Ask pretty much anyone, and they’ll agree: We all just want to be happy. We want less stress and more laughter — but it turns out our brain is evolutionarily wired to fight against contentment, explains Lea Waters, Ph.D., a positive psychologist and author of The Strength Switch.
“Our ancestors roaming the savannah had an in-built alarm system: They noticed the rustle in the tree behind them, which allowed them to run away and survive,” Waters explains. “This negativity bias — our brain’s tendency to quickly spot negative things and pay attention to what’s going wrong — is an outdated system, since we don’t have to escape predators anymore. It gets in the way of happiness because your brain drags you toward everything going wrong and doesn’t give the same attention to what brings you joy.” That’s why the bliss you felt after a relaxing weekend spent with family or friends evaporates the second you open a critical email on Monday morning, or someone cuts you off during your morning commute.
Thankfully, science shows that tapping into timeless wisdom can rewire your brain and even spark a different mix of neurochemicals that help us feel more connected and content, Waters says.
Consider Fiji, a small nation in the South Pacific made up of more than 300 islands. In a recent Gallup poll, 94% of Fijians described themselves as happy, making it one of the happiest places on Earth.
You might wonder what there is to be bummed about when you’re surrounded by lush jungles, aquamarine water, and white sand beaches. But the people of Fiji’s sunny outlook has less to do with geography and a lot more to do with their values: the principles of “Bulanaires,” a new list celebrating those who are rich in happiness. A term you’ll hear often in Fiji is “bula,” which translates to “life” and serves as a greeting and blessing in everyday conversation. Traditional Fijian philosophy outlines seven principles to create a happier “bula” — attitudes you can adopt no matter where in the world you are.
“The bottom line is that we have way more control over our levels of happiness than we give ourselves credit for,” Waters says. “Happiness is a mindset, and has to do with the way we engage with daily life. These simple practices build up your mental health over time.”
Ready to feel more like a joyful Fijian? Test out these science-backed principles of Bula philosophy.
- Give back. Fijians are known for their generosity: They’ll share a meal, their time, their energy — anything to help a neighbor or the community. Science shows that this practice of abundance is one of the most reliable ways to move the dial on your personal happiness.
Brain scans show that people who give away cash or spend money on others have greater activity in the regions associated with happiness. What’s more, the scale of giving doesn’t matter: Doing someone a small favor, like dropping coins in a stranger’s soon-to-expire parking meter, gives you the same boost as making a bigger donation.
What’s more, research suggests that generosity is like a snowball rolling downhill: Participants in a study published in the journal Nature Communications who gave once were more likely to continue that generous spirit later on. So to give yourself and someone else the warm fuzzies, go out of your way to give back.
- Connect with family and community. The traditional village lifestyle lives on in Fiji, where extended families often settle near each other and form a tight-knit community — along with a bond that boosts happiness. A long-term study from Harvard backs this up: The research found that close relationships with family and friends not only help you live longer and sharpen your memory; they also make you a whole lot happier long-term.
“Serotonin and oxytocin, the brain chemicals that are released when we spend time with loved ones or connect with our friends, create the neurochemistry of contentment,” Waters says. What’s more, the effect is near-instant: Cuddle with your partner or play Settlers of Catan with a few friends and your well-being spikes within minutes.
Research suggests that face-to-face meet-ups give you the most significant boost, but calling far-flung loved ones works, too: One study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that talking to your mom on the phone can cause levels of the stress hormone cortisol to drop, while increasing levels of oxytocin, the “bonding hormone.” So reach out for both a quick destress moment and long-term emotional wellness.
- Plan fun and adventure. With Fiji’s waterfalls, coral reefs, and rushing rivers, is it any wonder that fun and adventure are a core part of these islands’ secrets to happiness? Adventure is tied to novelty, which science shows can reliably make you happier. A study published in the journal Neuron found that the brain releases dopamine — another feel-good chemical that also motivates you to seek more mood-boosting experiences — when you see or do something out-of-the-ordinary. Not an adrenaline junkie? Take a cue from Fijians, who are just as happy to sing, dance, and weave with friends as they are surfing and diving in coral reefs. Mellow fun builds just as much happiness as adventure does. “Fun and adventure is a mindset. Ask yourself, what can I do this weekend to inject a bit of fun into my life?” Waters suggests. You can cheer on your favorite team, try a new lasagna recipe, learn to play the ukulele — anything that sparks a smile. “These micromoments build up your happiness bank account,” she says.
- Stay positive—and laugh. The image of smiling Fijians isn’t a stereotype; it’s an expression of the culture’s value of humor and a positive outlook. Before you raise an eyebrow at the advice to simply smile and cultivate positivity in order to be happy, hear us out.
Some psychologists believe each of us has a happiness “set point,” just like you have a predetermined metabolism. But just as you can exercise and eat well to give a sluggish metabolism a makeover, you can also nudge your set point through small but powerful shifts in behavior, Waters says.
Simply knowing you’re predisposed to dwell on negativity can prompt you to work harder at cultivating positivity. Waters recommends keeping a daily gratitude journal and watching occasional funny YouTube videos for a quick cheer-up.
- Embrace the simple things. You may think you need a new job or a bigger house to be happy, but it’s actually the little things in life that drive contentment, Waters says. After all, many Fijians might not have (or don’t crave) the latest 4K TV, yet they’re some of the happiest people in the world.
- “The little things that give you contentment vary from person to person,” Waters says. It might be picking a sprig of mint from your garden for some fresh-brewed tea, noticing how light you feel when you hear from a loved one, or pausing your morning routine to give your dog extra snuggles. “Focusing on pleasurable sensations is like turning the joy of little moments into Velcro instead of Teflon. Then they’ll stick with you,” Waters says. So treat the simple things like a fine meal: Savor them, and your brain will reward you with a feel-good flood of serotonin.
- Live in the moment. One way Fijians stay so positive is by staying rooted in the here and now, rather than agonizing over the past or worrying about the future. You don’t have to go on a week-long silent retreat to benefit from the rewards of mindfulness, Waters says.
“The big myth is that mindfulness is clearing your mind, and that’s why people feel like they fail at it,” she says. “Mindfulness is actually about being present, noticing what is happening when it is happening to you.” It sounds straightforward, and it is — which means anyone can do it, even if you hated that one meditation class you tried. And living in the moment was found to be twice as influential on your happiness than what you’re doing, says research on more than 2,000 people published in Science.
Try this super-simple mindfulness exercise: Tune into the temperature of the air in your nostrils as you inhale and exhale. Is it different when you breathe in? When you breathe out? “When you use your breath as an anchor, your mind is less scattered,” Waters says. “And you’re always breathing—it’s a tool available to you anytime, anywhere.”
- Disconnect. There’s a reason we see Fiji as paradise: Its wide beaches and crystalline waters seem a world away from stressful traffic jams and the 24/7 news cycle. You may feel that being in the know 100% of the time is a virtue, but disconnecting every so often is key to your happiness, creativity, and even productivity, Waters says.
No one is suggesting you delete all your social media accounts and become a hermit in the woods. Instead, institute a no-news-after-7pm rule, dock your phone in the other room, or leave the radio silent in the car. Unplugging even for a short window switches your brain from its to-do-list-oriented task mode to its default network mode, when your brain stores long-term memories and is at its most creative.
Disconnecting is like shutting down a computer with dozens of applications running and too many browser tabs open. (Sound familiar?) When you reboot, it feels like a brand-new, powerful, fast — and happier — machine.
With just a few minor tweaks, you, too can channel the principles of happiness of Bulanaires for a more joyful life. So go ahead: Tap into that island happiness, no matter where in the world you are.