09/03/2013 05:17 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

The Price of Paradise

Hawai'i must be the perfect place to score high on the Third Metric, right? Is the place not paradise? Residents learn quickly not to complain about life to anyone outside of Hawai'i unless you can handle the scorn storm that will follow. Sure, Honolulu ranked number 28 on Mercer's quality of living scale for 2012, and on Maui we consider ourselves far better off. Reality of life mid-Pacific is not so simple, though, and the living's not always easy.

Everyone who moves here sings the same refrain, "I love this place and I'll never leave." For some, this holds true. About six months later, a significant number have changed their tune to "I will lose my mind if I spend another minute on this god-forsaken rock." Gas prices on Maui are stratospheric and a shack the size of a garden shed will run you a half million bucks. Working three jobs and multigenerational households are normal, and those of us without Oprah's budget cluck, "oh, you know, the price of paradise." Working class families, even the indigenous Hawaiians with the greatest claim to an island home, face inescapable frustration as property prices sail further out of reach each new generation.

With all of the expenses and stresses, Hawai'i rates happiest in numerous studies , and unquestionably has the longest life expectancy in the U.S. Something works. Sure, Hawai'i has the tropical climate and beaches, but most of us work too much for environment to be the only factor driving our Third Metric scores. I suspect that the difference is more deeply ingrained in how we live and think.

What's behind these stellar Hawai'i numbers?

For one, we have amazingly peaceful diversity, at a time when the mainland is restricting minority voting rights and ejecting African Americans from restaurants. In the 2000 census, Hawai'i had 248 ethnic groups (the census currently makes these numbers difficult to pull out). New York City may have more, but Hawai'i only has 1.3 million people total. This may be important in two ways. First, we are usually not stressing out about immigration or treating others poorly because of race, perhaps because there is no majority race or ethnicity. There are inequities, and tragically the Hawaiians and other Polynesians tend toward the lower end of socioeconomic status and the high end of incarceration rates, but no group can dominate just by sheer numbers.

Perhaps this leads to the second benefit of diversity: ideas tend to survive by merit not force. Diverse groups make better decisions, if all viewpoints are respected. Hawai'i is not perfect, but the simple lack of majority makes it harder to quash a good idea.

Among the best ideas are some Native Hawaiian concepts. Pono has several meanings, but primarily, it means doing the right thing. If you live pono, you take care of your environment and those around you.

Connection to others is the next Hawai'i distinction. Polynesians are very collectivist in the way they think, and living pono means you support and nurture your ohana. Ohana, or whanau in Maori language, is your family writ large, including friends, neighbors, and other members of what psychology calls your social caravan, those you interact with regularly over time. Your children will call the lady at the post office Auntie, and this is where aloha gets real and Maui becomes a little less like Oahu.

Aloha is a deep concept, vastly beyond hello, goodbye, or even love. Ha is the breath, and aloha acknowledges our intimate oneness, my breath intermingled with yours and with all creation around me. We are superbly social creatures, our brains evolved for maximum cooperation but with a hitch: we are most functional in groups of around 150, "Dunbar's number," even on Facebook. In Honolulu, you may see a friend or coworker now and then, but the island has a million people and the closeness is a little less. On Maui and the other "neighbor islands," every victory and every painfully embarrassing moment will be witnessed by someone you know. The occasional storm or tsunami reminds us on a soul level that we are on tiny pebbles floating in a vast sea and we have only each other when the going gets rough.

Well-being, the crux of the Third Metric, is a difficult idea to pin down, but research on happiness and health says strong social support is the key component. Only Western culture values the individual at the expense of the group, and Hawai'i is a mélange of Asians, Polynesians, and many others for whom family and clan are paramount, with the children of Europe numbering only about 1/3 of the population. Outnumbered, individualism gives some ground to connectedness, despite Disney's Aulani and Trump's monument to ego in Waikiki.

Yes, Hawai'i is beautiful and beauty can help us relish the moment. Personally, I like warm weather, too. But no matter where one lives, connecting to those around is an achievable goal. Though I am no expert on Hawaiian culture, the feeling of aloha, shared with my island ohana, is a palpable force and it has changed me over the years. A mere 70,000 years ago, we were all part of one tiny community on the edge of a drought-ridden Africa. We have wandered far and changed much since then, forgetting that we are family and falling under the spell of isolation amid our modern trinkets. Connectedness is not the only way to pump up the volume on your Third Metric, but it is a crucial component and one Hawai'i understands well.

Aloha a hui hou!