Citizens of one of the happiest countries on Earth are surprisingly comfortable contemplating a topic many prefer to avoid. Is that the key to joy?

By Eric Weiner 

8 April 2015

On a visit to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, I found myself sitting across from a man named Karma Ura, spilling my guts. Maybe it was the fact that he was named Karma, or the thin air, or the way travel melts my defences, but I decided to confess something very personal. Not that long before, seemingly out of the blue, I had experienced some disturbing symptoms: shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness in my hands and feet. At first, I feared I was having a heart attack, or going crazy. Maybe both. So I went to the doctor, who ran a series of tests and found…

“Nothing,” said Ura. Even before I could complete my sentence, he knew that my fears were unfounded. I was not dying, at least not as quickly as I feared. I was having a panic attack.

Thimphu, capital of Bhutan. (Credit: Thomas Halle/Getty)

What I wanted to know was: why now – my life was going uncharacteristically well – and what could I do about it?

“You need to think about death for five minutes every day,” Ura replied. “It will cure you.”

“How?” I said, dumbfounded.

“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.”

“But why would I want to think about something so depressing?”

“Rich people in the West, they have not touched dead bodies, fresh wounds, rotten things. This is a problem. This is the human condition. We have to be ready for the moment we cease to exist.”

Places, like people, have a way of surprising us, provided we are open to the possibility of surprise and not weighed down with preconceived notions. The Himalayan kingdom is best known for its innovative policy of Gross National Happiness; it’s a land where contentment supposedly reigns and sorrow is denied entry. Bhutan is indeed a special place (and Ura, director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies, a special person) but that specialness is more nuanced and, frankly, less sunny than the dreamy Shangri-La image we project onto it.

Actually, by suggesting I think about death once a day, Ura was going easy on me. In Bhutanese culture, one is expected to think about death five times a day. That would be remarkable for any nation, but especially for one so closely equated with happiness as Bhutan. Is this secretly a land of darkness and despair?

Not necessarily. Some recent research suggests that, by thinking about death so often, the Bhutanese may be on to something. In a 2007 study, University of Kentucky psychologists Nathan DeWall and Roy Baumesiter divided several dozen students into two groups. One group was told to think about a painful visit to the dentist while the other group was instructed to contemplate their own death. Both groups were then asked to complete stem words, such as “jo_”. The second group – the one that had been thinking about death – was far more likely to construct positive words, such as “joy”. This led the researchers to conclude that “death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts”.

None of this, I’m sure, would surprise Ura, or any other Bhutanese. They know that death is a part of life, whether we like it or not, and ignoring this essential truth comes with a heavy psychological cost.

Linda Leaming, author of the wonderful book A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan About Living, Loving and Waking Up¸ knows this too.“I realised 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 devotee before the Buddha Dordenma statue in Thimphu. (Credit: Prakesh Mathema/AFP/Getty

Unlike many of us in the West, the Bhutanese don’t sequester death. Death – and images of death – are everywhere, especially in Buddhist iconography where you’ll find colourful, gruesome illustrations. No one, not even children, is sheltered from these images, or from ritual dances re-enacting death.

Ritual provides a container for grief, and in Bhutan that container is large and communal. After someone dies, there’s a 49-day mourning period that involves elaborate, carefully orchestrated rituals. “It is better than any antidepressant,” Tshewang Dendup, a Bhutanese actor, told me. The Bhutanese might appear detached during this time. They are not. They are grieving through ritual.

Why such a different attitude toward death? One reason the Bhutanese think about death so often is that it is all around them. For a small nation, it offers many ways to die. You can meet your demise on the winding, treacherous roads. You can be mauled by a bear; eat poisonous mushrooms; or die of exposure.

Another explanation is the country’s deeply felt Buddhist beliefs, especially that of reincarnation. If you know you’ll get another shot at life, you’re less likely to fear the end of this particular one. As Buddhists say, you shouldn’t fear dying any more than you fear discarding old clothes.

