From The Straits Times    |

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We’re at the tail end of 2018 and that means it’s time to reflect on what we’ve done this year, and how we’d like to improve for the new year. Some new year resolutions vary from losing a few kilos to getting rid of certain bad habits. But have you contemplated on your emotional and mental well-being?

We’ve spent most of our time in the competitive rat race, but really, how happy are we? Having lived in Bhutan for a few months now, I’ve come to realise that happiness isn’t about material gain and comfort.  

So what can we learn from Bhutan and its people on finding true happiness (which we can hopefully apply in the new year)? What about other countries that have their own take on pursuing happiness? Here are some tips from some of the happiest people and countries. To a better year ahead!


Bhutan — where happiness is measured

Photo: Karen Lim

This Himalayan kingdom famously invented Gross National Happiness, an index that measures the progress of the country based on the contentment and happiness of its people, instead of measuring the wealth and economic growth of the nation. 

When you ask a Bhutanese if they’re happy, they’ll most likely tell you “yes”. So if Bhutan is the “Land of Happiness”, then why is it ranked the 97th happiest country in the world, according to the UN World Happiness Report?

This is because the Western world has devised a way to measure “happiness” using objective indicators such as a country’s per capita Gross Domestic Product, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption. However, in Bhutan, happiness is not measured with the above indicators.

Instead, it is measured using these four pillars: Environmental conservation, cultural preservation, good governance, and sustainable and equitable socio-economic development. This is vastly different from indicators used in UN’s Happiness report.

People in Bhutan are contented with whatever little they have. Why? Because they believe that there are other things that are more important than wealth.

These include being in touch with nature, embracing change and accepting the inevitable, being religious or spiritually aware, and serving your King and country. The Buddhist culture that’s prevalent in Bhutan also plays a major part.

People here on the whole are content, peace-loving and non-violent. Letting go of the notion that wealth equates to happiness has allowed the Bhutanese to be one of the happiest and most carefree people in the world.

Perhaps it’s also time to check-in with yourself and the material wealth you’ve accumulated — how much is enough and are you willing to live a more humble life with less money or things? After living here, I’ve come to realise that one does not need a lot to get by and that one can also be contented with very little.

Being in Bhutan has allowed me to understand how leading a simple and uncomplicated life can lead to happiness.


Japan — where happiness is an art form

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You may or may not have heard of a Japanese term called “wabi-sabi”, a belief that is rooted in Zen Buddhism where it is often described as appreciating beauty in imperfection. It is difficult to define wabi-sabi in its entirety but the broad concept of the Japanese philosophy is an acceptance of impermanence and shortcomings.

Wabi-sabi plays a large part in Japanese art and aesthetics, in which it refers to the beauty and elegance of rustic, natural simplicity and imperfection in both natural and man-made objects.

Think worn furniture, weathered wood, tarnished metal and chipped ceramic. But how does this apply to everyday life and what has it got to do with happiness?

Understanding the wabi-sabi philosophy allows us to embrace the imperfect world as it is and to acknowledge that while it is indeed flawed, there is a certain charm to failings as well.

Wabi-sabi isn’t about settling for less; it is about finding that balance in life and also contentment. When we can do that, we learn to accept our faults, understand that we cannot control change and learn to live and let go. 

Being aware that everything isn’t always ideal and that there is beauty in everything — that’s when we can then find happiness in our lives.


Denmark — where happiness is “hygge”

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Denmark has frequently dominated the World Happiness rankings for seven consecutive years and is constantly ranked among the top three countries that are the happiest in the world.

While certain factors such as a stable government, low level of corruption and high-quality healthcare and education all contribute to Denmark as a leading country in world happiness, there’s also an important cultural construct that belies their happiness, and it’s called “hygge” (pronounced as hue-guh).

The Oxford dictionary defines hygge as: “A quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being”.

Hygge is used to describe that sense of wellness and comfort that you’re feeling at the moment. It’s also used to describe quality social interactions. Think events, dinner gatherings with friends, or a quiet evening spent playing cards or board games with the family.

You know you’ve had a “hyggeligt”  time when you leave feeling warm and fuzzy, and swear to do it again sometime soon.

In order to experience hygge, you’ll have to consciously be in the present and to find delight in the simple things in life that can be hyggeligt — such as enjoying a cup of tea with your favourite book or stopping at the flower shop.

Hygge is very much integrated into the Danish psyche and culture. Amazon has over 900 books about hygge and Instagram has over 3.8 million posts with the hashtag #hygge. This Scandinavian way of living is especially relevant for those who live in fast-paced, developed cities.

Hygge is a good reminder for us to slow down and learn to appreciate the little things in life that makes one warm, fuzzy and happy.


China — where happiness means being altruistic

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The Confucian way of being and living makes up the psyche of many people of Chinese descent. Family, your relationship with society, and an inner development towards being altruistic are among the main tenets on how to lead a good and fulfilling life.

Among the teachings from the ancient Chinese philosopher is “ren”, which is often described as benevolence, perfect virtue, goodness and being humane. Confucius sees human love and interaction as the essence of being human. This also means to develop oneself to be more altruistic.

Being concerned about the well-being of others translates to a harmonious society. Being a part of society, such as having a job or being a member of a society or organisation makes one generally happier.

Altruism is also one of the characteristics that fall within filial piety, a cornerstone and pillar for many Chinese and Asian cultures. Being filial is seen as the foundation to peace in society and happiness within families. Lack of filial piety is seen as a “decay” of human nature.

Besides the philosophies of “ren” and filial piety, Confucius also prescribes other teachings on how to be happy — which in today’s world seems obvious — and that is to lead a healthy life, to have devotion to your occupation, and to continue learning. Ideals we can all take a leaf from.


India — where happiness is knowledge

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It goes without saying that India is a land of rich philosophical heritage where a number of the world’s oldest religions originated from. Many saints, gurus, yogis and philosophers have pondered about the meaning of life and happiness for thousands of years, leading to the development of a wealth of spiritual beliefs and religions.

Needless to say, the people in India have a different standard as to what happiness is. The Upanishads, one of the most influential collection of philosophical and religious texts upon which Hinduism is based on, states that happiness is brought about by the knowledge of the infinite. 

This recognition of self-awareness and knowledge is called “moksha”.

It says: “Truth is subject to science, science is subject to study, study is dependent on respect, respect depends on concentration, which, in turn, depends on happiness. And happiness is brought about by the knowledge of the infinite.”

What the Upanishads teach us is that once you are one with your Self, you no longer need to project your well-being onto objects or experiences. If you are at harmony or peace with your true Self, you no longer need external stimulation or material gain to experience bliss.

While this sounds hard, one can begin the journey by looking inwards and being more self-aware. Observe, reflect, breathe and repeat. You are “The One” for yourself.