Finding Happiness

“Stop running. Happiness has been chasing you all this time…”

Be here and happy

A happy place

Moving to Bhutan does funny things for one’s happiness. Increasingly famous for developing the concept of Gross National Happiness, Bhutan is the first country many people think of when asked to name the happiest place on earth. This has even led the Tourism Council of Bhutan to adopt the slogan, “Happiness is a Place”. Happiness is much more than a place, but indeed, Bhutan has been a great place for me to learn about my own happiness.

People often ask me if I am happier here, and whether those around me are truly the happiest people in the world. The answers to such questions are at first complicated, and eventually simple. People here are not in a race to be happier or happiest. I was amazed to learn recently that the happiness of an individual is 50% genetic, 40% attitude, and only 10% based on one’s environment and conditions. So why would Bhutan make me happy?

One of the most interesting experiences with happiness in Bhutan is the presence of meditation and mindfulness. The idea of “be here now” is very present, and even schools practice meditation exercises for a few minutes every day. The book “Engineering Happiness” (reviewed here) dictates that Happiness equals Reality minus Expectations. Despite being a poor country with its own development challenges, the people have smiles on their faces and seem genuinely happy.

My experience here has led me to come up with my own four rules for happiness:

Let stuff go: Antonia, and I came to Bhutan with only a few pieces of luggage, forced to whittle down our belongings to what we thought we would need for a year or two. Having run a project on sustainable consumption, I was acutely aware of the inverse correlation between the accumulation of stuff and happiness, and I was eager to explore this in practice. My suitcases were filled with mostly with clothes I would be happy to leave behind, plus a large quota of equipment for hiking, camping, cycling and photography. We sold our car and left behind a lot of suits and an attic full of stuff. I still haven’t let go completely and did buy a secondhand iPhone on a recent trip abroad, but I am confident that I will be better at getting rid of quite a bit when I return.

Money is minor: Most people would acknowledge that, beyond basic human needs, money does not buy happiness. Only by moving to Bhutan have I been able to test out this theory in my daily life. With a household income that is about 95% less than a year ago, we have had to make a few adjustments. We keep a careful budget to account for where every Ngultrum goes. Things like cashews are a luxury, and any item over $5 requires consultation. We have ended some months with less than a dollar in the bank, but still happy. Again, our situation is special, because we do have savings to provide a safety net. With the living allowance received, we are still able to live in Upper Motithang, considered the ‘Beverly hills’ of Thimphu, and we certainly have all the comforts we would want. I would hate to think that my happiness relates to the Jonses (or Dorjis here), but we certainly appreciate that we have a good standard of living when compared to some neighbours with no running water.

Less is more: One big contributor to my happiness here is simply doing less. If asked before coming what I would do to be happy, I would have listed many things I would do more of: travel, sports, yoga, cooking, family time, etc. Like most other people, I would have completely forgotten that in order to do more of one thing, one must do less of something else. I am now conscious that I am leading a fuller and more balanced life by working much less than before, including more of everything I would have liked. This is largely the result of the working environment here, which is very much based on a 35-hour work week rather than my previous standard of 55-60 hours. By moving to Bhutan, I managed to force myself into a “reset” mode that would not have been possible in Europe.

Flexibility is freedom: While I am working less, I don’t consider myself to have become lazy all of the sudden. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Here in Bhutan I have discovered a new professional ambition and motivation delivered by independence and freedom. My CEO generally responds to my proposals with a bit of incredulity, followed by “If you think you can make it happen…” Another part of doing less has allowed me to accept various advisory roles on projects and committees that I simply find interesting. The happiness brought by this new freedom makes me realize how stifled I felt by strict organizational structures. With a carte blanche, I now can be more creative and strategic in my work.

Happier than thou?

Happier than thou?

Recently, I was speaking with a friend about how my life has changed since being in Bhutan. I highlighted a number of the points I mentioned above, and in particular how much happier I feel now, compared to before. They then challenged me not to be happier, but just to be happy. After all, what is happier? Happier than what? My own self?

Coming from a competitive environment where superlatives are the norm, I find myself suddenly absorbed by this difference between driving myself to be happier and just accepting happiness. I won’t necessarily be going into a meditative retreat as the monks here do for three years, three months and three days, but I certainly will be more mindful of my happiness, and seek to accept it in the time and place I find it.

198 responses to “Finding Happiness

  1. Pingback: Finding Happiness | bhutan chronicles - Happiness Lifecoaching Blog | Happiness Lifecoaching Blog·

  2. I enjoyed the read. Happier vs. Happy will surely keep me evaluating for a time. I’m glad that your colleagues brought up that linguistic conundrum and you took it seriously. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and may you continue to encounter happiness around the bend.

