by Bui Kim Trang, Investment Analyst, Mekong Capital
28 November 2019
For a long time, I’d prided myself on my healthy dose of skepticism. Having spent my adolescent years navigating a series of failed attempts to crystalize my identity and ambitions, I’d become less and less prone to feel excited about any far-fetched idea. Or to put it in the fancy language of the liberal arts education that I’d received, I learnt to become a critical thinker.
Last week my company went on a trip to Bhutan. I was that lucky “bastard”, as one colleague jokingly put it, who got to join the trip after just 3 weeks into my new job. I had to admit, the aspect of a free five-day trip motivated me to say “yes” to the invitation more than the prospect of visiting this exotic Buddhist Kingdom in the Himalayas. I had heard about Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH), the country’s unique philosophy, before but never really took time to look into it. I even have a good friend from college who is from Bhutan, but every time we met, we talked about boys and parties rather than, well, happiness. “How can you ever measure happiness of an entire nation? It just sounds like some ludicrous government propaganda to me”, I brushed it off.
Two days before the trip, I googled “How HAPPY are Bhutanese?”, capitalizing “happy” as if Google would be able to detect my sarcasm. The next day I found myself groaning internally about the early flight to Bhutan. When we set foot on Paro, though, I felt instantly intrigued by the serenity of the monasteries and the colorful prayer flags amidst the lush landscape. Regardless, I still carried with me a small mission: to prove that it would be impossible to measure happiness. And so, whenever getting a chance to interact with the local tour guides, besides asking questions about the local traditions and trivia, I always made sure to slip in a few questions regarding their realthoughts on monarchies and GNH. “Who gets to challenge the King? Are you guys truly happy with a monarchy? Isn’t it a bit naïve to think you can measure the whole nation’s state of happiness?”, I bombarded them with such inquiries, waiting for a “gotcha” moment…
When we were on the Bumdrak trek, halfway to our basecamp, I caught glimpse of a group of tall poles with white prayer flags. Those flags were hoisted for the death, and each of them carried a mantra or prayer. The vertical flags stood close to each other and looked over the small valley below, creating a shield of divinity and making for a serene yet impressive sight. I observed these flags for a good 10 minutes and wondered what those Bhutanese had possibly prayed for in their afterlife. When the wind blew by, the flags fluttered, spreading their sacred messages to the deity. A wave of peace and carefreeness swept over me.
You’re probably wondering where was my “gotcha” moment. In fact, I never had one.
“Happiness is a slippery state of mind. You can’t expect everyone to be happy all the time, so GNH is more about knowing where our priorities should be”,
one of the tour guides gently explained to me before going on to profess his loyalty to the King. His answer stunned me, and got me thinking long and hard. “Who was I to judge other people’s state of happiness through my own filtered perspectives?” Ambitious, yes, but in today’s highly polarized political and social world, GNH seems like a philosophy worth trying. At the very least, Bhutan is doing something.
I would like to rewrite my introduction. For a long time, I’d been used to looking at life through my filtered perspective and rigid belief system. For a long time, I’d been preoccupied with concerns and skepticism before any action I took. Bhutan has, to some extent, turned my old way of seeing life on its head. This time, with five little words: Happiness is just do it.
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