A Shenandoah University class took time this summer to study happiness in perhaps the happiest place on Earth – Fiji.
The “Psychology of Happiness” class, led by Associate Professor of Psychology Scott King, Ph.D., included a 10-day Global Experiential Learning trip to Fiji in May 2016. Alumnus Tim Doak ’13 (music therapy), who was stationed in Fiji with the Peace Corps from 2013-2015 and connected with Dr. King during Shenandoah’s 2015 Global Citizenship Project trip to the South Pacific island, guided the “Psychology of Happiness” group, which included King and eight students. Doak handled logistics on the trip and translated for group members.
“Fiji was my home for two years while I served in the Peace Corps, and it will always be home for me,” Doak said. “I made incredible connections and bonds with my village and even grew my family. I was willing to return to Fiji because I wanted to share my home with others in the way that it was shared with me – through experience.”
The course and trip developed in response to a need, according to King. “Happiness is a growing field of study in psychology and one that Shenandoah hasn’t had in our psychology curriculum, so I built a course around the study of happiness, and if/why Fiji is indeed the happiest place on Earth,” King said.
The class trip included time with students at Fiji National University and with the people of a very special village. Most of the academic work for the course occurred in the U.S., prior to traveling. During the trip, students wrote daily journal entries reflecting on their experiences.
“My most memorable part of the trip was the moment I learned why they were so happy,” said Lora-Maria Koytcheva ’19. “I spoke with various families, and people throughout Fiji, and they all equally expressed their love for their country. Studying their answers, I discovered that it is because these people are content with their lives and what they have. Being there really showed me that these people are happy with what they have, are surrounded by family, and are very close with their religion. They are not so much worried about competing with others. Especially in the villages, families wake up every day smiling and surrounded by love – you can really feel the happiness in the atmosphere wherever you are in Fiji! They go about their daily tasks, but they do it on Fiji time – so it will get done whenever it gets done! No rush, no deadlines to meet… no stress.”
Discovering Personal Happiness on Kioa
For several students, the most meaningful moments of the trip, and consequently, their studies of happiness, occurred in a small village on Kioa Island. The island, which is where Doak was stationed with the Peace Corps, had only minimal running water and a few hours of electricity available each night, but it proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences for everyone, King said. “That’s something else related to happiness – you have to challenge yourself to truly experience it.”
“We stayed with host families,” said Celine Fadi ’16. “It was eye-opening. My first day there was the hardest. I have never been to another country in those living conditions. We ate on the floor with our hands, slept in mosquito nets, no air conditioning and no plumbing. But after sleeping there the first night, I saw how happily they lived. The families got together every day and just had good times with laughter and stories. I felt as if I was a part of the family right away. The connection I had with them was unreal. I cried the day we left; I built such a strong bond with them. I came back to the States and the first thing I did was go to the thrift store and bought endless shirts, shorts, skirts, and flip flops for my families in Fiji.”
“This trip really taught me that family comes first. Before this trip, my family and I wouldn’t have dinner together and we wouldn’t talk about our day. We used to just watch TV, and my sister and I would be on our phones on social media. Coming back, I’ve learned to put my phone down and listen to others when they speak, and hold a conversation – smiling and saying hello to others in the grocery store or in the mall – instead of walking by people, with my head down, looking at my phone.”
Kioa dispelled the homesickness Danielle Seaboy ’17 said she felt for the first few days of the trip. “It wasn’t until the second day that we were in Kioa that everything changed,” she said. “I got to know my host family a bit better, I was playing games with the little kids, I was teaching martial arts to the kids, I went on a walk with a couple of people and got caught in the rain (which was nice to have since it was hot), had a mini photoshoot done with someone from the group, and much more. I was able to experience Kioan traditions with my host family and new friends that I made in the village. I had a wonderful dinner with them, and we listened to music while we ate. I saw traditional dancing and heard traditional music and was able to participate in the traditional dancing even if I was struggling to keep up lol. Also, one of the new friends I made there brought out this fun and outgoing side of me that no one has ever seen except for my birth family and my boyfriend. Living in the moment and having so much fun that day made me forget that I missed my family so much, and I was smiling the whole night.
“This relates to the course because the course focused on the study of happiness, and I was truly happy that day. I haven’t enjoyed martial arts for three years but teaching martial arts to the kids bought back the passion and joy I once had for martial arts. This experience wasn’t one-sided, either. The people of Kioa showed me what happiness is like, and we bought out sides of one another that we never knew were there or that we tried to hide from others.”
“It was so wonderful to see the students’ reactions to Fiji culture,” Doak added. “From the smiles, laughter, and sometimes tears or apprehension, they all did an amazing job handling some tough situations and really experiencing Fiji like a local.”
What Makes Fijians (and Everyone Else) Happy?
According to King, contributors to happiness, based on academic research and what the group experienced in Fiji, include “in-person social connections, generosity, gratitude, savoring and living in the moment, spending money on experiences (instead of material possessions) and giving to others, and the presences of sunshine and water.”
The experience of merely being in Fiji added to Seaboy’s happiness. “Being able to go on this trip was amazing. I have never been out of the country nor on an airplane before. I had many firsts while on this trip and enjoying the experience. It definitely brought me out of my comfort zone and helped me realize that I am willing to try new things and that I can have a lot of fun in an unknown area to me if I just open up and live in the moment instead of hiding in my shy shell. I also learned that happiness can definitely be spread to other people and shared.”