Bhutan is a country rich in history, with some archaeologists believing the area to have been settled as early as 2000 B.C.E. The start of the Bhutan society began around 747 C.E. when Tibetan monks fled neighboring Tibet, seeking refuge in Bhutan. Bhutan has always maintained its independence from foreign rule. Having never been conquered has enabled it to create and maintain a rich culture, as well as keep its history and artifacts relatively intact. Bhutan first opened its borders to tourism in 1974 to stimulate its economy, and in doing so, has provided the world with great insight into its unique culture.
In the 1970s Bhutan’s leader, Jigme Wangchuck, first introduced the concept of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH), which he believed to be a measurement of the overall happiness of a country’s people. GNH is measured based on nine distinct dimensions:
- psychological well-being
- time use
- cultural diversity and resilience
- good governance
- community vitality
- ecological diversity and resilience
- living standards
While this is not a perfect system, since happiness is a highly subjective, the Bhutanese GNH measurement includes both objective and subjective criteria to provide an indicator happiness of a country’s population.
The concept of assigning a number to the happiness of a society was revolutionary and an amazing gift to the world. While GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is an important metric of a country’s economic success and prosperity, what good is a number if the country’s citizens are unhappy? GNH has come a long way since its inception 40 years ago. Back then it was a budding idea and now it has become an international measure of every country’s happiness, and can be a major factor in determining where people choose to call home. So, if Bhutan is so good at measuring its citizens’ happiness, there must be something they do differently that helps them achieve higher happiness scores. While it could be the beautiful Buddhist temples nestled among the picturesque mountains, I believe it comes down to a few key lessons embedded into the very psyche of its citizens.
Lesson #1: Thinking about death enables you to live a better life
One of the fundamentals of Bhutanese culture is daily periods of thought and reflection. The twist is that the thought and reflection must be about death. At least 5 times a day Bhutanese people sit in silence and think about the fact that their time on this earth is limited. They think about the fact that most of the things people stress about – how many likes you get on Instagram, what the Kardashians are currently doing, whether you’re making everyone you know happy – really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. If you were given only 24 hours to live, all the minutia would melt away and you would be left to focus on the important things in life with absolute clarity. Your time may be spent on more important questions, such as:
- Is what I am doing going to enable me to have an impact on society?
- Are my actions helping my family live a better life?
- Am I contributing to the fulfillment of my own purpose on this earth?
By realizing that this life will come to an end, and at some point our current plane of existence will cease to exist, it brings a greater perspective to the daily actions one is taking. Imagine how many new experiences you would be open to, and how few opportunities you would pass up, if you kept the perspective that: this was the only day that you had to experience this lifetime.
Lesson #2: Sadness is not something to be fixed, it is something to be embraced
One of the counter-arguments to daily death reflection is that it will create a feeling of sadness, which, if we only have a limited time on this earth, one shouldn’t spend it feeling sad. The Bhutanese belief is that sadness is not something to be “fixed”, but that it is a necessary part of human existence. Without sorrow we cannot know joy. Without pain and suffering we cannot truly appreciate all the gifts we are given in life. By realizing that each breath could be your last, it makes you appreciate each individual breath more and more. By deriving a feeling of happiness simply from the fact that you woke up this morning and were blessed with the breath of a new day, you are already starting off the day with a feeling of joy. Even though you may experience sadness when you are performing your daily “death reflections,” the sadness and melancholy emotions you feel are an essential part to making joy and happiness more deeply appreciated.
Lesson #3: Preparing for the known sorrows in life enables you to take them in stride
Another benefit of coming to terms with death by daily reflection is it not only enables you to live a happier life, but it enables you to be better prepared when someone else in your life passes away. I am 20 years old and, by some miraculous blessing, I have not had anyone I know die in my life. I could take the perspective of ignoring that it would happen at some point, and not think about the fact that my loved ones would die until it happened, and I was forced to deal with the emotions, whether I was ready to or not. Instead, I decided I was going to deal with the emotions on my own terms, when I was at my strongest, instead of waiting to confront them during a time when I was at my weakest.
When I was 17 I started thinking about death more and more. I thought about how I couldn’t control it, and if I can’t control it, why would I let it be a stressor of mine. It seems silly to spend so much time worrying about something when worrying about it does me absolutely no good. I also looked at it from the perspective that it makes this life more enjoyable. It gives you a sense of urgency knowing that there is a clock you are playing against. As I started to incorporate this perspective into my routine, it become a great motivator. Whenever I don’t want to do something I think about the fact that: one day my time on this earth will come to an end, and it helps me snap out of the slump I am in. Even though I still have been fortunate enough to not have to deal with death of loved one, I know that because I chose to deal with the emotions on my own terms I will be better prepared for it when it does come. I am confident I will be better able to take it in stride, along with the rest of challenges that life throws at me.
Whether you believe in reincarnation, heaven/hell, or think that everything ceases to exist once this life is over, it is guaranteed that one day this life will indeed come to an end. Incorporating the Bhutanese practice of daily reflection about the end of life will enable one to live a happier life, filled with greater appreciation of the little things, while building the mental and emotional fortitude to deal with those inevitable tragedies that befall all of us.
Though it may seem backwards or counter-intuitive, this Bhutanese practice has contributed to creating the country synonymous with happiness as reflected in its GNH. Preparing the mind for sorrow increases one’s resiliency, making the tough times slightly smoother. Embracing sadness helps the Bhutanese people overcome sadness quicker, because by embracing it they realize it is okay to feel this way, that feeling sorrow is part of what makes us human, and it allows us to appreciate happiness at a deeper level. These mindsets have enabled the Bhutanese people to embody happiness by embracing the moment, for they know that one day it will be their last.