’t make it to Bacolod, perhaps consider the Bacolod Formula.