By Dr. Elia Gourgouris and Kon Apostolopoulos
Vanuatu is an archipelago of islands in the south pacific with a population just slightly larger than the city of Chula Vista, California and a land mass smaller than Connecticut. Yet, according to the BBC, this rural paradise was recently labelled “one of the happiest places in the world” by Happy Planet Index, based on their findings on equality, life expectancy, well-being, and ecological footprint.
So what are these secrets?
Here are 5 things we learned from watching this short BBC Reel:
Secret #1: Smile More!
It is a commonly held belief that smiling can have a positive effect on our disposition and even our health. This belief has gained much supporting evidence from science over recent years. In fact, research on the Facial Feedback Hypothesis (FFH) suggests “smiling can activate the corresponding emotion of happiness and joy, or modulate an already existing emotion.”
In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Anchor notes that “Happiness is a work ethic… It’s something that requires our brains to train just like an athlete must train. The more we train, the easier it becomes to think positively, shut out negativity, and, in turn, boost your productivity and creativity, which allows you to perform better at work and life.”
On Vanuatu, people smile a lot and that’s a way of life. They have made smiling a habit that has a therapeutic effect on them both physically and emotionally, and it’s a gift they share with others.
“Every time we smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”Mother Theresa
Secret #2: Embrace your identity, family, and community
It is obvious to even the most casual observer that the people of Vanuatu take great pride in their identity, culture, and traditions. Across the 83 islands of the archipelago, more than 113 different languages are spoken. But across this diverse country, immediate and extended family are VERY important in their culture. It is a culture of inclusion that also embraces diversity and respects tradition.
These extended family units and villages discuss issues together. The bonds they share, and the respect shown to their chiefs and elders, brings about a strong sense of community, a sense of belonging.
Secret #3: Maintain a sense of gratitude
On the islands there is little emphasis on money. Instead the focus is on ensuring that basic needs are met by working the land and using the available resources that the sea and forest provide. According to a 2012 poll, 75% of the country lives rurally, with 90% of that population having access to family or tribal land and water.
“All of them own the land they live on. Every day they have food. That’s what makes them happy!”Sero Kuatonga, Artist
Life on the islands is not easy, but it’s simple, and people appreciate what they have. They don’t feel despair if there isn’t a lot of money because they have the essentials: food, shelter, family, support, friendship, purpose, and love. They feel a sense of gratitude for each day that they have.
Secret #4: Stay connected to nature and your environment
The people of Vanuatu consider themselves ecologically conscious and respectful of their environment. They cultivate the land with care and harvest what they need from the available resources.
Happiness is just a consequence of how respectful we are with nature.Marcel Merthelorong, Novelist
Young people learn the secrets of tending to the land and the environment by watching their elders. They follow their example and keep the traditions. The care and respect for nature passes from one generation to the next. It becomes the way of life on the islands. The people know the boundaries and limitations of their world, and understand the importance of preserving those finite resources for their children and grandchildren.
Secret #5: Accept what you can’t control
Despite the beauty of the islands, the people of Vanuatu are vulnerable to natural disasters. In fact, their islands are considered the most at risk for natural disasters, as measured in the United Nations’ 2016 World Risk Index. They have active volcanoes, cyclones, and earthquakes. However, they take nature’s upheavals in stride; they accept these events as part of life. They don’t focus on the things that are beyond their control. They appreciate what they have and what they can control: their outlook and attitude.
But I Don’t Live anywhere near a South Pacific Island!
According to the United Nations, as of 2018, 55% of the world’s population was living in urban areas. That proportion is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. So how are we supposed to take these great ideas from the remote islands of Vanuatu and apply them to our own environment?
1. Smile: In our workshops we often conduct a “smiling experiment”, where we ask participants to place a pencil, pen, or other similar item between their teeth, and we ask them to note any changes in their mood. After a few minutes, if the chemical reaction of the contorting facial muscles doesn’t do it, the silliness of their faces definitely brings out the laughter!
We have the ability to choose our attitude and how we respond to events. When we smile – even if we don’t feel happy in the moment – our body responds positively, and we start to feel better. The idea of “fake it till you make it” can be applied to the relationship between smiling and feeling happy. A smile can also be contagious because when we smile, others tend to smile back. When you smile, the whole world smiles back at you!