  3. Great post and so inspirational. Hopefully one day we can all accept a little Bhutan into our lives elsewhere in the world.
    Thanks

  4. I really appreciate “Doing less” on your list. With all of the talk of “bucket lists,” the world seems so intent on doing more. It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that we might be happier if we did less.

  5. This is a beautiful post, and just what I needed to read. I experienced many similar lessons when I was living in Costa Rica, but it’s amazing how easy it is to forget them when you’re no longer in the environment that taught them to you. This was a great reminder. And I love your point about not striving to be “happier,” but simply being happy. Funny how even happiness is something we can pressure ourselves to do “better.”

  6. This post makes me go, “Hmmmm”. Something to think about. I really enjoyed this. Thank you for sharing 🙂

  7. I liked the way you begin this blog with the quote. Happiness in stillness, in pausing and absorbing what is around us is so important. I can relate to your blog as I am trying to see life simply “as is”. I’m glad to see you and Antonia share your joy in your happiness journey with all of us. Congratulations on getting freshly pressed!

  8. Interesting observations, I enjoyed reading this. A question- where did you hear that happiness is “50% genetic, 40% attitude, and only 10% based on one’s environment and conditions”? This doesn’t really have anything to do with the heart of the article, but it strikes me as odd that someone would classify happiness according to DNA. I tend to think that attitude and gratefulness play the biggest role in personal happiness.

    • The statistic came from a cognitive psychologist who was here in Bhutan for a conference on the “New Economic Paradigm” in January. I think the DNA part they were referring to is how the brain is wired, and whether there is a genetic disposition for depression or other diseases that make it more difficult to be happy…

  9. As they say, pleasure, unlike happiness, does exist in the real world. Do you think you’ve mastered the art of being happy and not just getting pleasure from things you couldn’t do before? Is there a line between the two, really?

    • Interesting question! I’d like to think of happiness as the accumulation of pleasure, if you will. Perhaps happiness can be seen as the strategic result of many tactical pleasures!

      • I like the definition “the strategic result of many tactical pleasures” ))) I would add though something along the lines of “pleasures derived from activities that do not harm the body or soul in the long term” )

    • Thank you! It is a challenge just to be happy rather that trying to be happier. The more I think about it, the more I realise I have a happier rather than happy instinct. I guess it is like trying to clear your mind and think of nothingness!

  10. Your blog made me really think, “A happy place”. What is really a happy place? Your picture describes it well! – Happier than thou? Thanks for letting me read your awesome blog and be happy today.

  11. Pingback: Finding Happiness | Giuseppe Savaia·

  12. Isn’t that phrase: “wherever you go, there you are” about this very thing? If you are capable of being happy, you will be anywhere. I’m not surprised that someone has decided happiness if 50% genetics and 40% attitude. The flip side is where most people spend their time. If you are unhappy in one place, you will be in the new place, too. So the question is, were you happy before you moved to Bhutan? Or did you move because you weren’t happy?

    • Indeed, here we are! We were definitely happy before, but we were hectic as well and living in two different countries. I think that being together and living slower has helped reduce stress and let the happiness come out!

      • Good news! Living in two countries sounds tough. You seem like a happy person, though, which quality can’t be bought. Thanks for sharing your insights. It was a pleasure to read and contemplate.

  13. Thanks for the reminder! Even though I know how true it is that the more physical stuff you have, the more tied down to it you are, I still need a reminder every few months.
    I have moved several times (like 12 times in the last 10 years!) and every time by the end of moving day, I think to myself ‘why do I have so much stuff?!’. Now I moved overseas last year and still had too much, but am thinking much harder before buying things these days!

    • We still have a lot of stuff in an attic back in Europe, so we’ll address that when we get back. In the mean time it is interesting to watch the evolution of collaborative consumption and the sharing economy. Maybe in the future we can just borrow the stuff we need!

  14. Wonderful post. I have in the past few years been on the journey of letting go and it does make me happy. In many ways there’s a sense of freedom of being more myself as I slowly give away the ‘stuff’ i’ve accumulated in hopes to be happier.

  15. In recent weeks I’ve been living through 4-Hour Work Week and applying the strategies in there. A lot of what you said makes sense to me. Finally optimizing time and mobility with maximum effectiveness and efficiency. Being a student, money is definitely minor. I’ve found ways to work around it this summer.

