Longevity Lessons from the World’s Hap­pi­est Peo­ple

Au­thor Dan Buet­tner is back, shar­ing lessons learned from re­mark­able el­ders he has met in a trio of un­ex­pected Blue Zones

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Leanne De­lap

New se­crets from the Blue Zones

DAN BUET­TNER’S 30-year mis­sion in life has been to in­ter­view ex­tremely old peo­ple about how they got to be that way. He tapped an international su­per-team of aca­demics to crunch and in­ter­pret data points to iden­tify the world’s “longevity all-stars,” mean­ing cen­te­nar­i­ans who hail from places he calls Blue Zones, which are de­mo­graphic hot spots of long-liv­ing com­mu­ni­ties. Then he set about dis­till­ing the best prac­tices of th­ese out­liers into bul­let point-friendly ac­tion plans for North American au­di­ences and pol­icy mak­ers to repli­cate the hap­pi­est of con­di­tions.

His ear­li­est New York Times “Blue Zone” best­sellers (2008 on­ward) were about how to use the knowl­edge he has as­sem­bled to add a decade to your life­span and a health­ier one at that. His fourth book though, The Blue Zones of Hap­pi­ness, re­leased late last year, takes his work deeper into the qual­ity of our lives. He crunched a dif­fer­ent set of data to iden­tify the hap­pi­est places on earth. Then he grounded his mes­sage with nar­ra­tive, us­ing the sto­ries of real (though ex­cep­tional) peo­ple to il­lus­trate the fac­tors, at­ti­tudes and habits that sta­tis­ti­cally add up to over­all life sat­is­fac­tion.

“[This book] takes a clear-eyed look at what parts of the world de­liver hap­pi­ness,” says Buet­tner. Speak­ing in Davos, Switzer­land, at the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum’s an­nual meet­ing this past Jan­uary, Buet­tner con­densed his mes­sage to this: “To achieve hap­pi­ness, you need to en­sure you have a balanced port­fo­lio in terms of your daily emo­tions, pur­pose and life sat­is­fac­tion.”

Hap­pi­ness is the uni­ver­sal grail, a hot topic in our chal­leng­ing times. There are, Buet­tner points out, more than 24,187 hap­pi­ness ti­tles on Google. And Dan Buet­tner him­self is an un­likely self-help guru, for al­though he is a charm­ing speaker (his TED talk has three mil­lion-plus views) and he can hob­nob with Davos elites, he is more data wonk and field op­er­a­tive than mo­ti­va­tional cheer­leader. The 57-year-old Saint Paul, Minn., longevity ex­pert iden­ti­fies as an ex­plorer and sto­ry­teller first, then as ed­u­ca­tor, au­thor and pub­lic speaker.

But large-scale ad­ven­ture and am­bi­tious projects are re­cur­ring themes of his life and ca­reer. The Na­tional Geo­graphic Fel­low once dated su­per­model Ch­eryl Tiegs be­fore set­tling down with his cur­rent part­ner, noted Cal­i­for­nia ve­gan and con­scious-eat­ing au­thor Kathy Fre­ston. He be­gan his ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist, then with his brother, Steve, he em­barked on epic (and Guin­ness record-smash­ing) en­durance bike trips across Amer­ica, the Soviet Union and Africa while writ­ing books and mak­ing doc­u­men­taries about the ex­pe­ri­ences.

It was on as­sign­ment for Na­tional Geo­graphic mag­a­zinein2005(base­don­ear­lier­re­search­fundedal­sobythe Na­tional In­sti­tute of Ag­ing at Univer­sity of Min­nesota) that he iden­ti­fied ar­eas, which he dubbed Blue Zones, where peo­ple live un­usu­ally long (and, more im­por­tantly, healthy) lives. Th­ese in­cluded Sar­dinia, Ok­i­nawa and Loma Linda (in Cal­i­for­nia, this last among a com­mu­nity of Sev­enth Day Ad­ven­tists). Later work added notably aged com­mu­ni­ties in Mon­ter­rey, Nuevo Leon in Mex­ico, as well as the Ni­coya Penin­sula in Costa Rica and the is­land of Ikaria in Greece.