Schoolgirls in traditional Bhutanese dresses. (Credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty) Which isn’t to say, of course, that the Bhutanese don’t experience fear, or sadness. Of course they do. But, as Leaming told me, they don’t flee from these emotions. “We in the West want to fix it if we’re sad,” she said. “We fear sadness. It’s something to get over, medicate. In Bhutan there’s an acceptance. It’s a part of life.”

Ura’s lesson, meanwhile, stuck with me. I make it a point to think about death once a day. Unless I find myself especially stressed, or engulfed in an unexplained funk. Then I think about it twice a day.

Eric Weiner is a recovering malcontent and philosophical traveler. He is the author of, among other books, The Geography of Bliss and the forthcoming The Geography of Genius. Follow him on Twitter.



作者:Eric Weiner





廷布,首都不丹。 (信用:Thomas Halle / Getty)

我想知道的是:为什么现在 - 我的生活是非常好的 - 我该怎么办?

“你每天都要考虑死亡五分钟,”乌拉回答。 “这会治好你”。






纪念Chorten修道院在廷布(信用:信用:Prakash Mathema /法新社/盖蒂)

纪念Chorten修道院在廷布。 (信用:Prakash Mathema / AFP / Getty)


不必要。最近的一些研究表明,经常考虑到死亡,不丹人可能会去做某事。在2007年的一项研究中,肯塔基大学心理学家Nathan DeWall和Roy Baumesiter将数十名学生分成两组。一组被告知要考虑对牙医进行痛苦的访问,而另一组被指示考虑自己的死亡。然后两组都要求完成词干,如“jo_”。第二组 - 一直在考虑死亡的人 - 更有可能构建积极的话,如“快乐”。这导致研究人员得出结论:“死亡是一个心理上威胁的事实,但是当人们考虑时,显然自动系统开始寻找快乐的想法”。


琳达·莱明(Linda Leaming),“幸福指南”(The Field Guide to Happiness):我不知道在不丹学到的关于生活,爱和醒来的作品Up¸也知道这一点。“我意识到对死亡的想法并不压制我。这让我抓住时机,看看我通常不会看到的东西,“她写道。 “我最好的建议:去那里认为不可想象的,每天都会让你想起几次的事情。“

在廷布佛陀Dordenma雕像之前的奉献者(信用:信用:Prakesh Mathema /法新社/盖蒂)

佛陀Dordenma雕像之前的奉献者在廷布。 (信用:Prakesh Mathema / AFP / Getty)


仪式提供了一个悲伤的容器,在不丹容器是大型和公共的。有人死后,有一个49天的哀悼时期,涉及精心策划的精心策划的仪式。 “比任何抗抑郁药好”,Tshewang Dendu

p,不丹的演员告诉我。不丹在这段时间可能会分离。他们不是。他们是通过仪式悲伤的。为什么对死亡有如此不同的态度?不丹不断思考死亡的原因之一是它在周围。对于一个小国而言,它提供了许多方式来死亡。你可以在蜿蜒,诡诈的道路上遇见你的死亡。你可以被一只熊伤害吃有毒蘑菇还是死于暴露。另一个解释是国家深深的佛教信仰,特别是轮回的信仰。如果你知道你会得到另一个生命的射击,你不太可能害怕这个特定的结束。正如佛教徒所说,你不应该害怕死亡,而不是害怕丢弃旧衣服。传统不丹服装的学童女士(信用:信用:Roberto Schmidt / AFP / Getty)传统不丹服装的女生。 (信用:Roberto Schmidt /法新社/ Getty)当然不是说不丹不经历恐惧或悲伤。他们当然是这样。但是,正如莱明告诉我的,他们并不逃避这些情绪。 “我们在西方想修复它,如果我们很伤心,”她说。 “我们害怕悲伤。这是要得到的,药物的。在不丹有接受。这是生活的一部分。“与此同时,Ura的教训与我同在。我想一想,每天想死一次。除非我发现自己特别强调,或者吞没在一个无法解释的乐趣中。然后我每天考虑两次。埃里克·维纳是一个复原的恶意内容和哲学旅行者。他是“幸福地理”以及即将到来的“天才地理”等书籍的作者。跟随他在Twitter上。