A couple of weeks ago Thom and I visited the happiest place on Earth (aka: Disneyland.) Like most who grew up in Southern California, both Thom and I have frequented the park dozens of times through the years. And because 2017 is our 40th Anniversary year, it seemed fitting to go back to a place where we experienced a great deal of happiness in the early part of our marriage. Is it still happy? Yes and no. Sure, the magic of Disneyland cannot be denied. But at the same time, the property is packed in December with mobs of kids and adults. So, is it the place—or our attitude, that makes Disneyland happy? Fortunately, a new book titled, The Blue Zones of Happiness helps to make sense of the paradox. According to the author, Dan Buettner, our individual happiness is more than just our attitude. He goes on to explain how the right communities, combined with a few individual traits, best delivers a happy and meaningful life.
Ever since Blue Zones caught my attention a few months ago, I’ve been intrigued. In my first post about them, I explained how in several countries around the world most residents live much longer and healthier than all other places on the planet. By recognizing those elements unique to the locations, and incorporating certain actions into our own lives, we too can influence our health and longevity regardless of where we live. Buettner and colleagues have since gone on to create The Blue Zone Project where they attempt to guide and teach communities around the U.S. ways to create their own Blue Zones for the good of their citizens.
In this new book, Dan Buettner goes further by recognizing that the connection between health and happiness is a two-way street. Not only are we happier when we are healthy, when we are happy we take much better care of ourselves. We eat better, exercise more, wear seat belts more often, take our medicines when necessary, get checkups, stay social, and have stronger immune systems. As Buettner learned, “Being happy actually helps you to become healthier.” This new book insists that Blue Zones aren’t just about longevity—instead they offer insight into how we can all learn to create happier lives.
But what does Buettner mean by happiness, or as he frequently calls it, “Subjective Well-being?” After recognizing that happiness is usually a combination of factors, Buettner boils it down to three basic strands of well-being. He believes that when these strands are woven together they most often create a life of deep fulfillment, joy, and satisfaction that most would define as happy. Simply stated, the three “P’s” of happiness are:
Pleasure—how many times do you laugh or feel joy in any given day?
Purpose—what gets you up and keeps you going all day long?
Pride—how satisfied are you with your accomplishments and your position in life?
To explain these happiness threads even further, Buettner offers examples from three Blue Zone locations that embody each trait. From Costa Rica, he shares how the cultural mindset of “Pura Vida” translates to both “pure life” and it’s “all good.” According to Buettner, “Costa Ricans excel at getting the most joy out of their days,” and have “found a sweet spot between making a living and savoring it.” Residents live with great year-round weather, the highest Latin American Literacy Rates, low corruption, universal health care, social security, clean water, an abundance of fresh food and vegetables, nearly free education, and a culture based upon equality. Another important factor is that rather than support a military, the country pours all resources into developing programs for its citizens.
The second Blue Zone example is Denmark. Danes never have to worry about health care, education, child care, retirement, or a military so they are free to pursue jobs they love and enjoy plenty of recreation time. They are highly social and even though they pay some of the highest taxes in the world, that trade-off provides them with pursuits that “feed the soul” rather than pad their bank accounts or flatter their egos. Danes blend the happiness strands of pleasure and pride—offering an example of how those two combine to create a happy life.
The final Blue Zone example comes from Singapore. Here, over the years, the people of Singapore have created one of the healthiest, most long-lived, cleanest, wealthiest, least corrupt and happiest countries in Asia. Overall, Singaporeans embrace the strand of pride as their defining value. Buettner says, that most Singaporeans are “hugely successful, community-minded, consummately principled and irrepressibly affable.” Life satisfaction in Singapore puts emphasis on how well you do, as opposed to how well you feel, and that often takes years to accomplish along with sacrificing moment-to-moment daily pleasures.
After studying hundreds of people who live in Blue Zones, Buettner lists many behaviors that we can use to enhance our own personal happiness. Most are ideas are plain common sense, yet it is important to recognize that sound research backs up his claims. Plus, Buettner is convinced that it is a combination of all these attributes that bring about the greatest experience of wellbeing and happiness. His top recommendations include:
- Find and live in the right community.
- Volunteer on a regular basis.
- Find someone to love.
- Sleep 7.5+ hours a night.
- Learn something new and interesting every day
- Set goals and always have something that keeps you looking forward to the future.
- Stay active and include lots of movement in your day.
- Eat six or more portions of fruit and vegetables every single day.
- Engage with people (family, friends, coworkers) for six hours every day.
- Shape your surroundings in ways that support a happy life.
- Create meaningful intentions and goals that require forward thinking.
The book is filled with many more suggestions that most of us can add to our lives with the right determination. Of course, he freely admits that all happiness requires, at its foundation, that our basic needs are covered and that we have food, shelter, access to health care and a degree of mobility. However, he is convinced that a key is finding that “sweet spot between savoring life now and doing things that lead to a richer, more meaningful outcome in the future.”
One of the most interesting ideas in the book is research that reveals the powerful influence our surroundings and where we live has on our day-to-day happiness. In fact, our surroundings can either “nudge” us toward behaviors more likely to produce happiness or they can nudge us in the opposite direction.
The most obvious form of surroundings is our community and our workplace. While in many cases we don’t have the power to transform our city or our country, we do have the ability to choose where we live and where we work. What should we look for? According to Buettner, the qualities of the happiest (and healthiest) communities include:
- A very walkable and/or bikeable community with a variety of services.
- People friendly streets—quiet and safe streets that favor humans over cars.
- Access to nature—parks, open spaces and trees.
- A clean environment of water, air, and land.
- Plenty of access to healthy and locally grown foods.
- Affordable healthcare and dentistry for all citizens.
- Simple ways for people to volunteer with a variety of options
- A safe and “trustworthy” environment among politicians, police and neighbors.
- A high level of civic engagement where people are encouraged to contribute to maintain and improve the community.
- A community of people who tend to put health and wellbeing on a high level.
While changes to our attitude and inner life are more in our control than our larger community, Buettner’s research shows that “Of all the things people can do to try to increase their happiness, the most effective and lasting one is to choose to live in a community that supports well-being.” Like I stated before, the right cities can “nudge” its residents into behaviors and lifestyles that produce happiness. By the same token, a city or environment can nudge us toward unhealthy and unhappy behaviors. If we can’t figure out a way to get our city or community to alter its focus, perhaps it is best to move somewhere that will support our happiness and good health.
Naturally, there is a lot more in this book that I can’t begin to cover, but I’m hoping I wet your curiosity enough to pick up a copy. I would personally love for the mayor and city council of my own city to read the suggestions offered. And need I mention how wonderful it would be if the leaders of my country would consider embracing the ideas as well? Still, Buettner does a great job of offering suggestions and tips that each of us can undertake to increase our individual level of wellbeing and happiness—including ideas for the workplace, our homes, our finances, and even our inner life. Of course, as always, if we can’t change what’s happening in our outer world, or move to a new location, there is always something we can do within.
When I was young I dreamed of living at Disneyland. Every time I went I could feel the magic and fantasy of Walt Disney’s vision and imagined how happy I’d be if I woke up there every morning. Now? I now know that happiness is much more complicated than merely living inside an amusement park. But the good news is that even with life’s ups and downs most of us can find places to live that support us in experiencing a high degree of well-being and life satisfaction. If we don’t already live in such a community, it might be SMART to figure out ways we can create our own Blue Zone right where we are.
Okay, your turn. Do you live in a community that nurtures your health and happiness? If yes, what are the qualities that matter to you the most? If you don’t live in one now, what qualities would you most like in a new “happier” location?