​Bhutan's secret of happiness

By Barry Petersen and T. Sean Herbert

We're taking a journey this morning to an exotic land sometimes known as THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. But despite that nickname ... despite the fact that few people travel there ... it's a place that could hold an important key to human happiness, as Barry Petersen shows us in our Cover Story:

It's been called the Forbidden Kingdom, but it could be Shangri-La, hidden away for centuries amid the soaring majesty of the Himalayas.

Surrounded by powerful neighbors China and India, Bhutan has always gone its own way.

And does to this day. Its economy is still based on agriculture, and its constitution mandates that 60 percent of the land must be forest; the actual figure is 72 percent -- no over-development here.

So coming off the plane you breathe in some of the freshest air on the planet, as you drift into a past that is always present.

You'll encounter Buddhist monks, and landscapes strewn with prayer flags. By royal decree, even new buildings must be decorated with traditional carved wood and mythical creatures.

Our local hotel had an elevator, one of only about a dozen in the entire country. But technology did what invaders never could: come across the mountains. Cell phones are everywhere. Some wonder how they got along without them, like freelance journalist Tshering Choeki.

"I can't live without my cell phone today," Choeki said. "I make my appointments on my cell phones. I check my emails on my wi-phones. And sometimes when I'm in a hurry I even do articles on my cell phone."

A Bhutanese man on a cell phone. CBS News

So when we met American- and Oxford-educated Prince Dasho Jigyel, brother of the King, the topic was change.

When asked how change has affects his country -- its culture and the things he cherishes -- Prince Dasho replied, "It is both a plus and a minus, with globalization and us opening up our doors. We can't really swim against the tide.

"Back in the day we didn't have something called shoes. We didn't even have socks. So this is an evolution of it, sir."

Evolution that took centuries, from feuding warlords and serfdom to a monarchy founded in 1908, to democracy decreed by the king in 2008 ... just like that.

It all took a long time, and there is still no hurrying in Bhutan. Rush-hour weary Americans can marvel that in the largest city, Thimphu, (population: 100,000), a traffic jam is about a dozen cars

Roundabouts feature statutes of Buddhist goddesses, and the main intersection is controlled by a policeman who is a maestro of motorcars.

A roundabout in Thimphu, Bhutan. CBS News

Bhutan had one stoplight. But people thought it was too modern, so they took it down. And they also rejected those symbols of America's global reach, so there are no McDonalds or Burger Kings ... not even a Starbucks.

Karen Beardsley, a Fulbright professor teaching global mapping courses to students at the Royal Thimphu College, says Bhutan resists potentially losing its identity by inviting in American businesses: "I've been to other countries where those kinds of American shops are everywhere and it starts to feel like you're just in America.

"I think the cultural identity of Bhutan is very important, and I think they really want to maintain that. And I think by having those kinds of stores here would take away from that."

Petersen asked, "How does it compare living in Bhutan as an American, compared to what you had when you were teaching and living in the United States?"

"The concept of time is a little different here; it's a lot more relaxed," Beardsley replied. "I think in the U.S. we're always very uptight about time and very rushed about everything. I find life here very relaxing, peaceful. The people are wonderful."

Even without fast food, the incoming tide of technology is changing Bhutan, as we learned when we stopped at a local archery tournament. Archery is Bhutan's national sport; women dance to cheer their favorite team. But the younger generation is losing interest.

School teacher Sonam Dorgi's father taught him archery at age ten. He says today's children don't like to play the game.

"Does that mean that in Bhutan archery might go away?" Petersen asked.

"Maybe. We are so worried about that," Dorgi said.

This invasion of modern times was invited in. Television, with American reruns and Bollywood soap-operas, came in 1999, followed by the Internet and computer games that fascinate a 14-year-old Petersen met.

"Because I have a passion for it," he said.

Barry Petersen models a traditional Bhutanese Gho. CBS News

When asked if he has tried archery, the teenager laughed. "No, I didn't try."

Some things have not evolved, when British Royals William and Kate visited this past week, she dressed in a Kira, a blouse and skirt combination that is Bhutan's age-old style for women.

For men, the traditional wear is called a Gho -- a complicated belted robe. (As Petersen discovered putting it on is a two-person job.)

But to go to Bhutan? Not that easy. It limits international tourists. There were 57,000 last year -- just slightly more people than visit Disney World in just one day.

Of the lucky few who make it here, most head for a monastery high up a mountain.

Paro Taktsang (also known as the Tiger's Nest) is Bhutan's number one tourist attraction. And when they say the journey is half the fun, that's not the half of it for the journey to get here.

It is a trek up 3,000 feet of elevation -- first on what you dearly hope are sure-footed horses, and when it gets steeper, by your own sure feet.

The Tiger's Nest monastery in Bhutan. CBS News

And if you are very lucky, you might catch sight of a golden Langur monkey having a leafy munch for lunch. It's enough to make anyone happy.

We met Brendan Madden and Tatiana Gregorek -- two Americans on vacation from their jobs as teachers in Tokyo - and asked them about Bhutan's biggest attraction. In the 1970s Bhutan replaced the goal of gross national product with -- believe it or not -- gross national happiness.

Petersen asked, "In your time here you've heard about gross national happiness; what do we have to learn from that as Americans?"

"In America it seems like you're always pushing to have the better car or the better house," said Madden. "Here, it almost seems like they are happy with what they have."

"They seem to be less focused on the material aspect of things and more about enjoying life and the nature around them," said Gregorek.