LINDA LEAMING is a writer whose work has appeared in Psychologies, Mandala, The Guardian, A Woman's Asia (Travelers' Tales) and many other publications. Eric Weiner included her in his bestseller The Geography of Bliss. Originally from Nashville, she has an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona; and she regularly speaks about Bhutan at colleges, churches, seminars and book groups. She is married to the renowned Bhutanese thangka painter Phurba Namgay.
When I was a kid, I played a board game, Careers, which I never won. And I played a lot. In it, players have to set their own goals for winning by allocating a certain number of points, 60 in all, to a combination of fame, money, or happiness. Most people divide the points evenly and give 20 points to each. Every time I played I put all my points, all 60 of them, on happiness. I didn't care about fame or money. I stubbornly refused to do otherwise, even when my friend's older brother explained that this made it statistically a lot harder to win. It didn't bother me that it was hard—nearly impossible. It's always been about happiness for me. I was a sensitive, possibly moody child: determined, some might say inflexible. Eventually I figured out putting all your points on happiness is a terrible strategy for winning a board game, but it turns out to be a pretty interesting strategy for life.
While my peers in college went for MBAs, I got a degree in philosophy and then in the early '80s an MFA in writing because they made me happy. In the mid '90s, I traveled across Europe and Asia, and eventually made my way to Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist country in the Himalayas, known to be a very beautiful and a very happy place. I came to Bhutan for no particular reason. I'd met some Bhutanese in New York and we'd become friends. I liked them and wanted to see their country. Bhutan didn't even show up on some maps, and my Bhutanese friends were real jokers, so there was an ever-so-slight possibility that I was going somewhere that didn't even exist.
I got myself back to Bhutan several times, and I told everyone who would listen I wanted to live here. It was really hard to pull off at the time. It still is. It's far away, expensive, and like no place I've ever known. I wasn't entirely sure why I was willing to leave everyone and everything I'd ever known and loved. But I'd had that precedent with the board game, and I'd been known to quit jobs and relationships, dismantle appliances and leave the room, burn bridges, fling skewers of shish kebab, roll over, and jump through flaming hoops, all in the quest to be happy. For me, it was the thrill of adventure and the happiness I felt when I was here that brought me to live in Bhutan. I knew Bhutan would make me a better person.
I didn't know how long I would stay in Bhutan. But I knew my time here would be life altering. All I had to do to realize this was fly into the country; that in itself is life altering. The Himalayas—the tallest mountains in the world—and dense jungles make a natural fortress around its perimeter, and to fly in on the nation's carrier, Drukair, is an incredible adventure and an exercise in extreme trust. Only a handful of pilots in the world have the incredible skill and guts it takes to fly here.
High up in the air, as the plane makes the approach into Paro, the runway looks like a little matchbox sitting in a field, which is sitting in a forest clearing in the middle of the most imposing mountains in the world. You are flying through a little valley with pointy mountains on all sides, and out the window you see slices of green platform fields terraced into the mountains for rice, and quaint white farmhouses that look like they're from a movie set for a little alternative Narnia-esque world. You half expect to see unicorns or dragons in the bright blue skies. You can often see rainbows. Farmers stop their work in the fields, look up, wave, and smile. You are close enough to see their teeth sparkling in the Himalayan sun.
Before the plane lands on the tiny runway, it makes a big jolt to the left to avoid a hillock with a small house on it that's next to the airport. Then the aircraft dives down very quickly toward the ground and comes to a mercifully quick stop. The flight into Bhutan gives the impression that inches, not feet, are what count. The same could be said for the journey to happiness.
Once I visited Bhutan, I couldn't wait to get back. It feels like heaven on earth. I hardly notice the hardships of living in a developing country because the people are charming and funny, and it is truly the most beautiful, unspoiled place I've ever been. And there was something else, something intangible that drew me in. Once I had a taste of it, I realized I couldn't live without it. It filled me with a sense of well-being. I liked myself in Bhutan. And because of that, I could be nicer to myself and those around me. Being kind is practically a law here because there are fewer obstacles to happiness. Life is still simpler. The country has never been colonized, and that gives the people an independent streak, a clear identity, and an optimism. They take care of each other. They laugh and enjoy life—and it's contagious. Waking up every day in Bhutan with an attitude of kindness makes so many wonderful things possible. It convinced me that kindness is the way to happiness.