The hap­pi­ness re­search ze­roed in on a trio of new Blue Zones. He zoomed in again on fam­ily-fo­cused Costa Rica, as well as out­doorsy Den­mark, a land of so­cial safety net plenty and the sur­prise in­clu­sion of pros­per­ous Sin­ga­pore, prov­ing money can make (some) peo­ple happy. “This book is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of my pur­pose for 30 years as an ex­plorer,” says Buet­tner. “I go out and find things and bring back some­thing that mat­ters to oth­ers. At Na­tional Geo­graphic, we de­vel­oped an ex­per­tise in iden­ti­fy­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary pop­u­la­tions, then re­verse en­gi­neer­ing the lessons th­ese peo­ple can teach us.”

You can’t mea­sure hap­pi­ness, of course, but Buet­tner sure tried. He says he asked peo­ple about life sat­is­fac­tion, as well as more “dis­creet” ques­tions about how of­ten in a day one smiles, laughs or feels joy. Next comes sense of pur­pose, de­ter­mined by whether one learns some­thing new ev­ery day, or has used their strengths within the past week. (To take the Blue Zones of Hap­pi­ness quiz, go to apps.blue­zones.com/en/hap­pi­ness.)

FROM THERE, Buet­tner ad­vises do­ing “sta­tis­ti­cally driven things to op­ti­mize your en­vi­ron­ment so you’re more likely to be happy for the long term.” For in­stance, peo­ple who live near wa­ter are 10 per cent more likely to be happy. Medium-sized cities beat out large cities and small towns for hap­pi­ness-in­duc­ing en­vi­ron­ments. Side­walks and bike paths, fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity, af­ford­able health care, a plant-heavy diet, work you en­joy that fu­els a sense of pur­pose are all pro-happy fac­tors. And, per­haps most im­por­tantly, spend­ing up to six hours a day so­cial­iz­ing at work and play has been de­ter­mined as a crit­i­cal el­e­ment, along with a sup­port­ive com­mu­nity, to find­ing bliss. And, no, says Buet­tner, Face­book friends don’t count.

So what more, specif­i­cally, can we learn from Costa Rica, Den­mark and Sin­ga­pore? That long-term en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions are key. Buet­tner is not a fan of the North American quick-fix scheme. “Try­ing to change be­hav­iour to achieve health and hap­pi­ness is usu­ally a recipe for neu­ro­sis. No diet, pill, pop psy­chol­ogy lasts,” he says. “Af­ter six to nine months, you lose fo­cus and dis­ci­pline. Our brains are hard-wired for nov­elty. It’s our en­vi­ron­ment that shapes our lives for hap­pi­ness and health and liv­ing a long time. Our en­vi­ron­ment shapes our at­ti­tudes and daily habits.”

There are three main kinds of hap­pi­ness, he says. Costa Ri­cans, says Buet­tner, demon­strate “pos­i­tive af­fect.” The Cen­tral American coun­try is no­table in the re­gion be­cause it never de­vel­oped a class sys­tem where a pow­er­ful few owned most of the land. Thus the small farm­ers were free to elect politi­cians who placed ed­u­ca­tion, clean wa­ter and ac­ces­si­ble health care as top pri­or­i­ties. In Costa Ri­can so­ci­ety, the ex­tended fam­ily is the glue that holds things to­gether, a sense of se­cu­rity in well-be­ing that en­ables hap­pi­ness. Gen­eros­ity of spirit also flows from that nat­u­rally.

