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Last time we talked about Bhutan, a small Himalayan country where happiness is so important that they measure and nurture it as carefully as we measure economic growth here. Today’s post will make more sense if you read that one first, so you can find it here. We’ll wait till you return.
Welcome back from Bhutan. Now consider another country, similar in size, with an almost obsessive fixation on death. BBC reporter Eric Weiner visited it last year and was advised to think about his own death for at least five minutes each day (residents of the nation are advised to perform this exercise five times every day). Colorful public murals graphically depict death in many forms, and ritual dances re-enact it. Rather than being shielded from death, children are exposed to it. Funerals last for 49 days and are filled with ceremonies and traditions, so in a bad year you could be part of overlapping 49-day funerals, meaning death would never be far from your thoughts. It all sounds pretty morbid and kind of depressing and a bit macabre (I love that word but I rarely get to to use it).
So which country is so seemingly obsessed with death, and what does this do to its people’s happiness? You have heard of this country. It’s a small Himalayan country where they measure and nurture happiness as carefully as we measure economic growth…..That’s right. This is also Bhutan, so as the Joker might ask, “Why so serious?” Why do the Bhutanese consider focusing on death such an important part of life? And what role does that play focus play in the happiest country on earth?
Karma Uhra (with a name like that he must be super cool) says that the West’s sanitized approach to death makes it a mystery to be feared. Severe illnesses are treated in hospitals or other facilities, so we are not reminded of them. The deceased are whisked away by professionals who make them look “not dead” before we say our final farewells. Cemeteries are avoided by all but the densest of characters in horror movies, who seem strangely drawn to these macabre settings. Children are shielded from images of death and dying (at least until they get an xBox), and Uhra argues that for this reason we tend to see death as something mysterious, and something to be avoided at all costs, which is probably why we spend so many of our healthcare dollars prolonging the final, least pleasant months of life. He says that by contemplating our own deaths we will learn to see death as simply one more part of life (a very Biblical perspective, by the way), rather than an impending disaster.
Linda Leaming was given the same advice while researching her own book on Bhutan. She found that embracing the inherent cycle of life (and its inescapable end) made her “seize the moment” to a degree she would not have otherwise. She said that thinking about something that scares you several times a day makes it far less scary.
So much for philosophy; what does science say? Actually it says the same thing, which is good I think. In a 2009 study, researchers found that subjects who were forced to think about death responded by unconsciously seeking out more positive thoughts after the experiment. In other words, time spent contemplating death led to a happier outlook on life.
Finally, all of this advice on contemplating your own end aligns with one of “the three pillars” of happiness that I have mentioned before: perspective. Happy people generally recognize that there is much more going on in the universe than just them, and an awareness of one’s own mortality supports that. Also, when we realize that we won’t be here forever, and the people around us won’t be either, we will probably treat them (and ourselves) better. Plus we will sweat the small things a lot less, and enjoy life a lot more, and hopefully feel less…..macabre (sorry, just had to do one more).
In 1990 the Voyager space probe turned around for one final look at Earth as it left our solar system. From 4 billion miles away it snapped our picture, our entire world seen as a minuscule pinpoint against the backdrop of the universe, inspiring astronomer Carl Sagan to pen these words:
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves….
There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
So we leave Bhutan, a tiny speck on that pale blue dot that we could learn a great deal from. Ultimately if you don’t even fear your own death, it seems like you don’t have much to worry about.
“Death where is your victory, grave where is your sting?”
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