Bhutan’s Dark Philosophical Secret To Happiness

Image by Suket Dedhia from Pixabay

How the Bhutanese use death to feel alive.

Imagine you’re walking along a trail with a bunch of people. Some of them are close friends and family, a few acquaintances, and others unknown. Yet all of you walk along the same trail.

Out of nowhere, you stumble into a person walking beside you. “Can’t you walk straight?! I am walking here too.” To give him a piece of his own medicine, you exchange not-so-polite comments.

Then your brother tells you — “Why are you getting so angry? Let it go. We’re all about to fall off anyway.”

“What? Fall off? From where?” you ask in bewilderment.

“Don’t you know? There’s a cliff ahead in 500 yards. And we’re all walking toward it. We can’t avoid the cliff. Do you really want to spend these last few moments in anger?”

You look at him, stupefied because it all makes sense. Both of you then decide to take a different course full of nature’s scenic beauty and bless everyone that crosses your path.

When the trail ends and the cliff approaches, you both fall off — not with regret but with contentment.

The Happiest Country

The story above may be imaginary, but the facts remain. We’re all walking along the trail of life, waiting to fall off the cliff, that is death. We can’t avoid it — some fall off sooner, others later. But everyone does fall off.

The only question is, do you want to accept that there’s a cliff, or do you want to deny it? Bhutanese people choose the former every day — five times a day.

Bhutan has made thinking about death a part of its national curriculum. Death, unlike most cultures, is a part of everyday life. These anecdotes show how they accept the inevitability of death with open arms:

  • Ashes of the dead are mixed with clay and molded into small pyramids, calls ‘tsa tsas’, and placed along roadsides, public squares, and parks. This ensures everyone sees them.
  • Art in Bhutan often centers around death — paintings of vultures picking the flesh from corpses, and dances that reenact dying.
  • Surprisingly, funerals are a 21-day event where the dead body “lives” in the house before being slowly cremated over fragrant juniper trees in front of hundreds of friends and relatives.

And doing all this is not bumming the Bhutanese people out. In fact, it’s made them the happiest country in the world.

Thinking about death, an act seemingly morbid is actually freeing. Studies suggest that “death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts.”

Linda Leaming, author of A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan About Living, Loving and Waking Up also understands this, “I realized thinking about death doesn’t depress me. It makes me seize the moment and see things I might not ordinarily see,” she wrote. “My best advice: go there. Think the unthinkable, the thing that scares you to think about several times a day.”

A probable reason for death being a part of Bhutanese culture is that death is so often around them. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me — death is around everyone, it’s our fear of it that keeps us ignorant.

This culture of contemplating death likely stems from the deep-rooted Buddhist beliefs of accepting life’s impermanence and reincarnation. If we realize our true nature of being a soul and not only this body, we can be much less fearful of death.

That said, you definitely don’t need to believe in reincarnation to benefit from the practice.

The Rest of the World

We asked ourselves a question above — “Do you want to accept that there’s a cliff, or do you want to deny it?” Most people in the world choose the latter.

We run away from uncomfortable emotions, such as the sadness one experiences on thinking of death. We want to get over it, fix it, medicate it but not feel it. This denial is the root cause of our fear and suffering.

“You Americans are usually ignorant,” said Khenpo Phuntsho Tashi, one of Bhutan’s leading Buddhist thinkers to Michael Easter, the author of The Comfort Crisis. The Khenpo has devoted much time to the study of death and experiences around dying.

To Michael, that must’ve sounded like an insult but by ‘ignorance’ Khenpo simply means lack of awareness (or Avidya, in Sanskrit). “Most Americans are unaware of how good you have it, and so many of you are miserable and chasing the wrong things,” Khenpo continues.

Then he went on to rant about how Americans (which means most people in the world), are caught in a hedonistic treadmill. To gain all the riches we aspire for, we’re driven far from the things that give us happiness.

More importantly, it leaves no time to confront real issues in life. We fill our lives with work and other distractions to avoid thinking about uncomfortable matters like death. This is aptly reflected in the modern hustle and grind mentality.

Yet, it’s completely natural for us to feel that. Even the Bhutanese are not free of ignorance, attachment, and anger. But Khenpo goes on to add that they’re certainly better off — “This is because we apply what we call mindfulness of the body. We remember that everyone is dying right now.”

He says, “Everyone will die. You are not singled out. Do you know this? To not think of death and not prepare for it … this is the root of ignorance.”

When we think of death, our “important engagements” become irrelevant, even if for a moment. And our mind begins to find what really makes us happy.

You see this in every person who’s dying. They’re certainly not thinking about getting famous, working more, or having a better car. Research from Australia found that the top regrets of the dying include not living in the moment, working too often, and living a life the person thinks they should rather than one they truly want to.

When we remember death in our daily lives, we become happier, compassionate, grateful, and kind. We improve our relationships and realize what truly matters. A study in Psychological Science discovered that people who thought about their death were more likely to show concern for people around them. They did things like donating time, money, and even their blood to blood banks.

Death is an integral part of the Bhutanese culture. We too can make our lives happier and full of compassion by following the same practice.

How? Let’s see.

I use an app called WeCroak, to remind me of death, five times a day. It notifies you randomly, five times a day with a quote that you can meditate on for a few minutes. Once you’ve done that, you can continue doing what you want with an enhanced awareness of your own mortality.

I’ve also heard tales of ancient monastics who kept a skull at their table and meditated in graveyards to affirm life’s impermanence. Stoic leaders, ancient and modern, had different ornaments like rings, paintings, and pendants to keep death at the forefront of their minds. I was also astonished to find Death Salons where people gather to contemplate their shared mortality.

There are a hundred different ways to do it. Pick one and go with it. How you do it doesn’t matter, as long as you do it consistently. This is how you prepare for a good life and a peaceful death.

And just in case you think you’re too young or too healthy to die, remember that death can come at any point in time to anyone. Chrysippus, the famous Stoic, died because he laughed too hard at a donkey eating figs in his front yard.

We need to prepare for it. And we need to start now. While we may not be able to make our country the happiest one, we can certainly start with ourselves and our close ones.

If each of us can do that, the world will become a happier place to be in.

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Written on June 8, 2021