Friday, March 27, 2015
'A Field Guide to Happiness' by Linda Leaming
In the West, we have everything we could possibly need or want—except for peace of mind.
So writes Linda Leaming, a harried American who traveled from Nashville, Tennessee, to the rugged Himalayan nation of Bhutan—sometimes called the happiest place on Earth—to teach English and unlearn her politicized and polarized, energetic and impatient way of life.
After losing her luggage immediately upon arrival, Leaming realized that she also had emotional baggage—a tendency toward inaction, a touch of self-absorption, and a hundred other trite, stupid, embarrassing, and inconsequential things—that needed to get lost as well.
I enjoy reading happiness literature, and this one has some special features coming from the author's direct experience. She lives in Bhutan most of the year, but returns to America often enough to notice sharp contrasts in general styles of living and attitudes. Maybe these cognitive cultural differences help explain why one group has a high happiness ranking and the other is much lower. It was a very convincing read.
Leaming explains how living in an ancient culture has shaped her to think differently from the way she was programmed growing up. In Bhutan, just getting food and water and keeping warm and dry is more challenging than in the western world, and a bigger source of satisfaction when she pulls it off. As her husband is a native of Bhutan, she has a lot of fun trying to view America through his fresh viewpoint. There are 22 chapters, each focusing on a different approach to happiness. I'll mention some which impacted me most.
1) Western thinkers have rigid expectations. Some of mine look a bit like this. 'It takes this long to get from A to B,' or 'My special brand of tea is always available from this shop,' or 'I'll just take ten minutes to phone Centrelink.' The Bhutanese know better than to think each day will run like clockwork. They consider hitches to be part of a normal day, which is probably closer to the way the world runs. (I realised how deep my expectation tendency runs soon after reading that chapter, when I caught myself praying, 'Please let today go smoothly' and realised it's actually one of my most frequent prayers.)
2) Smiling in the face of annoyance really is powerful. I've sometimes thought this advice comes across as trite and simplistic. This book has been most successful at convincing me that the opposite is true. We're taught to stick firm to our points of view and not allow ourselves to be walked over, but on many occasions, smiling and shrugging is simply the easiest way to get along. 'If you can embrace the absurdity that is all around us, you'll be so much happier and prettier,' she says.
3) Things generally always work out fine one way or another. Some cultures call it karma while others prefer to consider it God's orchestration. I've often made the mistake of behaving as if this isn't true, and that everything depends on me, getting myself anxious and worked up into a state.
4) We westerners try to cram far too much into our days, causing excessive pressure. Leaming says that in Bhutan, she considers it a busy week if she has three things to do, whereas in America, she usually has three things to do between breakfast and lunch. Our culture may have us believe that the person who crams most productivity into a day is the person who has lived the most. Yet what if the opposite is true? These are the sort of people who whiz through life so fast, they miss all sorts of great, unobtrusive wonders. Others who live at a slower pace, doing one thing at a time, are the ones who notice the wonderful details, and end up living the fuller life.
Thanks to NetGalley and Hay House for my review copy