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

Friday - - CONTENTS -

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

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