Is there a formula for life-long joy? This couple in Ikaria seems to have cracked it. Dan Buettner, the author of the Blue Zone series, tells Anand Raj OK what he uncovered in the world’s happiest places
Dan Buettner, the author of Blue Zone series, deciphered the secret code to longevity. Now he’s investigated happiness.
One night, a few years ago, Costa Rican Alejandro Zuniga received a phone call from a friend. ‘You’ve won the lottery,’ his friend exclaimed, breathless with excitement. A huge lottery. 50 million colones (around Dh340,000).’ Alejandro, a friendly vegetable vendor in Cartago, didn’t believe his pal, a well-known practical joker. Also, Alejandro was feeling low because he’d had a bad day. Unable to sell all of his avocados and with barely any money in his pocket, he wasn’t in the mood for jokes that night. ‘Ok, thanks for the call,’ he told his friend before ending the call.
But the next day it was clear from Alejandro’s toothy smile and jaunty walk that the news spreading throughout the market was true. The vegetable seller had, indeed, won the lottery.
His friends assumed he would use the money to build a large house, buy fancy clothes and enjoy a more affluent life, but Alejandro surprised them. He continued to sell avocados in the market, and chatted and joked with friends as he always used to.
But the middle-aged man was also doing something else quietly. He was giving away his new-found wealth – a million colones to the man who sold him the lottery ticket, a million to a beggar by the roadside, another million to a foodstall owner who gave him food when he couldn’t afford to buy it, a few millions to his family.
A year later, Alejandro was broke again, but by his own admission he ‘couldn’t be happier’.
‘Alejandro perfectly represents the characteristics of what makes Costa Rica one of the happiest places in the world,’ says happiness expert and author Dan Buettner. In a nutshell, the Costa Ricans’ recipe for happiness is a perfect mix of generosity, enjoying the moment, social interaction, family bonding, equality and faith.
Dan should know what makes people happy. A National Geographic fellow and bestselling author who spent the last two years working on The Blue Zones of Happiness (published in October last year), he has been collaborating with experts in various fields and undertaking explorations across the globe since the late 1990s to understand the secrets of longevity, health and, most recently, happiness.
Using a host of ‘statistically significant factors’ (more about them later), he identified the happiest populations on the globe and set about gleaning insights from the people living there on how to be happy.
‘When you examine the results of surveys done in 155 countries and look for correlations between what makes one happy and what the characteristics of the nation are, generosity is one of the top features of a happy nation,’ says Dan, bringing into focus actions of people like Alejandro.
Before focusing on happiness, though, Dan authored a series of Blue Zone books that explored places where people’s longevity and health are just amazing.
The books evolved after he stumbled upon a report by the World Health Organization that said Okinawans had the longest life expectancy in the world. ‘I found that interesting,’ says Dan, who set off with a team of scientists to find out what contributed to the people’s longevity in Okinawa, once called the land of immortals.
‘Women in Okinawa live longer than their counterparts anywhere else on the planet,’ he says. He also found Okinawans have lower rates of cancer, heart disease and dementia than people in the US.
‘Their secret of longevity? A very strong social network and a lifelong circle of friends that supports them well into their old age,’ says Dan. ‘They also have a very strong sense of purpose in life. The Japanese have a term for it – Ikigai.’
After the successful expedition in Okinawa, ‘I thought if there’re areas in Asia [where people live long], maybe there are such areas in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere,’ he says. National Geographic too, thought so, and in 2003 commissioned him to find the first Blue Zone areas – so called because the marker the researchers used to plot the map was blue in colour – and to decipher what the people there did to live so long.
‘I thought they must be having some kind of special diet for their longevity; it took me a few years to discover there wasn’t,’ he says.
So, is diet not a factor?
‘Yes, it is,’ says Dan. ‘But I’d be careful about using the word diet. The notion that you are going to consciously eat the right food for long enough to avoid a chronic disease is misguided. It never works. What works is an environment where plant-based foods are more accessible, cheaper and is more or less the culture.’
There are no fast food joints in Blue Zone areas, says a gleeful Dan, who is largely vegetarian. Meat is eaten only on special occasions or on weekends. Usually, the cheapest and most easily available foods are beans, grains, nuts and greens.
‘In general, if you look at the five Blue Zones – Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Icaria in Greece and Loma Linda in California – you’ll find that the cultures there eat mostly a plant-based diet. Also, physical activity came naturally to them. They would not remain inactive for more than 20 minutes at a time and they did not exercise the way we do,’ says the researcher, who is also a champion cyclist.
Dan discovered other interesting markers that the five cultures shared: They had sacred daily rituals, believed in ancestor veneration, took short afternoon naps ‘which
The notion that you are going to consciously eat the right food for long enough to avoid a chronic disease is misguided
helped reverse the stresses of the day’, had few gadgets in the kitchen, said prayers before meals, ate with the family, made family a priority in life and ensured that they surrounded themselves with people who reinforced the right behaviour.
‘We call this the power of 9,’ says Dan. ‘But the organising principle, and this is probably the big discovery: in some 40 cities across the world, people live to the age of 100 and are healthy not because they tried to live a long time; it’s because longevity happened to them. That’s a key insight.’
Today, many societies try to pursue health and longevity relying on diets and exercise. ‘They may work in the short term but never in the long run,’ says the researcher. ‘People who live a long time live in environments that make the right behaviour mindless. They have no idea that they are doing the right things; they are just living life. So, the key to longevity is to shape your environment.’
While longevity may be a good thing, is not living happily more important?
