Nestled between the borders of India and China lies a country you may not have heard of. Bhutan is small, difficult to get to, and the majority of its people still live in abject poverty. However, Bhutan is rated one of the happiest countries in the world.
In the 1970’s the King of Bhutan introduced the Gross National Happiness Index to his nation, implementing tools that measure happiness across 9 domains, including health, education, psychology, and cultural diversity. There are positive affirmations posted outside buildings, children learning meditation as part of their school curriculum, and special attention given to agricultural techniques and the recycling of materials.
John Lennon once said, “When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
Some of us make the pursuit of happiness a full time gig. Personally, I have spent years gathering all the things I’ve found along my journey that make me happy, putting them in a preverbal basket that I can pull out anytime, offering its contents to people I meet along my path. Yet, I still find myself plopping down in the middle of the road at least once a day, basket in hand, wondering where my happiness went. I open up Instagram or Facebook, and scroll through the lives of my “friends”, watching them as they live their happy lives– wondering how they are doing that, and what exactly is their secret? Did they just have really good karma in a past life or is some big bad unhappy waiting for them around the corner that hasn’t hit them yet? Then of course I reprimand myself for comparing myself to others, remind myself to be grateful, and go digging through my basket for one of my tools that might bring me back to happy.
Here’s the thing about happy, though. “Happy” in the sense that we envision it, is really just a big ‘ol dangling carrot on a string, trotted out in front of us– one that we can never quite seem to catch up to. Just when we think we’ve got it, it slips from our fingers and ends up 10 feet ahead again.
And you know what feels worse than not being happy? Having been happy and then losing it and feeling the absence of that happy.
Here are a few relatable examples:
I need a Person in my life and then I will be happy. I found my Person, therefore, I am happy! I fought with my Person, and now he isn’t making me happy. My Person and I broke up, I am unhappy.
It’s a sunny day; I’m SO happy! Now it’s raining, and I’m not happy.
New shoes! Yay, happy!! Credit card bill came… yikes! Not happy. Two months later the shoes are boring and in the back of my closet. Now I need new shoes to make me happy.
Drinks with friends– I mean, it’s called “Happy Hour” right? But that wasn’t as fun as I thought it was going to be.
Early morning meeting after aforementioned happy hour… not so happy.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Happiness, as we Westerners value it, is often outside-dependent. As if something outside of us can somehow put “happy” inside of us, and then everything will be okay! Of course a sunny day can bring about a cheerful mood, and of course being in love is wonderful. But relationships are hard and breakups suck… and sometimes the clouds come out and it has to rain. When we put all our mood value on things outside of ourselves, we will forever be at the mercy of them. The real truth is, any happiness that we source outside of ourselves will always be fleeting because it is just that: outside.
Happiness has to come from and be cultivated within. It is the only way to ensure that it can’t be taken away by anything that happens outside of us. This is something we are not encouraged to do. Our society thrives on us Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Everything we consume visually, mentally, and emotionally is built to make us think and feel that what we have is not enough. You need more clothes! You need more money! You need to be skinnier! You need to have a newer car! Big handbags! Small handbags! Bags for your handbags!
When I lived in Asia for a year, the thing that struck me the most at first was the poverty. Huge families living in shacks, working in the rice paddies from sunrise to dusk, and children bathing in tin buckets alongside chickens. I felt bad for them at first. Eventually I began to notice that these people who had so little were always smiling; they were always laughing. They would give the only shirt off their back if they thought I needed it more. I didn’t need the shirt– I needed the secret to their happiness.
This is what the King of Bhutan and his GNH are all about. First, cultivating happiness for his people within themselves, and then, letting that happiness extend into whatever it is they do. They are able to do that without a lot of money, without most of the material things we take for granted, and without needing more of anything. According to the 2015 GNH index, 35% of people are “Extensively Happy.” Extensively! When was the last time you felt extensively happy? I know for me, instead of reaching for the phone to check social media and start my precious day off like that, I’m going to instead tell myself this: Everything I have is enough, and it makes me extensively happy.
See if you can keep up with that, Kardashians.
Artwork by: James Ormiston.