Nonetheless, Bhutan isn't a place that slips easily into categories or stereotypes. It's full of surprises, conundrums, and contradictions. It is a frustrating place, a holy place, a changing place, and a hideously profane place. It smells like wood smoke, dung, clean mountain air, chilies, and incense. And if you're willing to slip out of your shibboleths and hard-held prejudices, Bhutan just might teach you some enlightening things.
I moved to Bhutan in 1997, fell in love, and married Phurba Namgay, a Bhutanese painter, three years later. In 2005, we brought a little girl, Kinlay, to live with us. It's been an incredible journey of change and adaptation: learning to live with less and more. For me, extreme measures seem to work. But don't try this at home. Or rather, try this at home. I've learned that you don't have to go to the ends of the earth to figure out how to be happy. Heck, you don't even need to leave the privacy and comfort of your own living room. It's not necessary for happiness. In fact, it might even be better to seek out happiness right where you are. I hardly left Bhutan for more than ten years, but for the past few years I've been dividing my time between Nashville and Thimphu, half a year here, half a year there. It is a heck of a commute, as far as you can go in either direction on the globe. But work, family, and life make it necessary. To keep my sanity and enjoy my life, I've put a lot of thought and energy into how to be the same person, live the same way wherever I am. There is such a big difference in the two places: how people go about their days, how people spend their time, what they think is important, how they work, play, and eat.
In the West, we have everything we could possibly need or want—except for peace of mind. We go to extravagant lengths to try to be happy. Living in Bhutan and then coming back to the U.S. has taught me that we can all learn to create a space within us where we are untouched, at our best, where we can be open to life and we can be, even in the darkest hours, calm and relatively happy. That can happen anywhere.
I've now lived in Bhutan for much of my adult life. My happiness comes because living in this ancient culture forces me to think differently—about time, work, money, nature, family, other people, life, death, tea, kindness, generosity, washing machines, waking up, and myself. Ironically, there's a lot of discomfort. But I'm happy, deeply and thoroughly. The thing is, Bhutan won't always be Bhutan. Change is inherent in all things. So when I leave I try to take these feelings and ideas I have in Bhutan with me. I call it "simulating Bhutan." Even while in Bhutan, Namgay and I have to "simulate Bhutan," because even in this quiet, relatively pristine place, we can still lose the thread.
Sometimes, we think we're happy when we feel we've achieved a sort of stability or success with our jobs, our bank accounts, our love life, and other relationships. Happiness is complicated, no doubt. It is a lifelong quest. A huge part of being happy, and the quest for it, actually knows you're happy, or rather knowing what makes you happy. It is deceptively simple. That's why it's so hard! That little children's song that starts out "If you're happy and you know it clap your hands," while ever so slightly cloying, is also prophetic. Happiness is harder than it looks because so many other things get in the way. So we have to simplify things, strip them down, gut the house, and then build it back up.
When I talk about happiness in this book I mean well-being. I think of happiness as being a state wherein we are "without want." Happiness is linked to kindness, compassion, having what you need, and being comfortable with yourself, but it's not necessarily linked to outward comfort. Here's what I think about happiness :
1. Everyone wants to be happy.
2. Happiness begins with intent.
3. Happiness doesn't just happen; it's a result of conscious action (and sometimes that "action" is to do nothing).
4. This action involves doing simple things wel.
In short, to be happy you need a skill set. Over the years I've developed one of my own, and I've found what works for me and what doesn't. I'm a storyteller, by the way. This collection of stories, insights, impressions, and suggestions highlights things that have pushed me in the direction of peace of mind, and contentedness. Think of them as a little nudge, a push, a leg up to the top of the metaphorical mountains into the rarefied air of paradise—of bright sunlight and beautiful views.
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