Isolated Indigenous people as happy as wealthy western peers – study

People living in remote Indigenous communities are as happy as those in wealthy developed countries despite having “very little money”, according to new scientific research that could challenge the widely held perception that “money buys happiness”.

Researchers who interviewed 2,966 people in 19 Indigenous and local communities across the world found that on average they were as happy – if not happier – as the average person in high-income western countries.

“Surprisingly, many populations with very low monetary incomes report very high average levels of life satisfaction, with scores similar to those in wealthy countries,” said Eric Galbraith, the lead author of the study which was published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). “I would hope that, by learning more about what makes life satisfying in these diverse communities, it might help many others to lead more satisfying lives while addressing the sustainability crisis.”

The study by the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB), found that people in the 19 isolated communities reported an average “life satisfaction score” of 6.8 out of 10 “even though most of the sites have estimated annual monetary incomes of less than US$1,000 (£800) per person”.

This is roughly the same as the 6.7 average life satisfaction score for all countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Galbraith, a researcher at ICTA-UAB and McGill University in Montreal, said four of the small communities reported average happiness scores of more than 8, which is higher than that found in Finland, the highest-rated country in OECD research, with an average of 7.9.

Those four communities are the Kolla Atacameña in Argentina (8.0); the Pãi Tavyterã/Guarani in Paraguay (8.2); the Riberinhos in Brazil (8.4) and farmers in the Western Highlands of Guatemala (8.6). In the Western Highlands, 30 out of 70 people interviewed gave a 10/10 response when asked about their life satisfaction.

The mean average per capita assets held in the Western Highlands community is $560 (£450). That compares with a mean average per capita in Great Britain of £305,000, according to the ONS. The UK statistics body points out that the mean is much higher than the median average (£125,000) because of “the uneven distribution of wealth across the population”.

The ICTA-UAB report says its findings are “good news for sustainability and human happiness, as they provide strong evidence that resource-intensive economic growth is not required to achieve high levels of subjective wellbeing”.

“The strong correlation frequently observed between income and life satisfaction is not universal and proves that wealth – as generated by industrialised economies – is not fundamentally required for humans to lead happy lives,” said Victoria Reyes-Garcia, a researcher at ICTA-UAB and senior author of the study.


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