Emotional Health

In the Blue Zone: The Happiest Places on Earth

Buettner found that these people were also happy as well as healthy, concluding that the two are closely linked. “If you’re eating five servings of vegetables a day, you’re 20-per-cent more likely to be happy,” he says. He decided to test out his theory by applying the same research technique to places with the highest per capita levels of well-being.

He focused on four divergent places: Denmark, Costa Rica, Singapore, and Boulder, Colorado, trying to find out what they have in common. The people in these spots feel secure, have a sense of purpose, and enjoy lives that minimize stress and maximize joy. Buettner reports his findings in his fourth book (2017), The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World’s Happiest People.

As with his previous research, he found common threads, including—“three different strands of happiness that braid together in complementary ways to create lasting joy. I call them pleasure, purpose, and pride,” he says. These involve—

  1. the pleasure of living daily life to the fullest in a place that mitigates stress and maximizes joy. Scientists call this type of happiness experienced happiness or positive affect.
  2. the purpose-driven life of Danes. Like all forms of happiness, this type assumes that basic needs are covered so that people can pursue their passions at work and at leisure. Academics refer to this as eudaimonic happiness, a term that comes from the ancient Greek word for “happy.” The concept was made popular by Aristotle, who believed that true happiness came only from a life of meaning—of doing what is worth doing.
  3. the “life satisfaction” strand of happiness. Social scientists often measure this type of happiness by asking people to rate their lives on a scale of zero to 10. Experts also call this evaluative happiness. Internationally this is considered the gold-standard metric of well-being.

People in Costa Rica benefit from the pleasure of a stress-free life; they socialize as much as six hours a day. In Denmark he found that residents often live in strongly knit communities, and though they pay high taxes, they have the security that comes from free education, health care, ample vacations, and guaranteed retirement income. In Singapore, residents work longer hours but have many opportunities for achievement and advancement.

The main point that Buettner makes, however, is that the happiness of the residents is in the very design of the community. These places offer conditions that make it naturally easier to live a happier life. In other words, we cannot just decide to pursue happiness and expect it to follow: we have to create the conditions that allow us to flourish.

In an interview, Buettner declares,

“I’m not a big believer in these positive psychology techniques of savoring or appreciation or gratitude—and not because they don’t work. I think they probably do, but for a lot of people they only work in the short run. It’s a little bit like diet. If your approach is just to cut your calories in half, you’ll lose weight. But you know that within a matter of months you’ll lose focus or just quit doing it. It’s the same with trying to remember to practice gratitude. So what I argue for are statistically driven things you can do to optimize your environment so you’re more likely to be happy for the long term.”

A related concept is the idea that people are happier when they buy experiences, not things. Buettner responds, “Buying things does produce some spike in joy or appreciation, but that wears off over time. A good experience actually gains luster.”

Places that prioritize their residents’ happiness have common factors that come together to produce it. San Luis Obispo, a city in California, deliberately set out to give its citizens more access to fresh foods, walkable and bikeable paths, and opportunities for socializing and community involvement. It routinely ranks in the top 10 happiest places in the country. “It’s not a coincidence,” says Buettner.  “You see the same features in Portland, Santa Cruz, Boulder—happiness is not a coincidence.”

What can you do to put some of these practices to use? Most of us can’t easily move to another city, though Buettner says it might actually be worth it. One thing you can control is your diet, and according to his principles, not through will-power but through “opportunity.” Make sure there are plenty of fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables, readily available at home. Avoid driving by fast-food places, steering your car near the farmers’ market instead. Boulder has a policy of no billboards—a deliberate strategy to limit residents’ temptation for unhealthy choices.

Minimizing stress is another choice, which you can do by orchestrating your environment differently. The Danes have rooms in their houses dedicated to play, hobbies, and interaction. This room has no TV, but usually has a long table on which family members can work on art or other projects. If possible, try not to commute more than 30 minutes a day (another tough one, but not impossible), and maximize the value of vacation by taking a few shorter ones rather than one long one.

Most important, according to Buettner, are friendships. As more and more research confirms the negative effects of loneliness, both to health and to happiness, this seems obvious. “The secret sauce is the right mix of friends,” according to Buettner. He says,

“For every new friend you add to your social network, you’re 15 percent more likely to be happy. So surround yourself with the right kind of people. And if you think of friends sort of like long-term adventures, it kind of meets the experience-focused criterion . . . . And who you hang out with has a huge impact on your happiness.”

You might even consider forming a group based on the Japanese concept of the moai—a group a like-minded individuals who share values, goals, and have each others’ backs. Try to design your life with more time for socializing with the people who make you feel good, maximizing enjoyment and social contact. If you can blend that with exercising or sharing a meal, all the better.

If you do have the flexibility to move, consider these principles when you do. As Buettner says, “In terms of choosing a place to live, people who live near water—whether it’s a lake or river or an ocean—are about 10 percent more likely to be happy than people who don’t. And people who live in medium-sized cities are more likely to be happy than the anonymity of a big city or perhaps the too in-your-face, limited-possibility environment of a tiny town. You’re more likely to be happy if your house has a sidewalk, and if you live in a bikeable place.”

The happiest places tend to be places where enlightened leaders over the past century decided to shift their focus away from just economic development and growth to quality of life. While it may not be possible to find all the factors in a place that works for you, you can work on bringing these factors to your life.

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  • Roz Warren February 6, 2018 at 6:10 pm

    I had beans for lunch. And I enjoyed them. That’s a start.