TUMBY BAY - One of the most striking things about Papua New Guinea is the profusion of happiness and laughter.
I noticed this when I first went to the then Australian colony in 1967 and the picture hasn’t diminished over the years.
Whenever I arrive at Jackson’s Airport in Port Moresby I am greeted by happy, smiling faces.
Given what the world’s media say about the dire state of PNG, a new chum might conclude that they’ve arrived amongst a population of grinning fools who don’t appreciate reality.
That momentary thought quickly vanishes when it becomes apparent that all of those smiling faces also exhibit a keen intellect.
So why are these people so happy if things are so bad? Poverty is rife, inequality is pronounced and education and health services are poor.
It doesn’t make sense. They should all be miserable.
To find an answer to this quandary is not complicated. The many studies into the nature of happiness all come up with the same conclusion.
Money doesn’t buy happiness.
Even though this statement seems to be a well-worn cliché, there is good evidence to support it.
Once most people have obtained sufficient resources to live a comfortable life, the positive effects of extra resources on happiness diminish.
Those resources need not be financial. A block of land to grow food and a place to live can also provide comfort and happiness.
This is known as the Easterlin Paradox, which states, simply, that over time happiness does not trend upward as income continues to grow.
According to the editors of the latest World Happiness Report social context is more important than wealth.
That is, marriage, family, friends, neighbours, working relationships, community well-being and mutual trust beats money every time.
Furthermore, the acquisition of money tends to lead to social isolation. Rich people get so tied up with their pursuit of wealth that they abandon friends and relatives and withdraw from the community around them.
Because the “single most reliable predictor of happiness is feeling embedded in a community” these people lose a major reason to be happy.
Capitalism, with its emphasis on individuality, doesn’t recognise this truth.
Extreme wealth actually works against our evolutionary impulse to band together in a community.
Research shows that this is not only isolating, it also has a huge cost on mental health.
It’s not the happy, smiling people at Jackson’s Airport who are nuts but the miserable individuals hiding in high rise towers in the CBD.
The World Happiness Report for 2019 makes for interesting reading. The report surveys global happiness by ranking 156 countries in terms of how happy their citizens say they are.
The top seven happiest countries are all in and around northern Europe. Finland is on top followed by Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden.
New Zealand is next and Australia comes in at number eleven.
Curiously, the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan, which adopted into its constitution an index of Gross National Happiness to measure the collective happiness and well-being of its population, came in at 95th.
What this probably means is that while money can’t buy happiness neither can it be gained by making laws. You can’t legislate for happiness no matter how hard you try.
Unfortunately, Papua New Guinea doesn’t get mentioned in the report. Neither does any other Pacific nation.
It would be interesting to see where they would land if a survey was extended to the region.
If my observations are correct they would probably be up there with the leaders.