Den­mark, he says, rep­re­sents eu­dai­mo­nia, he says, a Greek con­cept that stems from Aris­to­tle, who spoke of liv­ing a life of mean­ing. “Dan­ish so­ci­ety, it seems, en­cour­ages the kind of bal­ance be­tween en­gag­ing work and re­ward­ing play that re­sults in a sense of time de­scribed as flow,” wrote Buet­tner in a Na­tional Geo­graphic ex­cerpt on the sub­ject. The Scan­di­na­vian hap­pi­ness hot spot is no­table be­cause the en­vi­ron­ment en­cour­ages ac­tiv­ity (swim­ming, bik­ing, hik­ing) and the govern­ment takes care of ed­u­ca­tion, health care and a fi­nan­cial safety net so its cit­i­zens are free to con­cen­trate on growth. Buet­tner cites the fact that “more than 90 per cent of Danes be­long to a club or an as­so­ci­a­tion – from cold-wa­ter swim­mers to rab­bit breed­ers – and more than 40 per cent vol­un­teer for civic groups.”

And the unique fac­tors that shaped Sin­ga­pore led to a high-level of self-re­ported “life sat­is­fac­tion.” Th­ese are some of the things we have tra­di­tion­ally been told “can’t buy hap­pi­ness,” says Buet­tner. The city-state is­land may have strict laws, he points out, but it also places value on har­mony, re­spect and hard work. There is a guar­an­teed liv­ing wage and work­fare pro­grams with hous­ing, ed­u­ca­tion and health ben­e­fits. Be­cause of th­ese and the fact reli­gious free­doms are guar­an­teed ef­fec­tively, there are no “ghet­tos” on the is­land. He also points to the bonds forged by com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice, which unites the dis­parate eth­nic groups into a com­mon sense of pur­pose.

Buet­tner then moves his book into tra­di­tional self­help mode, de­tail­ing how to translate th­ese fac­tors into con­crete changes in one’s own en­vi­ron­ment – from shoring up fi­nances to ef­fi­cient home de­sign and down­scal­ing of our stuff and things, plus chang­ing the dy­namic of work­places and em­pha­siz­ing so­cial net­works.

And though Canada doesn’t star in this hap­pi­ness guide, Buet­tner is a big fan of our shores. Ac­cord­ing to the World Hap­pi­ness Re­port Canada ranks No. 7. “Canada is a rock star when it comes to hap­pi­ness. You do ev­ery­thing right,” he says. “You have en­light­ened lead­ers who have rightly iden­ti­fied uni­ver­sal

health care as im­por­tant. Equal­ity and trust is highly cor­re­lated with healthy life ex­pectancy.” He gushes also about our great ac­cess to green spa­ces, qual­ity of air and bike-abil­ity in places such as Van­cou­ver. “The rest of the world is look­ing to Canada.”

One of Buet­tner’s key col­lab­o­ra­tors is a Cana­dian econ­o­mist named John Hel­li­well, “a ter­rific guy and prob­a­bly un­der-cel­e­brated,” he says. Hel­li­well is a hap­pi­ness re­searcher and found­ing ed­i­tor of the World Hap­pi­ness Re­port, as well as pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at UBC. As Buet­tner writes in his book, Hel­li­well lives part of his year “off the grid” with his fam­ily on B.C.’s Hornby Is­land, prac­tis­ing what he has learned.

A Hel­li­well study that was in­cluded in Buet­tner’s book used our wealth of im­mi­grant sto­ries to test a hy­poth­e­sis about hap­pi­ness “set point,” the idea that we are born with a cer­tain level of hap­pi­ness, much like the set point of body weight, that we nat­u­rally re­turn to.

“Re­mark­ably, John and his col­leagues dis­cov­ered that no mat­ter where they came from, within just a few years of ar­riv­ing in Canada, [im­mi­grants] re­ported hap­pi­ness lev­els close to those of their newly adopted home – no mat­ter their class, gen­der, age or profession.” Cana­di­ans typ­i­cally self-re­port an 8.1 on a hap­pi­ness rat­ing be­tween one and 10.

So, we can be chuffed we are do­ing well enough to pass our good hap­pi­ness habits on to the new­est Cana­di­ans, but that isn’t to say we couldn’t take a sense of pur­pose and be­long­ing from Den­mark, and more fam­ily bond­ing like the Costa Ri­cans. Or even in­dulge in life sat­is­fac­tion in the form of a new car, like a cheer­ful Sin­ga­porean ty­coon.

Zon­ing In Buet­tner in Costa Rica and (right) in Ikaria, Greece

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