Australians looking to escape winter may find themselves taking a break in a Pacific Island country. This was my good fortune last month. Rather than working at the computer with the heater on, looking out on grey skies, there I was, meeting more tropical fish than I could ever hope to remember. That was amazing. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that Vanuatu has been listed in the top 10 happiest countries, despite having a very low GDP and being one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries. In the average lifespan of a Vanuatuan, they are likely to experience earthquakes and cyclones, and perhaps also volcanic eruptions and tsunami. Cyclone Pam (2015) was the most recent devastating event, destroying thousands of houses, 90% of crops, roads, reefs, plantations and infrastructure.
Intrigued by what appears to be an apparent contradiction between high levels of subjective well-being and the comparatively challenging conditions of life, I spoke with many local people to get an insight into their approach to life. They worked hard, many families combining subsistence agriculture with some form of paid work. Opportunities for extended families to spend time together were valued, and children were much loved. The fertility of the soil and the warm/wet climate result in a lifestyle for many of abundant subsistence. They spoke of Cyclone Pam and others they had experienced without any sense of self-pity or bitterness. They acknowledged the fear they felt during the cyclone and the effort needed to rebuild in its aftermath. This is how life is Vanuatu.
Without wishing to superficially glorify life of the Vanuatuans*, there may be some lessons for the economically wealthy Australians to learn. Life in Vanuatu reinforces for its inhabitants a fundamental reality: change and impermanence characterise human existence. The Vanuatuans have integrated this understanding into how they approach life. They appear to have a profound acceptance of the inevitable difficulties they will experience. Rather than wasting energy railing against the unfairness or feeling a sense of futility, they get on with life. If resilience is the capacity to bend and flow with the conditions of life, bouncing back rather than breaking, Vanuatu is the place to learn it. Supported by connected families and communities, children from a very young age have a lot of freedom to explore their environment, acquiring the skills and capacities they will need to thrive. Despite spending a lot of time in the presence of Vanuatuan babies and children, we seldom heard a child cry and never whinge. (Here’s hoping Vanuatuans are more savvy that to buy into the version of happiness being promoted by a telco below!)
It is very likely, that with greater wealth, more aspects of life can be controlled. We control the climate inside our houses. We control the wildlife that comes into our houses. We control our children – monitoring their movement and scheduling their activities. Unfortunately, we can get sucked into believing that we are able to control not only our life, but also the lives of those around us. This misapprehension seems likely to make experiences such as losing a job, losing a loved one or receiving a diagnosis of terminal illness even more challenging. Having exercised control in so many areas of life, lack of control may provoke heightened anxiety.
We are surrounded in Australia by messages that life should be wonderful. Drive past any new housing development and see the advertising banners with photos of happy families together with slogans such as “relax,” “enjoy,” “dream” and “You can have it all!” Similar messages populate shopping centres and drive past us on buses. Our culture reinforces the belief that difficulties are a mistake and that problems are wrong. Vanuatu provides its inhabitants with a ready supply of difficulties and problems ensuring that their expectations of life include experiences that they do not want or like. Being able to accept that we will have experiences that we do not want or like is a fundamental building block of good mental health.
So next time you are escaping winter and find yourself in a Pacific island nation, rather than getting cranky with the insect bites, luggage going astray and the lack of your favourite beer, it’s possible to use these discomforts as an opportunity to increase your capacity to be content, despite the situation not being as you would choose. Mindfulness practice puts us back in touch with impermanence/change and also increases our capacity to sit with the discomfort of not having what we want. Training the mind in this way is an investment in well-being.
Kathryn Choules (PhD)
Dr Choules is an accredited instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Perth, Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.
* For example, levels of domestic violence are very high.