It’s not that I’ve been depressed. Not really. Overwhelmed, exhausted, and unrecognized are all probably more appropriate descriptions. My stress is brought on by concern for deadlines, slow progress toward professional goals, and the other kinds of work-related struggles that tend to weigh down those of us living in the ‘modern world.’

As humans, we’re unique in our ability to conceptualize the future, and while that can give us direction, it also encourages us to delay happiness until tomorrow. After all, if we work hard and achieve our goals, we think, we will be emotionally rewarded. If we fail to achieve our goals, in contrast, the world might end.

It seems an infallible logic: happiness is something that needs to be earned, so if we don’t have enough success, we won’t maintain it. The thing is that although we can imagine the future, we aren’t good at predicting our reactions accurately. As a result, we often sacrifice the present for a future that we anticipate wrongly. The problem is, we predict that big events will carry more emotional weight than they actually do. This bias occurs because we are blind to the daily annoyances that will blight our happiness in response to great success and to the daily rewards that dampen our sadness or anger when things go wrong.

Knowing this, I was curious to visit a place where living in the present, with a goal of ensuring human contentment, rather than absolute productivity was valued. So to give myself the (perhaps false) expectation of great happiness, before the semester began, I booked a trip to Bhutan.

Bhutan is a Himalayan kingdom with a distinct worldview. Environmental sustainability is at the forefront of national decisions. Concerns for health, cultural preservation, and education reflect the Bhutanese’s interest in well-being alongside productivity. It’s an ideology summed up by something referred to as Gross National Happiness – King Jigme Singye Wangchuck‘s guide to pursuing development with respect for the human condition. As wikipedia sums up, “it’s an attempt to define an indicator that measures quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms than only the economic indicator of gross domestic product.”

Visiting Bhutan takes a bit more planning than visiting other countries. In line with the ideals of maintaining cultural heritage and protecting the environment, the government regulates “high value, low volume” tourism. To apply for a visa, a visitor must book a tour with a licensed operator paying the minimum (high) daily tariff. There are no backpacker options, and you spend your time with a guide and driver (or trekking team). The payoff is the small number of tourists you run into at cultural sites or on trek, and the opportunity to spend quality time with locals.

Tiger's Nest Monastery

I was a bit worried when I arrived. I had flight delays into both Nepal and Bhutan, and the weather was dreary for my visit to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery – a spectacular temple complex built into the face of a rock cliff. As someone who loves photographing my experience, I was frustrated that my 3-month vision of sunlight and blue sky surrounding the site was marred by low clouds. The clouds were one of those small annoyances that had the power to reduce my expected joy. But I shouldn’t have worried. When the monastery finally emerged unscathed from the fog, I started jumping up and down like a giddy school child (or a cartoon monkey). I don’t know where it came from, but my joy was instant and uncontrollable. And I don’t think the smile left my face for the remainder of the trip. Even luckier, the weather soon changed to mirror my uplifted mood.

In truth, Bhutan isn’t really a magical place with bottle-able happiness. In fact, it’s facing the same growing pains experienced by all developing countries. As education improves, competition for jobs is on the rise. According to my 24 year-old tour guide, the government is particularly concerned with the position of its youth who find themselves facing an entirely different reality than the generation before. The generation behind will challenge them further, with even more global knowledge, English language competency, and experience with technology. But in contrast to other countries where youth without jobs are protesting against the government, the Bhutanese have a fierce loyalty to their 31-year-old ‘Dragon’ King, who took over after his father (1) voluntarily relinquished absolute power in favor of a constitutional monarchy and (2) “retired early” after a 32 year reign.

So if there is no magic in the air or water, and if Gross National Happiness isn’t contagious (or even universal within the country), how can I understand the tremendous joy I took in my visit? And what explains the fact that a friend told me she’d never seen me so happy after a trip? Perhaps my reaction may be best understood by the simple – yet these days neglected – fact that experiences make us happier than things. In other words, happiness isn’t something you can buy or bottle  – this is the midprediction we make that causes us to be anxious about the future. Instead it’s the simple experiences we have, even small moments, that bring joy.  Theoretically, my memories (and the photos that support them) should bring continued happiness when I need to escape my present reality in favor of a more mythical one. At least until I go back.