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Cross-Cultural Psychology

The Spirit of Aloha Reverberates Around the World

Aloha is the spirit that will rebuild Lahaina and save a precious heritage.

Key points

  • The literal translation of aloha is alo, meaning ‘presence’ and hā meaning ‘breath.’
  • As of June 2023, Hawai’i remains the happiest state in the U.S., second for emotional and physical well-being.
  • Hawai’i has the second-lowest rate of adult depression, as well as thefourth-lowest divorce rate
  • The state also has the longest lifespan—81.48 years.
Debbie Peterson
The Aloha Spirit Is Tangible
Source: Debbie Peterson

Aloha. You can’t touch it, but you can feel it and be touched by it. While it seems intangible on some levels, it is incredibly tangible in that it changes those in its presence. It stands the test of time and culture and shows up as the happiest state in the U.S., in the unprecedented outpouring of love from the world after the Lahaina fire and in the resilience of Hawai’ians.

It’s not a marketing gimmick or a way of bragging about a vacation. It’s real. It is the connection that happens with a deep breath in and out and then interacting with nature and people— looking a stranger in the eyes when encountering them, laughing together over something amusing, or appreciating a simple delight. It creates a bond, a connection that leaves both feeling better for the rest of the day. As Hawai’ians interact with tourists and incomers, they model aloha and spread its influence.

Queen Liliʻuokalani

Aloha has stood the onslaughts of time and cultures with quiet strength and persistence. The world senses the genuineness of aloha and has adopted the word. Even as Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last reigning monarch of Hawai’i, was imprisoned in her home, Iolani Palace, she taught aloha, “I could not turn back the time for the political change, but there is still time to save our heritage. You must remember to never cease to act because you fear to fail. The way to lose an earthly kingdom is to be inflexible, intolerant, and prejudicial. Another way is to be too flexible, tolerant of too many wrongs, and without judgment at all. It is a razor’s edge. It is the width of a blade of pili grass. To gain the kingdom of heaven is to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen, and to know the unknowable—that is aloha.”

Translating aloha

Queen Liliʻuokalani taught that aloha is made up of five words, with the following translations: Akahai, grace, kindness to be expressed with tenderness; lokahi, unbroken, unity to be expressed with harmony; olu‘olu, gentle, agreeable to be expressed with pleasantness; ha‘ ha‘a, empty, humility to be expressed with modesty; and ahonui, waiting for the moment, patience to be expressed with perseverance.

Thao N. Le, Associate Professor of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Hawai‘i, and Pono Shim of Enterprise Honolulu, in their 2014 study, Mindfulness and the Aloha Response, explain that the literal translation of aloha is alo, meaning presence and meaning breath. They describe aloha thus, “Along with presence, the esoteric-spiritual meaning behind the five words of aloha is that when you engage, you engage with white gloves, and gently, like a baby, you don’t bruise. With white gloves and gentle touches, and in the right moment of emptiness, we engage to connect. It is through connections that there is reverence and trust. And it is in reverence and trust that we are able to experience true relevance and honor for each other’s presence and being.”

Aloha is given freely and freely returned

I was at my home in Hawai’i at the time of the Maui fires, and I witnessed aloha from every person I encountered, from locals to people all over the world; an unprecedented outpouring of aloha reflected back to the people of Maui, as reported on local news stations. The President, within hours, expressed his family’s concern for the people of Lahaina and said he would come when the people of Lahaina said the time was right. Oprah, who has a home on Maui, immediately flew in, asked what was needed, and flew straight back to the mainland, returning the next day with a plane load of the requested supplies.

Flotillas of private boats ferried between the islands daily with the supplies requested by locals, no small feat in the huge waves and currents of the unprotected Pacific. They were eagerly met on the Maui coast by multiple groups of local volunteers who showed up to help.

Day after day, small aircraft pilots flew between islands with whatever supplies and medicine were requested that day, paying for fuel out of their own pockets.

Is it aloha that makes Hawai’i the happiest state, by far, in the nation?

According to researchers, in June 2023, Hawai’i remains first overall as the happiest state. Hawai’i ranks second in the country for emotional and physical well-being with the second-lowest share of adult depression of any state, the fifth-highest income growth rate, and the country's fourth-lowest divorce rate. Hawai’i residents enjoy many days of sunshine and healthy, active outdoor lifestyles. Hawai’ians live longer than people in any other state, averaging 81.48 years.

The Aloha spirit protects mental health

Psychologists Mossakowski and Wong, in their 2016 study, The Paradox of Discrimination, the “Aloha Spirit,” and Symptoms of Depression in Hawai’i, find the Aloha spirit is associated with significantly lower levels of psychological distress and a reduced risk of depression among undergraduate students in Hawai‘i. These statistically significant effects are over and above the effects of self-reported discrimination, local identity, levels of ethnic identification, race-ethnicity, immigrant status, duration of residence in Hawai‘i, and other sociodemographic factors. These findings suggest that the aloha spirit could be a cultural resource that is beneficial to psychological well-being in Hawai‘i.

Lahaina has a terribly difficult path ahead. Aloha lights the way. The science of today and the warmth of the Hawai’ian people reinforce the wisdom of a precious heritage. Perhaps the nation will persist in the spirit of aloha to tread with tenderness and gratitude with respect for Hawai’i’s gift to the world to honor the wisdom and wishes of the people of the island as they heal and rebuild.


Le, Thao N. & Shim, Pono. (2014). Mindfulness and the Aloha Response. Calgary, Canada. Volume 3, Issue 1. Journal of Indigenous Social Development.

Mossakowski, K. N., & Wong Karen, T. S. (2016). The Paradox of Discrimination, the “Aloha Spirit,” and Symptoms of Depression in Hawai‘i. Hawai'i Journal of Medicine & Public Health, 75(1), 8-12.

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