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Blue Zones

What’s the secret to happiness? Explorer and educator Dan Buettner, a pioneer in the study of human longevity, has traveled the globe searching for the answer. 

In the mid-2000s Buettner teamed up with the National Geographic Society, demographers, medical researchers, and epidemiologists to find the world’s longest-lived people and to study their cultures, environments, and lifestyle habits. They identified five “Blue Zones” — Sardinia’s Barbagia region; Ikaria, Greece; Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula; an enclave of Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, Calif.; and Okinawa, Japan. Buettner shared the healthy-living secrets of the people who lived in these places in his first best-selling book, The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.

Observing that longevity and life satisfaction seem related, Buettner and his research team delved into the connection. He noted the traits and practices the world’s most satisfied people shared in Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way. (Read more about these places at “Four Happy Places.”)

In his latest book, The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons From the World’s Happiest People, Buettner describes three strands of happiness — pride, pleasure, and purpose — that citizens of Singapore, Denmark, and Costa Rica experience. It’s a welcome antidote to the idea that there’s one correct path to contentment.

Here are a few of the key strategies Buettner has identified for creating the conditions for happiness. 

Q&A With Dan Buettner

Experience Life | What does happiness look like in Singapore, Denmark, and Costa Rica?

Dan Buettner | Singapore’s brand of happiness — what I call life satisfaction or pride — will appeal to people who like a clear path in life or want to know exactly what they need to do to be rewarded at the end. 

Singapore’s a place where, if you work hard, it’s very easy to get into the right school, job, and club. If you keep your nose to the grindstone, financial security is virtually assured. Your friends will be impressed, and your mother will be proud — and these are two really important cultural values. 

In Denmark, on the other hand, ambition and status are frowned upon. It’s a place with very high taxes, where every man, woman, and child is guaranteed free healthcare and education through college. If someone has a baby, she’s paid nine months’ leave, and a comfortable retirement is almost guaranteed for everybody no matter what they do. 

Since their basic needs are met by the government, Danish people have the freedom to pursue a job that really speaks to their abilities and passions throughout life. They score high in the strand of happiness called purpose.

Costa Rica is also a place where life’s basic needs are provided. Beyond that, when you do a regression analysis of happy people around the world, you find that the happiest people tend to be religious, put family first, and socialize five to six hours a day. 

Costa Rica’s warm climate and government policies make it easy to do all three, so citizens enjoy their day, moment to moment, with more joy — or what I call pleasure — than any other place in the world.

EL | What groundwork has been laid for citizens to thrive in these three countries?

DB | At some point, enlightened policymakers [in all three places] shifted from focusing simply on economic growth to education. I’m not just talking about college, but near 100 percent literacy for children.

In addition, they prioritized public health and promoted preventive health as opposed to healthcare. 

They also supported the notion of income equality — distributing wealth to people who need it. Social services in these places are a human right, and once everybody has the basics, they may start making sure that the people who are working harder get more of the spoils.

Finally, they de-emphasized the military. In fact, Costa Rica has no military. 

Together, these policies create an upward spiral. You get educated girls with good public health, who grow up to be mothers who have fewer children. Those children are better educated and healthier. Those kids grow up to be better parents themselves, as well as more productive citizens, fueling the economy. They make better voting decisions, so they get better leaders for the next generation. 

EL | What practices from the world’s happiest people can we use in our own lives to boost our well-being?

DB | Roughly 40 percent of your happiness, or lack thereof, is dictated by your genes, and about 15 percent is by circumstances. That means you’re in control of about 40 to 45 percent, which is a lot — and you can make some changes to favor happiness for the long run.

First, it’s essential to remember that a lot of what we think makes us happy is either misguided or just plain wrong. For example, statistically speaking, earning more money doesn’t make you happier. After earning about $75,000 annually, most people do not enjoy life more by making more money. In most of the United States, that figure is probably closer to about $40,000 a year. 

If you’re making more than 40 grand a year or have the capacity to earn more than that, you’d be better off choosing a job that enables you to use your strengths and passions every day to be happier. Based on Gallup surveys, only about 30 percent of Americans actually enjoy their jobs. 

In the meantime, the biggest thing you can do to get happier at work is have a best friend at work. Go to the next cubicle and invite someone out for lunch. Nurture enough relationships so that one coworker emerges as somebody who will care about you on a bad day. (For more tips, visit “How to Be Happy.”)

EL | Have you made any changes based on your research that have improved your own well-being? 

DB | I moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., which according to our index is one of the happiest places in America. If you’re unhappy where you live, moving to a place that is known to be a happier community can immediately affect your happiness level.

I’ve also gotten very clear on my own sense of purpose. I’ve turned down offers that included huge sums of money because I knew I’d be happier in the long run spending time doing things that speak to my heart.

Thoughts to share?

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