Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude: A Lesson From Tonga

A few days ago, Collin Johansson sent me an email about the culture of gratitude in Tonga where he lives. I found the email inspiring. So, with his permission, I’d like to share the email with you. Here is what Collin wrote to me (with some edits for better clarity):

I live in Tonga, a small island in the South Pacific. I’ve witnessed the changes over the years here, many good and some not so good. But compared to many places in the world, many people consider this place ‘paradise’. However, happiness isn’t guaranteed. An old friend used to say that ‘Happiness is a state of being’. To be or not to be, is a free choice you make – it has nothing to do with status or wealth.

Your email reminded me of a story of an American lady (Patricia Ledyard) who came here in the 1960s to volunteer as a teacher for the Methodist mission. She was posted to Vava’u, an outer island group further north (beautiful place… so beautiful that they warn you that if you go there you may never come back). Long story short she loved the place, the people especially, and fell in love with an English doctor.

In her book, Utulei, My Tongan Home (Utulei is the village where she lived), she talks of the one most valuable thing she learned from her ‘Tongan’ family and that was that the most appropriate attitude to life was gratitude. People would always show gratitude as was always the proper thing to do. She then explained that, to her amazement, the Tongan social etiquette was based on thankfulness. The Tongan word for hello is Malo lelei which means ‘most grateful that you are well.’ When you greet someone at work or who is working, you say Malo e ngaue which means ‘thanks for your hard work.’ Even when you greet someone that has just arrived, you say Malo e folau which means ‘thank you for making the journey.’ When visiting someone that is sick you greet them by saying Malo e mo’ui which means ‘so thankful that you are alive.’

Nowadays we seem to be so caught up in the world of consumerism and material success that we’ve traded real happiness (through appreciating the important things in life) for the ‘happiness’ that money can buy.

I found it inspiring that an attitude of gratitude is so entrenched in Tongan culture. With the examples that Collin gave, it’s easy to see that such a culture encourages its people to view life in a positive way. For any event, you can see it in a positive or negative light. Seeing it positively, I believe, will increase your level of happiness. No wonder many people call Tonga ‘paradise.’

We don’t have to adopt the Tongan’s vocabularies, but we can learn from their attitude toward life. We should make gratitude an integral part of our lives. See your life in a positive light and you will become happier as a result.

To Collin: many thanks for sharing the story!

Photo by Ibrahim Iujaz


  1. Interesting. I’ve often wondered what it would take to make a cultural shift in the way we treat each other. Perhaps modifying some parts of our language could get that started.

    We all have so much to be grateful for, it’s too bad we tend to forget that. Luckily we have posts like this to remind us.

  2. I am so happy to come across like this. After reading it , I am convinced and touch to appreciate more gratitude in life. Thank you for sharing such a nice thought.

  3. Compassion passion=true living

  4. I have an alarm on my phone which goes off at 16:55h everyday. The alarm’s title is, ‘What are you grateful for today?’

    Why 16:55h? Because it only takes 5 minutes a day to realise how truely blessed we are.

  5. I love how language can tell us so much about the culture of the people who developed the language. It is amazing how gratitude can change so much in our lives. Our reaction to events really does have more to do with our attitude than the action event. Thank you for sharing this story.

  6. & i’m so gratful cauz i read this

  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, everyone! I do think that our language is related to our culture/attitude. We don’t have the Tongan’s vocabularies, but we can speak of our experiences in a positive way. And as Jehangir said, being grateful doesn’t take much time 🙂

  8. Hmm i’m definately interested in learning more about Tongan life now. I’ve struggled to learn to show gratitude but have improved alot.

    If we were raised doing this, imagine the massive positive difference it would make!.


  9. What a beautiful email. I also live in a little town that we call paradise. I have an Uncle that always refers to our town as paradise, so everytime I talk to him he will mention it. That make’s me truely grateful that I live where I do.

    I know a Tongan Family that are exactly like that, they are very loving people, and I have learnt alot from knowing them.

  10. Hey,
    The post looks great. I previously practiced gratitude after learning the book – secret. It will definitely work well.

  11. Lots of thankssssss to share this email !!! I felt so happy while I was reading these words that I really believe and I so agree !!!! TO BE HAPPY IS AN ATTITUDE!!! but many time I forget it …. Upsss…

  12. Thanks for sharing I myself am originally from England and moved to a small village in Thailand to teach English so I can relate to a lot of what Colin wrote about.

  13. Hi Donald. What an Inspiration!I didn’t realize the power of Gratitude until I began practising it in my own life, it really changed everything for me. I can be happy and satisfied with the things I already have. In today’s society it important not to get caught up wanting more all the time which leads to not being fulfilled, its better to learn to be grateful first.

  14. It’s really a wonderful thought of being gratitude..Being positive will make our life much more beautiful,peaceful…I m saying it with an experience

  15. This is a lovely insight that casts a judgment on the materialistic culture of western society.

    As W.P. Kinsella said, “Success is getting what you want, happiness is wanting what you get.”

  16. That was great reading thanks for sharing. Everyone should be thankful for what they have. We all get so caught up in our everysay lives,we forget what we already have.

  17. Gratitude is such an important factor in creating happiness in your life. One of the things that I have discovered about the law of attraction is that it really revolves around gratitude. The more I am thankful for the way my life already is, the happier I am.

  18. I think you have to be grateful for what you have. Your attitude can affect so many other things in life.

  19. So true! When you begin to shift your focus to one of gratitude, your whole outlook can change. I have been doing exactly that for the last two weeks, starting out each day in the shower running through everything I’m thankful for and I take it one step further by being greatful for the fantastic day ahead. It has made a huge difference in my level of happiness and as a result of my positive attitude, I see that it rubs off on others as well. Tonga sounds like a great place, thanks for sharing!

  20. This was wonderful to read, thank you for writing and sharing the story.

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