    Great post! — Benny

    • Thanks! I read 4hr work week, and my one critique is that there is no concept od the importance of meaning in those 4 hours. Someone once said that if you want to be happy you should dedicate your life to something bigger than you are. I find that whether I’m working 4 hours or 40, it is more enjoyable if j know that I am not just working to improve my life, but rather to make a broader positive change.

  16. Pingback: Finding Happiness, or let happiness finds you. | williskoo·

  17. Fantastic article,
    I have actually been incorporating more and more of this into my everyday life. Were my true issue lies is with my children. IF anything brings me stress in my life, it is my children. I stress about doing a good job providing for my family. Once again, great article.

  18. A few years back we saw an interview with the King of Bhutan on 60 minutes. We were so charmed by this idea of gross national happiness. We later moved to Germany and have been pleasantly surprised by its slower pace of life, the value of shops not being open on Sundays and holidays, and the general love of sport and the outdoors. I’m sure that if I was the director of sales for Mercedes I would not be saying this, I am a teacher. But whenever we think of moving my husband always says…”Can’t you find an International School in Bhutan somewhere?”

    • There are schools here and we know quite a few people teaching at both elementary school and university levels. If you ally are interested, I can put you in touch…

  19. Time for me to move to Bhutan. I hadn’t heard that people are supposed to be happier there, honestly. But the emphasis on mindfulness and the fact the money is of minor importance makes sense. Great post.

    • Thank you. One of the questions often posed is whether the happiness will stay as Bhutan develops.

      People will acquire more stuff (see my post on conscious consumption), they will get busier, they will become less active. In contrast, they will be more literate, have longer life expectancies and live more comfortably. Where will the balance lie?

      • That’s a good question. I think it’s something we all seek in every part of our lives—or at least should be. I’ll have to take a look at your post on conscious consumption. I really like that idea. Thanks for your reply. 🙂

        Best regards.

  20. Letting go of one’s emotional baggage is just as important as the physical stuff we tend to acquire–such as perceived failures, regrets, anger, dissappointments, rejection. Emotional scarring is just as debilitiating in the act of finding our own brand of happiness as the physical that people like to focus on so much. I’d say letting go of the emotional aspect and allowing yourself to heal from it would be the true first step in achieving the state of one’s own happiness–Just a thought. Still a good post that brought up several very good points to me. ~k~

    • Thank you for your comment! I guess for me the change was physical more than emotional. If anything my emotional situation improved because I am now living in the same place as Antonia after 3 years in different countries.

      I agree with the weight of the emotional and it’s importance to personal happiness. I think that most of that 40% is the emotional, and maybe even the attachments we have to material goods are emotional?

  21. Great read, would love to check out Bhutan one day. I also like the quote “Happiness equals Reality minus Expectations.”

  22. I bet they have a totally different culture regarding the treatment of the house cat or maybe street cats there. Are cats living a free liberated life in Bhutam?
    While your there read the Quran – if your allowed 🙂

    • People do have cats, though far fewer than dogs, as cats don’t generally protect your home from imaginary burglars. Not sure about the Qoran here, but I should be able to get it on my Kindle!

  23. Absolutely inspirational, with a thought provoking end. I have never thought to challenge “happier”, as it’s a given in the world we live in to work to better your situation. But honestly, happy should be enough.

    Your journey sounds fantastic, thanks for giving me a new line of thought.

  24. thanks for sharing this! i am currently on my own journey of finding my happiness also. i can’t afford to work less than 40 hours lol, but i am working to find that balance so that i work to live and not live to work like i have been for years now. i just blogged about all this last night so it’s awesome coming across this to help encourage me. its also interesting for you to point out “less is more.” i was just thinking i need to do less of certain things and more of others, again in that search of balance. i agree with the sentiment that happiness is what you allow it to be, whenever, wherever you happen to be.

  25. Pingback: Posts I Like: Finding Happiness | somethingboutrenes·

  26. I completely understand what you are saying and couldn’t agree more. When I had to retire from teaching due to a surgical disablilty, it left me a lot of time to reflect on my type “A” lifestyle. I may have lost my income and my lifestyle (skiing, dancing, volleyball etc, etc,) but I gained time to reflect on what is really important!. I am a happy person who has now found ways to help others. There is no greater joy, I find, then making someone smile. If you slow down your life and spend time talking with people, one on one, you reconnect and find that most people can enjoy the simple pleasures like laughing and helping others.

  27. it’s a country that is in my wish bucket!! I’ve been already to Nepal to trek the Annapurna route and fell in love with those most amazing mountains and heights and not to mention the colors and the beautiful people!

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