2. Identity: In recent years, we have seen a growing trend of people seeking to find out more about their ancestry and identity. With so many of us being only a generation or two removed from arriving to this country, and even more sharing multi-cultural origins from blended families, it can be hard to find “the real you” or your traditions. When we were growing up, our Greek parents being first-generation immigrants, emphasized “assimilation” into our new country and language, while still encouraging us to take part in our ethnic heritage and community. That allowed us to create new traditions that respected the old ways and our new environment.
Now we make a conscious effort to return to our ancestral places each summer. Reconnecting with our roots, with our family, with our traditions helps to keep us grounded and sane. We feel part of something bigger and timeless. We are not alone, but rather part of a family, a community. We are connected to others by birth and by choice.
3. Gratitude: Imagine an over-sized whiteboard with a small black dot somewhere on its surface. What do you see when you look at the whiteboard? The plurality of the white surface or the singular dot? Our minds are wired to look for problems and irregularities. We tend to focus on what’s missing, what we don’t have, rather than what we do have. Changing the paradigm and focusing on what we have in our life takes effort. And when we acknowledge and appreciate the good things we have, something magical happens: we get more of those things!
4. Nature: If the only contact you have with nature is bagging your leaves in fall, or shoveling winter snow, you are missing the opportunity to connect with your natural surroundings. Most of us are only minutes away from a park, open space, or a body of water. Make an effort to get out and spend time in nature. Take a deep breath. Use all your senses – one at a time and all together – and truly experience your surroundings. Feel the energy recharging you at a cellular level.
5. Acceptance: Fear is a very powerful driver of behavior. It causes us to tense up and emotionally contract. When we fear losing something or someone, we try harder to control things and outcomes. But with acceptance comes freedom. Freedom to act, to be who we are, to allow others to be who they are, to embrace what is, and not just what we want things to be. When I think of acceptance and overcoming my fears, I think of the Serenity Prayer.
[God] grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.Serenity Prayer
Dr Elia Gourgouris is an International Keynote Speaker, Happiness and Wellness expert, Executive Coach, and a Leadership Consultant. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Best-Selling book, 7 Paths to Lasting Happiness which has now been translated in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese and Greek.
Dr Elia is also the President of The Happiness Center –an organization of world leading experts in the field of Positive Psychology. Together, they have helped thousands of individuals, both personally and professionally to achieve happiness, success, and wellness. The Happiness Center, offers Keynote Speaking Engagements, Executive Coaching and Corporate Consulting services to HR leaders, organizations, and corporations in the US, Europe, Asia and Australia.
Dr. Elia graduated from UCLA and holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.
Elia Gourgouris PhD
Author of #1 Best-Selling book: 7 Paths to Lasting Happiness
Kon Apostolopoulos is the Founder & CEO of Fresh Biz Solutions, a performance consulting and training provider that helps companies of all sizes develop and manage their talent, improve business results, and reap the benefits of a comprehensive Human Capital Management strategy.
Kon has more than 25 years of hands-on experience partnering with business leaders and functional experts to translate strategic vision and business priorities into clear and achievable tactical plans. He has helped organizations manage their transformational change efforts and deliver projects that help them realize their mission, vision, and strategic imperatives. As a recognized facilitator and coach, Kon has successfully delivered hundreds of custom learning events, presentations, and executive sessions in the US, Canada, and Europe for diverse audiences and industries.
For more information, email [email protected]
- BBC Reel Video by Bill Code dated 09/30/19 and titled, Why is this country one of the happiest places on Earth? (https://www.bbc.com/reel/video/p07pr9sw/why-is-this-country-one-of-the-happiest-places-on-earth-)
- American Psychological Association. Abel, M. H., & Hester, R. (2002). The therapeutic effects of smiling. In M. H. Abel (Ed.), Mellen studies in psychology, Vol. 4. An empirical reflection on the smile (pp. 217-253). Lewiston, NY, US: Edwin Mellen Press. (https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2003-06930-009)
- Huffington Post article by Alena Hall dated 12/07/17 and titled, 11 Surprising Reasons You Should Smile Every Day (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/smiling-benefits_n_6598840)
- United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs News dated 05/16/18 and titled, 68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, says UN (https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html )
- Photos by David Kirkland / Vanuatu Tourism Office