‘When you speak to the top 20 per cent of the happiest people in the world, you will find that about 80 per cent of the behaviours that make you live longer are the same behaviours that make you happy and vice versa,’ says Dan. Having a sense of purpose, physical exercise, social interaction are some factors that contribute to happiness and longevity, he adds.
How would he define happiness? ‘Academically speaking, happiness is a meaningless term because you can’t measure it,’ says Dan. ‘But what you can measure is life satisfaction by asking people to rate their life on a scale of 0-10.
‘You can also measure people’s sense of purpose with questions like ‘Have you used your strengths to do what you do best this past week?
‘People who live a long time live in environments that make the right behaviour mindless.’
‘The third measurement for happiness is how much people enjoy their lives on an everyday basis. You can measure it by asking them the number of times they laughed or felt joy.’
To identify the happiest people, Dan asked big databases such as Gallup and the World Database of Happiness to pinpoint places where these three facets of happiness are very high. Singapore ranked number one in Asia for life satisfaction, while on the second marker, Denmark topped Europe’s happiness ranking with Danes loving their purpose-driven, easy-to-live life.
In the third area, Costa Rica came out tops with people there reporting they feel more day-to-day positive emotions that any other place in the world.
‘Environment is the prime driver when it comes to how happy you are going to be,’ says Dan, adding, this is clearly visible in Denmark. ‘Here’s a place where ambition is not so highly rated. Taxes are very high so it doesn’t make sense to work 60 hours a week because you are going to be taxed at the same level as someone who works 37 hours a week. Everyone has free healthcare, free education, nine months paternity/maternity leave, everybody is assured of a comfortable post retirement life.
‘When your needs are taken care of, it doesn’t make much sense to work extremely hard to get more money. Danes pursue a job that they love as opposed to working for status or money. People work on average 37 hours a week. They join a club so are socially interactive; pursue hobbies, take six-week vacations. It all adds up to a very pleasant life on a day-to-day basis. And a purposedriven life.’
So, is more money not equal to happier life? Money IS important, says Dan. ‘Millionaires are definitely happier than those who earn, say, $30,000 a year. But around $75K is the cap. If you are earning more
than that, your day-to-day experiences do not improve vastly.’ Dan is quick to point out that the $75K figure is an average and is on a sliding scale depending on where you live. ‘That amount of money in a rural community is surely not the same as, say, New York,’ he says.
So was it the desire for happiness that prompted Costa Rican Alejandro to give away all his wealth? Is giving crucial to happiness?
‘After poring over survey results from 155 countries looking for correlations between what makes one happy and the characteristics of the nation, generosity is one of the top factors of a happy country,’ says Dan.
According to him, about 80 per cent of human happiness at the national level is tied to high GDP, healthy life expectancy, generosity, good social activity and tolerance.
Viewed from this perspective, it’s no surprise the UAE, which is ranked among the top 10 most generous nations in the world, is the happiest country in the Arab world. With a Minister of State for Happiness and Quality of Life, Uhoud Khalfan Al Roumi, a first in the world, the country is striving to become one of top five happiest countries in the world by 2021.
‘Having a minister of happiness in the UAE is the right idea,’ says Dan, who was in Dubai last year to speak at the World Government Summit, adding, ‘a reason Denmark ranks top in happiness is due to the good policies enlightened leaders put in place years ago.’
Having studied people in the happiest places on the planet, what are his key takeaways?
‘Let me put it this way,’ says Dan. ‘If happiness were a cake recipe, the main ingredients would be: Enough money – remember, $70K is the cap, food, shelter, healthcare, education, meaningful work, health and marrying the right person.’
That last one is important, says the researcher. ‘But the most important ingredient in the recipe would be where you live. If you live in an unhappy place and move to a happier environment, on average you can see your happiness rise.’
What would a happy day be like?
‘A perfect day starts with you waking up after at least 7.5 hours of sleep,’ says Dan. ‘Sleeping less than six hours leaves you at least 30 per cent less happy.’
Getting about 60 minutes of physical activity – a walk, for instance – is fine to start your day.
Next, a plant-based healthy breakfast, like oatmeal, which does not have sugar is best.
Ideally, your commute to office is on foot, definitely not by car. ‘One of our least favourite things, which brings us the most unhappiness, is driving to work in a car,’ he says.
Ideally, work for between six and seven hours. ‘Spending around 7 hours with people you like and people you can have a meaningful conversation with is crucial for happiness,’ says Dan.
A half-hour nap in the afternoon, an hour of giving back either through volunteering or even taking care of your children in the evening, an hour of watching some TV or being on social media and eating dinner with the family would complete the day.
Working super hard, chasing money, driving to work through environments of soulless cities and eating fast food make it very hard to pursue authentic happiness, he says.
So, how happy is he now?
‘On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m a nine,’ says Dan.
What prevents him from being a 10?
‘It’s not that I want to change anything but not being a 10 makes you want to strive,’ says the happiness expert. ‘Not being perfectly happy and sacrosanct makes me want to get up in the morning, pursue my curiosity and write my books and articles. If I were a 10, it might take away the drive. It now makes life interesting.’
After exploring happiness and longevity, what next? ‘I’m on a really fun cookbook,’ he says. ‘If you want to know the diet of 100-year-olds, you can’t ask them what they are eating now. You need to know what they were eating when they were children, when they were newly married, when they were in the 50s…. I’m working on this book with National Geographic that travels back to the Blue Zone areas and we are getting 80-year-old women to cook the pre-1970s dishes that they used to have and [documenting] the recipes.
‘By capturing what centenarians ate all their lives we’ll be able to know the kinds of foods that helped them live such long lives.’ The book is due in autumn 2019.
Dan (LEFT) has found that people in Okinawa, Denmark and Sardinia enjoy happy, purposeful lives