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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 July 2006, 12:02 GMT 13:02 UK
What's so great about living in Vanuatu?
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Happiness is...
The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu is the happiest place on earth, according to a new "happy planet index". Beside the palm trees and beaches, why is life so good there?

Renowned psychologist Haim Ginott once said: "Happiness is not a destination."

Well, it is now, so get down the travel agents and book a one-way ticket to Vanuatu.

The archipelago of 83 islands in the western Pacific is the happiest place on the planet, according to a new "happy planet index" published by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). The UK languishes in 108th place, below Libya, Iran, and Palestine.

Ancient rite

Up until now Vanuatu's biggest claim to fame was the island of Tanna, where locals worship the Duke of Edinburgh as their divine leader. Why? Because local legend tells how their spiritual ancestor ended up in England and eventually married a queen.

It also invented bungee jumping. Naghol, or land diving, is an ancient rite of passage for boys, some as young as seven. But forget elastic ropes and safety helmets, this is done with vines and they jump off a 75-feet rickety wooden tower.

Vanuatu life

But surely happiness does not come down to Prince Philip and throwing yourself from a great height - so what makes it such a happy place?

It doesn't take a genius to work out what the island nation has going for it - the weather is good most of the year, it has paradise-style coastlines, unique rainforests and no income tax.

But it is far from paradise lost, with limited employment opportunities and poverty. Environmentally, climatic changes and rising sea levels threaten some islands, with many inhabitants already forced to move inland.

"It's not perfect, it is a third-world country," says Annica Parilongi, financial controller at the island nation's only telecoms company - Telecom Vanuatu Limited, based in the capital Port Vila.

Fertile land

"But if you don't have money in Vanuatu you can still live happily. Here you can grow everything you need to eat. If people have an opportunity to make money they will take it, but it is not their ultimate aim."

Norman Shackley, chair of the British Friends of Vanuatu and a former resident of the islands, agrees that while some people have little money, very few go hungry.

"However poor someone is in Vanuatu they always have food," he says. "The land is so fertile people can grow the food they need to survive or take it from the wild. It is not the grinding poverty of places like India where people are deprived of even the means to feed themselves."

The "happy planet index" works on a very particular definition of happiness, which - among other things - measures people's impact on the environment.

Land is very important to the indigenous ni-Vanuatus and a big part of their culture. This respect is a main factor in the country topping the index.

Life in harmony

"Land is in their blood," says Peter Robinson, a vet who recently returned from working as a volunteer in Vanuatu. "It is about closeness to their ancestors, the land is continuous spiritual contact and they have respect for it."

A long-running wrangle over ownership has also helped saved it from environmental damage. When the island nation gained independence from joint French and British control in 1980, all land was supposed to be returned to its original owners, but no one can agree who they are.

1. Vanuatu
2. Colombia
3. Costa Rica
4. Dominica
5. Panama
"This has prevented raping of the land, if just anyone could have bought the land it would probably be a very different place," says Mr Robinson. "As it is, there is an awful lot of land that is not being used."

But it is also the people that make Vanuatu such a happy place. Mrs Parilongi says history and culture link ni-Vanuatus, as well as a relaxed attitude to everyday life.

"Life is not lived at such a fast pace as places like the UK, things are done in the time they naturally take. We have 83 different islands, people speak many languages but we all live in harmony and feel a link to each other and our culture. Life is very peaceful."

Mr Shackley says he has travelled extensively and has never come across people quite like the ni-Vanuatus.

French President Jacques Chirac, Chief Laukalbi from Tanna and Jerry Napat
Happy days? Chief Laukalbi meets Jacques Chirac
"They have a unique quality. There is no sloppy emotion, they are so genuine in welcoming you into their country, their lives and their homes. The country and the people really get under your skin, it is a magical place."

While living in Vanuatu, Mr Shackley was once stranded for three weeks on one of its most remote islands with his 10-year-old son, due to an airline dispute.

With no shops and nowhere to stay, they were looked after by local people. One day he came across a young local man who had just returned to the island after studying at Nottingham University.

"I asked him what he was going to do with his life now and he just pointed at his fishing rod and said 'this'. He could have been one of the top earners in Vanuatu if he wanted, but he was contented with his simple life and didn't want anything else.

