Bhutan’s Taktsang Monastery, the “Tiger’s Lair”

While much of the world struggles to climb out of a recession in which gross national product (GNP) is of paramount concern, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan is more interested in a different measure of well-being: gross national happiness (GNH).

Nestled against the Himalayas between Nepal and India, the Buddhist nation of 700,000 uses this concept as its official measure of the collective welfare. And it’s not just a gimmick: the country has adopted a complex system of assessing its people’s happiness, which it believes is more important for the state to foster than GNP, the common economic indicator that measures the sum of all goods and services produced by a nation.

In 2011, the government of Bhutan’s Centre for Bhutan Studies revised and released an updated GNH index. Jigmi Thinley—Bhutan’s then prime minister—said pursuing GNH is a more holistic approach to making society more resilient, promoting happiness through deliberate public policy and action. There are four pillars to this strategy: economic growth and development, preservation and promotion of culture and heritage, preservation and sustainable use of environment, and good governance. Each year, the government surveys the people to see how well it is doing in pursuit of its goal of happy citizens; typically, fewer than 5 percent say they are unhappy, while more than half are “very happy.”

Are you curious about experiencing such a society? Bhutan’s serene way of life and magnificent natural beauty make it a magnet for the traveler seeking an unusual destination. While its ancient Buddhist culture is a draw—the country is replete with intricately built monasteries that date back centuries and a host of colorful festivals—its natural treasures are equally rich. Bhutan’s mountains, forests, clean water and clear air are certainly integral to the joy that its citizens relish in their everyday lives.

Ranging from subtropical lowlands in the south to subalpine Himalayan heights in the north, Bhutan holds varied and spectacular terrain. Its highest peaks rise above 23,000 feet, with deep valleys between them cut by swift, snow-fed rivers that rush to the Indian plains. These alpine valleys are used as pasture for livestock tended by itinerant shepherds.

Peaceful Bhutan

Peaceful Bhutan

Wildlife abounds in Bhutan, including Bengal tigers, one-horned rhinoceroses, golden langurs, clouded leopards and sloth bears in the lush tropical lowlands and hardwood forests of the south. Fruit-bearing trees and bamboo provide habitat for Himalayan black bears, red pandas, squirrels, sambars, wild pigs and barking deer. The alpine habitats of the great Himalayan range in the north are home to the snow leopards, blue sheep, marmots, Tibetan wolves, antelope and Himalayan musk deer