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headshot of Dan Buetter of the Blue Zones

Admittedly, Dan Buettner, Blue Zones founder, author, and explorer, knows a lot about longevity. But he shocked me when he compared living to 100 with biking 15,000 miles.

“The first few weeks are hard on the few square inches that make contact with the bike seat. Then you get comfortable,” the world-record-holding long-distance bicyclist says. “Seven or eight thousand miles in, however, you get worn out. You sleep for a week, then you feel better, and get back out there. The beauty is seeing the road unfold before you — it’s the epitome of carpe diem.”

That pattern, he explains, is a lot like that of a long, happy life. He discovered this parallel while exploring the habits of the world’s longest-lived people.

“Happiness plotted over age looks like a U-shaped curve,” just like happiness over a long bike ride.

“When people are 20, they tend to be optimistic, but then happiness goes down, and the toughest years are right around age 50,” he explains.

After about age 55, though, happiness starts to climb and does so for as long as you’re alive. It has to do with being satisfied. We think we need constant excitement — jumping out of airplanes, going to rock-and-roll concerts — but as we age, we tend to be happy with simpler things.”

Those simple things for Buettner include the following.

1. A Nice Bike

“Instead of putting everything you have into an automobile, get a really nice bike you can’t wait to ride. Even with an e-bike, people get more exercise than they would otherwise. But watch out — you might end up like me, where the right number of bikes is n+1, with n being the number of bikes you currently have.”

2. A Hearty Breakfast

“In the winter, my go-to breakfast is slow-cooked oatmeal with nuts, dates, bananas, soymilk, and a friend’s homemade maple syrup. In the summer, it might be black beans, brown rice, and sweet potatoes topped with avocado, some hot sauce, and tamari. It’s a feast for your microbiome and has as much protein as a hamburger. It’s so good!”

3. A Fruit Bowl

“Invest in a beautiful fruit bowl and put it in a well-lit area so it nudges you to keep it full. Then, take the toaster off the counter. Most of what we put in toasters does not produce something healthy. I’ve seen research where people who put their toaster away lost about 6 pounds over two years.”

4. Happy hour With Phytochemicals

“In Sardinia, Italy, I interviewed the longest-lived family in the history of the world. Every day of their lives, they had the same lunch — sourdough bread, minestrone soup, and a small glass of this Cannonau wine. It’s a red wine made of grapes that grow where the sun shines 300 days of the year. This creates more pigment to protect the grapes, which end up having about three times the amount of polyphenols of, say, a cabernet. I like enjoying some wine that’s Blue Zones–approved — it’s the kind of nudge I think we all need at the end of the day.”

5. Happiness first

“With a couple caveats, about 40 percent of happiness is genetic, 15 percent is chance, and the rest is up to you. So, don’t pick the job that makes you miserable but offers you more money — it can actually take years off your life. If you can manage to organize your life to be in the happiest 20 percent of Americans, it’s worth about eight extra years of life expectancy.”

This originally appeared as “Centenarian Wisdom” in the January/February 2021 print issue of Experience Life.

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Headshot of Dan Buettner.

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