"It was a real eye-opener for me and made me look at what life is really all about. It just sums up what the place is about."

Wonderful. Let's hope that the intense media coverage of late does not result in the place being destroyed by tourists.
Mike, Newport, S. Wales

It's hard to believe that a place like Vanuatu exists in the brutally materialistic world of today! How long the country retains its position as number one place of "happiness" will depend on how long capitalism and western cultural degradation takes to corrupt it.
James Muller, Medicine Hat Alberta Canada

OK? Vanuatu is fascinating but why is an important country like Colombia, with its reputation for drugs and one of the world's highest murder rates, no.2?
Robin Williams, Annecy, France

As with every survey, you have to look at who commissioned it and what they were looking to show. Although I generally agree with the principles of NEF and Friends of the Earth (who participated in this survey), it is no surprise to me that the results came out the way they did. Apparently the survey is based on "consumption levels, life expectancy and happiness". If you give consumption levels a negative weighting in your data, you are bound to come up with developing countries as the "happiest" places and developed countries as the least "happy". And did they actually interview enough ni-Vanuatus to make a statistically significant sample of the population? Enough pseudo-science!
Geoff, Bath, UK

Wonderful. So good to know there is still a place on earth where the main goal in life isn't to get one over on your neighbour/ become rich or famous. Can I live there, please?
Anthony, Taunton, UK

I've just returned from travelling for 2 years, and while I didn't visit Vanuatu, I worked with a lady from Vanuatu for a short time in Sydney. She was without doubt one of the friendliest, most easy-going people I have ever met, and was a real charm to work for. It's that South Pacific vibe where life is relaxed and easy.
Al, Birmingham, England

I think we should make these people more happy by sending Prince Philip there as an early retirement present!
Catherine Dunford, St Andrews, Fife

I went to Vanuatu (then the New Hebrides) as a volunteer in 1977 and stayed until 1983. It was the most impressive period of my life. Lovely people; beautiful place.
Roger Greenfield, Ware, England

Politeness? Fishing? No lager louts fighting in the street? Sounds pretty dull if you ask me.
Lee Fist, Stoke

Ok so this is the happiest place on earth then is it ? Well as much as we complain about the daily grind of London I would imagine that an overwhelming amount of Londoners would still choose the luxuries of modern life and all the downsides that come with that rather than trying to make a living from the land in a tropical paradise.
Matt, London

Finally, how heart-warming to get real, hard evidence that supports the (unfortunately not very widespread) view that happiness is most certainly not linked to possessions or material wealth. Sadly, this utopia could never be realised here in the overcrowded UK - but it warms my heart to know that there are parts of the world where the corporation is not king, and people are free to simply be. We preserve buildings...we should be preserving these islands and their way of life. Ban the corporations from setting foot!
Sebastian, Warwick, UK

How can anyone take seriously a survey which says Colombia is the second happiest country on the planet? Drug cartels, left wing guerillas and right wing death squads do not sound like my idea of happiness.
Robert Maughan, London

Well, quite. The way in which most of us live, completely disengaged from the natural world, is entirely abnormal for any animal. Think of the peace which many people feel when walking through a wood, lying in a field, watching a stream flow, listening to the birds sing. Its something we need. The people on Vanuata obviously have an advantage over us in the happiness stakes in that they live in constant contact with nature, but just taking time to appreciate such things improves quality of life and lifts the spirits no end.
Happy person, ex UK

Really not sure what such studies ACTUALLY measure. The top nations include Columbia, ravaged by terrorism and crime and the UK falls below Palestine! Is it happiness, or lack of oportunity which in turn leads to low expections and thus contentment? If contentment can only be achived by taking away oportunity it's probabaly better to be a little less content, and so rather a lot less poor. Incidently, I have always revered Prince Philip as a God, and am happier than most of the people that I know.
Garrick Fincham, Norwich

Respect to the Vanuatuans, may they continue to enjoy their happiness. What surprises me, though, is that Colombians are the second happiest people on the planet. I thought Colombia was a dangerous place, with mega-high kidnapping rates, a massive and apparently neverending guerilla war, a huge drugs problem and widespread poverty and machismo. Can anyone explain this?
Adrian Murrell, Lawshall, UK

Is there anywhere for sale there?
John, London, England

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