Secrets to the aloha spirit

Hawaiians are the most content people in the country. What can the rest of us learn from them?

Essay by Kaui Hart Hemmings; Hawaii guide by Kathleen N. Brenzel, Jeanne Cooper, Peter Fish, MacKenzie Geidt, and Matthew Jaffe


Novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings reveals she didn’t realize how much she needed Hawaii until she moved away:

In my last book, The Descendants, the patriarch, a Honolulu attorney, takes a good look at his paradisiacal life and declares: “Paradise can go #!#% itself.” He obviously didn’t contribute to the Gallup Poll that each year determines that we Hawaii dwellers have the highest level of well-being of any state in the U.S. Indeed, “Lucky we live Hawaii” is a common sentiment (and hashtag). But are we as happy as the pollsters say? And if so, why?

I can’t answer for everyone. But I will look at my family’s life over a few days and try to glean some answers. What is different about Hawaii?

Sunday morning at our house on Oahu’s Windward Coast. We ask our two kids what they want to do.

“Beach, I guess,” our 7-year-old daughter says.

“Wave,” our 2-year-old says after he hears the word “beach.”

We head to Kailua Beach, about a five-minute drive away. We go to Kalamas, past the kitesurfers, and let our dog, Bob, off his leash. Sometimes we bring Bob’s bodyboard too—he catches waves to the delight of tourists—but today we’re just here for a little while. We run into my brother and sister-in-law and their three kids. Daphne just got off her shift—she’s a surgeon at Honolulu’s Queens hospital. The kids surf; I head off for a quick walk, intending to exercise, but end up bumping into friends. I socialize more than sweat, which is fine—it’s almost impossible to be on this beach without meeting someone you know.

There’s a nice breeze and because of the expanse of the beach it’s not too crowded. Kids are digging holes like it’s their profession; their parents are drinking coffee and reading books. When I return, the kids are still surfing, my son is busy in the sand, and my close friend happens to have come down with her kids and a cooler of lunch and beer.

“Stay?” she asks.

We get home around 1, put our son down for a nap. In the afternoon, some friends stop by to swim in the pool and end up staying for dinner. We rummage through the fridge, find enough things to throw on the grill. Our friend runs home to get some just-caught mahimahi she bought off a fisherman coworker. We bring out the little firepit and roast marshmallows.

Monday morning. I take on the carpool, grocery shop, work, clean the house. After school my daughter wants to hike Mt. Olomana. I oblige—I could use a walk. The mountain looms large in our lives: It composes the bulk of our view from the backyard. The hike up it is about a mile and a half, with an elevation gain of 1,643 feet. When you get to the top, you feel like you’re standing on a mere sliver of land. You can see the spectrum of Oahu—you’re overwhelmed by nature yet managing it in some way. The last stretch of this hike is difficult and dangerous. Often there’s a whir of helicopters rescuing the injured or the afraid. You need ropes to pull yourself up the last section. My daughter and I turn around at the first set of ropes.

Tuesday. Even in Hawaii, not every day is bliss. My husband, originally from Wisconsin, is a Honolulu litigator with a grueling work schedule. His hour commute takes him over the Pali Highway, affording him views of the Windward Coast, and the sharp, sheer cliffs of the Ko‘olau mountains. At the top of the Pali Lookout, the wind is so strong your hair stands straight up. There’s a change in climate there, and a sense of history. The Pali is the site of the Battle of Nu‘uanu, where King Kamehameha conquered and united the chain of islands. The unfortunate losers were pushed off the cliff.

But my husband doesn’t get to stop and ponder any of this, not on workdays. Instead, he comes home late after a day of downtown battles. Our son is asleep; I am exhausted from breaking up arguments, making dinner, getting my daughter to do her homework, thinking about my work, and debating whether to put my son in an extra day of day care even though it costs enough as it is. Sometimes paradise does nothing but shame us for not feeling like it’s enough. Sometimes it’s just the backdrop for a laborious show that must go on.

On Wednesdays, school gets out at 1 p.m. My son naps at my mom’s so I can run into town to pick up my daughter. I take her to the bookstore to do homework and then out to Cromwell’s Cove, a spot on Diamond Head, which requires wading through the water, climbing over rocks, then walking around a point. I’ve never taken her here before and I haven’t been since my dad took me when I was 10 years old.

The ocean splashes against the rocks, and she’s skeptical but I tell her it’s okay. Soon we reach the cove, which is directly below Doris Duke’s estate Shangri La. I point up to the beautifully tiled, exotic pool house. At the cove, some older boys are jumping off the 6-foot wall into the clear ocean below. She looks at their tattoos, interested since we recently went to the tattoo exhibition at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. She is ready to jump and we go at the same time.

We rush home before nap is over. My husband returns from a trial on Maui. Some friends drop by to swim. Outdoor dinner, music, homework. Paradise regained.

“You had long days in San Francisco,” I say to my husband as we have a glass of wine. We lived in San Francisco for five years, and since we moved to Hawaii haven’t looked back. “What’s the difference?”

“I can come home and not have to look for a parking spot,” he says. A simple yet glorious perk. “I have friends who stop by all the time, we go out all the time, and weekends are never spent at playgrounds.”

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