When you travel, you see there are many different ways to live, and find happiness. So what do you need to be happy?
Many of us spend our lives trapped in the rat race, climbing the career ladder and shopping online. But how happy are we, really? I grew up in Singapore, but I’ve also lived in Bhutan. My expat experience started me thinking about what we can learn from Bhutan, and from other cultures that have their own unique takes on what it means to be happy.
I researched happiness tips from different countries, including some ranked as the happiest countries on earth. Here are takeaways you can bring into your own life, wherever you live.
Bhutan – measure your joy in a different way
This Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan famously invented “Gross National Happiness”, an index that measures the progress of the country based on the contentment of its people, versus the usual metrics of Gross Domestic Product, or how much wealth a country generates.
When I lived in Bhutan I often asked Bhutanese people if they were happy. They usually replied, “Yes”. So why is the “Land of Happiness” ranked the 97th happiest country in the world, according to the UN World Happiness Report?
It’s because the UN (and most countries in the world), measure “happiness” using indicators such as Gross Domestic Product, social support, life expectancy, social freedom, and absence of corruption.
They matter, of course. But in Bhutan, happiness is not just measured like this. Bhutanese also measure joy against four pillars: environmental conservation, cultural preservation, good governance and sustainable and equitable socio-economic development. This is a vastly different way of looking at prosperity.
People in Bhutan are content with what they have; they believe there are other things more important than MONEY.
People in Bhutan are firm believers that joy comes from being in touch with nature, embracing change while accepting the inevitable, being spiritually aware, and serving your country.
Letting go of the notion that wealth equals happiness allows Bhutanese to be among the most carefree people in the world. It’s a good reminder to check in with yourself. Ask yourself, how much is enough? Are you willing to live a more humble life, with less money or things?
After living in Bhutan, I’ve come to realise you do not need a lot of money to get by, or feel good. It taught me how leading an uncomplicated life can lead straight to joy.
Japan – accept imperfection to be happy
You may have heard of a Japanese term, “wabi-sabi”. This belief, rooted in Zen Buddhism, is often defined as appreciating beauty in simplicity and imperfection. It is difficult to define wabi-sabi in its entirety, but the broad concept is an acceptance of impermanence and the inevitable shortcomings of life.
Wabi-sabi plays a large part in Japanese art and aesthetics. You see it in the elegance of rustic, natural simplicity in natural and man-made objects — think worn furniture, weathered wood, tarnished metal and chipped ceramic. But how does this philosophy apply to everyday life? And what has it got to do with happiness?
Understanding wabi-sabi philosophy allows us to embrace the world as it is. To acknowledge that while it is flawed, it still has charm. Wabi-sabi isn’t about settling for less. It’s not about giving up; it is about finding balance and contentment.
When we do this, we learn to be kinder to ourselves, and to others. We understand we cannot control all change. We learn that sometimes, we need to live and let go. It’s easier to be happy when you accept that everything isn’t always ideal, and that’s more than okay.
Denmark – where happiness means “hygge”
Denmark has dominated the World Happiness rankings in recent years. It’s constantly ranked among the top three happiest countries in the world.
While economic factors like a stable government, low corruption and quality healthcare and education all contribute to Denmark’s bliss, there’s also an important cultural construct. 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 express a feeling of wellness and comfort. It’s also used to describe quality social interactions. For example, gatherings with friends, or a quiet evening with the family. You know you’ve had a “hyggeligt” time when you leave feeling warm and fuzzy, and you want to do it again, soon.
To experience hygge, you have to consciously be in the present and find delight in the simple things in life. It might be enjoying a cup of tea, or stopping by the local flower shop. Hygge is about making sure you stop to smell the roses, and really appreciate that moment.
Hygge is very much ingrained in Danish culture – Instagram has millions of posts with the hashtag #hygge. This Scandinavian way of living is especially relevant for anyone who lives in fast-paced cities. Hygge is a great reminder for us to slow down and appreciate life’s smallest pleasures.
China – a belief in connection to other people
Let’s forget the frantic consumerist shopping malls of Shanghai for a minute, and the Young Emperorors or spoiled rich kids who go on social media to flaunt their wealth. Let’s go back to the Confucian way of being, that still makes up the psyche of many people of Chinese descent.
The Chinese philosopher Confucius believed the keys to living a fullfilling – and happy life – are your relationships with your family, and having an altruistic attitude to society.
He saw altruism and connection as the essence of being human. You care for others, not just because it’s helps them, and leads to a more harmonious society, but because it will also make you happier.
When you think about it, being connected to other people, whether it’s by having a job or belonging to a social organisation, does generally makes you feel happier.
Concern for the well-being of others is also a driver for filial piety, a cornerstone belief for many Asian cultures. Respect for elders and ancestors is seen as the foundation of peace in society and happiness within families.
On top of this, Confucius encourages us to find happiness in day-to-day actions, such as leading a healthy life and continuing to learn. That’s something we can all aspire to.
India – where knowledge brings joy
India is a land of rich philosophical heritage. For thousands of years saints, gurus, yogis and philosophers have pondered the meaning of life and happiness. It’s led to some deep insights that are relevant for us all.
The Upanishads is an influential collection of philosophical texts, and a ccornerstone of Hinduism. The texts teach that happiness is brought about by knowledge of the infinite. 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.”
In other words, you don’t need to use objects or experiences as anchors for your emotions. Instead of fretting about the past and what you should have done differently, or focusing on the future, and what you’ll buy when you get there, focus on living better, right now.
When you are at harmony with yourself, you no longer need external stimulation or material gain to experience bliss. You can just sit on the side of the river, and watch the world go by.
This sounds hard for all of us who are just ordinary humans, not saints. But we can begin the journey by looking inwards and becoming more self-aware. Observe, reflect, breathe and repeat: You are “The One” for yourself. You are enough.
Originally by Karen Lim, Her World / Additional Reporting: Sandhya Mahadevan, December 2018 / Last updated by Derrick Tan, July 2021