We love stories from baby boomers who strike out on new adventures in new places. And this one, from retired special ed teacher Lauren Rombach of Littleton, Colorado, might take the cake. Not only because of where she and her husband went. But because of what they found when they got there.

Initially, I was not sure what drew me to Bhutan. I had heard of the king’s noble philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). According to H.E. Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley, Bhutan’s former prime minister, the Gross National Happiness is based on the belief that “happiness is the ultimate desire of every individual, and by extension, the responsibility of the state is to create the necessary conditions that enable citizens to lead the good life.”

Lauren Rombach in Bhutan.

I had also been to my 40th high school reunion and heard about Global Dental Relief’s dental clinic in Kathmandu, the capital of Bhutan’s neighbor Nepal. Out of genuine curiosity and the desire to find a purposeful travel experience, my husband and I signed up for the dental clinic and a trek in the Himalayas. The tiny, traditional Buddhist country of Bhutan cultivating a positive mental state intrigued me. This dream of going there would come true in an unexpected and enlightening way at the end of our trip to Nepal.

Upon arrival in Bhutan’s valley town of Paro, I was immediately struck by two things: the peace and serenity in the tiny airport, and the Buddhist Mandala on the ceiling — a geometric composition wherein deities are believed to reside — representing impermanence. I’ve been to airports all over the world and this was quite different.

But I was still questioning what I was doing in Bhutan. The royalties charged to western tourists are quite high and I missed the close-knit group we had at the dental clinic and on our trek in Nepal. We were met by our guide and driver and off we went. Our young personable guide, who was around my own children’s ages, immediately asked me what brought me to Bhutan. I said that I had a desire to learn more about GNH, as well as Buddhism, but I felt like there was something else too.

Our drive out of the airport and into the countryside was stunning, with ornately painted traditional windows on the houses, monasteries perched on steep slopes, cows meandering wherever they please, and a valley full of serenity. Our hotel was located high on a hill with a spectacular view of the valley. I could hear a river that was at least a half mile away. There was a different energy in this place.

The capital, Thimphu, is a quaint city with no significant sign of development and only a police guard gracefully choreographing the traffic going by the main roundabout. It is the only capital city in the world with no traffic lights. Honking is not allowed, to avoid noise pollution.

I learned quickly that in the West we expect things to happen quickly. In Bhutan, the days just seem longer. The Bhutanese have beautiful voices and very good listening skills. I found myself speaking less and more softly. Our guide, Xonam, sang chants as we took our many hikes through the forests to different monasteries.

At the heart of Bhutanese culture is compassion and happiness. Steeped in the tradition of Buddhism, happiness is based on the concern for the happiness of all. What I learned was, what characterizes GNH is the willingness to take action to restore the well-being of those who need it the most.

No other country in the world surveys its citizens regarding their happiness. Gross National Happiness is uniquely Bhutanese. A solid grounding in compassion is the first step. I now know why I needed to go to Bhutan.


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