UPDATE OCTOBER 2016: It turns out all tourism in Bhutan is controlled through the government, and they charge a flat fee of $200/day to visit, which is double my travel budget. As a result, if you'd like to support my research mission, I would be incredibly grateful if you donated to help me pay for this trip. Help me pay for my research trip to Bhutan! Paypal or Venmo firstname.lastname@example.org.
You might have read the BBC News article, Bhutan's Dark Secret to Happiness, in which the author discusses the Bhutanese custom to think about death five times a day. The article was of course fascinating, but for me, also gratifying: to learn that an entire culture uses death as a tool to appreciate life was another notch in my theory-proving belt.
So I guess I'm going to Bhutan.
Look, my main goal isn't to get people to think about death. My mission is to empower people to take control of their life, shed fear and inhibitions, gain clarity on what is important to themselves, and develop an incredible zest for life. Whether that happens through the awareness of life's fragility or through some other means, I don't care. But I do believe that having a healthy awareness of one's mortality is a valuable tool to find that clarity and appreciate life.
Back to the Bhutanese. I'm still researching about their 'think about death five times a day' custom - where it came from, what it's rooted in, what they get from it - but my understanding is that awareness of death is deeply rooted in their culture. I can get down on some solid research in the library - which I will - but why not just go there? This guy in the article confessed to a Bhutanese man while he was there about the panic attacks he'd been suffering. His advice was simple:
“You need to think about death for five minutes every day,” Ura replied. “It will cure you. It is this thing, this fear of death, this fear of dying before we have accomplished what we want or seen our children grow. This is what is troubling you.”
Fear is paralyzing. Yeah, yeah: flight or fight, I know. But in my experience, fear and uncertainty give me decision paralysis. I don't know what to do, so I do nothing, and let my life happen to me. Well, death is certain. We all have that in common. So I believe that if some of the fear around death is alleviated, we're more likely to take control of our lives and appreciate being in it.
This custom of thinking of death isn't the only reason I'm going to Bhutan. This is also a country that came to the table at the UN General Assembly with a proposal to add GNH - General National Happiness - as an country's measurement, in addition to GDP. And it passed. In July 2011, the UN General Assembly passed, without dissent, a Bhutanese-initiated resolution recognizing the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental human goal and noting that this goal is not reflected in GDP.
Bhutan has a Gross National Happiness Commission, chaired by the prime minister, which screens all new policy proposals put forward by government ministries. If a policy is found to be contrary to the goal of promoting gross national happiness, it is sent back to the ministry for reconsideration. Without the Commission's approval, it cannot go ahead (Singer, ABC News).
The country that thinks about death five times a day is also on a crusade to measure and improve happiness around the world. Unexpected? Not for me. But I'm going to find out more. See you soon, Bhutan.