“You can have more purpose — and greater happiness — in the second half of your life.”
That’s certainly reassuring, especially if you’ve spent the first part of your life getting through school, getting a job, possibly getting married, starting a family and, generally, living on autopilot.
This quote comes from author Dan Buettner, author of “The Blue Zones of Happiness” and “The Blue Zones: Nine Lessons for Living Longer.” Buettner is a National Geographic fellow who has produced an Emmy-winning documentary and holds three world records for endurance cycling.
Working with the National Geographic, Buettner has studied regions of the world in which people live longer and are happier. He refers to these as “blue zones.”
If happiness were a cake recipe, Buettner says, the ingredients would include: food, shelter, health care, education, mobility/movement, having a partner in life, sleep, faith, a pet, a positive attitude and a sense of purpose.
Research also shows four common characteristics of those who live long, healthy lives:
n Something to do
n Something to love
n Something to look forward to
n Something to give back
And the No. 1 factor of the happiest and healthiest populations might surprise you: deep friendships.
Friendships and loneliness
“How you curate your immediate social network is probably the biggest lasting thing you can do to improve your life,” Buettner explains. “You need three to five good friends,” he says. “People with whom you can have a meaningful conversation — not just about current events or sports. It’s safe to be vulnerable with them and cry on their shoulders. They listen without judgment.”
This dovetails with the work of hospice nurse Bronnie Ware, who chronicled insights from those on their death beds in her book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” One of the regrets mentioned most often: “I wish I’d stayed in closer touch with friends.”
Loneliness is a huge factor in both unhappiness and longevity.
“It’s as dangerous as a smoking habit,” Buettner says, “shaving six to eight years off your life expectancy age.”
Lonely people are more susceptible to stress, depression and dementia. And they’re more likely to commit suicide.
Social media can fill this void to some extent. However, there’s a big caution flag. It’s healthy to engage for about a half-hour to an hour a day, to stay in touch and learn a few things. After 1½ hours of social media exposure, though, things start to go downhill dramatically. And those who spend eight hours a day are the least happy. So, you may want to do the math on your usage.
The blue zones of longevity
The following areas have been identified as having the greatest number of people who lead long, healthy lives, well into their 90s and 100s:
1. Loma Linda, California
2. Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
3. Sardinia, Italy
4. Ikaria, Greece
5. Okinawa, Japan
6. Northern Denmark
The United States ranks No. 19 on the longevity scale with a grade of “B.” The average American loses about 12 years of life due to a toxic food environment, inadequate social relationships and a lack of physical activity.
So, what is it about blue zones that produces happier people who live longer? They don’t have greater discipline, Buettner says.
“They’re just in environments where the healthiest choice is either the easiest choice — or the unavoidable one,” he explains.
Simple foods are plentiful around them — nuts, beans and greens. And the option of loneliness doesn’t exist. If they’re not showing up for church or the village festival, someone is knocking on their door and getting them out. The option of being sedentary is not there, either. They’re being nudged — moving more, eating less and eating more plant-based foods.
They also have purpose. They don’t wake up every day asking, “What should I be doing today? What’s my life meaning?” There’s no existential stress because their lives revolve around family, faith and community.
It’s all about connection.
One of the biggest barriers to longevity is unhappiness. This condition could take eight years off one’s life expectancy.
National Geographic and Buettner conducted a survey of 150,000 people, entitled the “True Happiness Test.”
According to Buettner, 40% of what makes us happy is genetic. Fifteen percent is chance. However, that leaves nearly half the equation up to the individual. Following are some research results on common health practices.
n Vitamins: Interestingly, Buettner says their studies found that taking vitamins doesn’t make much of an impact on greater longevity. He notes there are situational cases where this might make a difference. Overall, though, he says we’re too prone to “calling an 800 number to get the latest and greatest supplement.” There’s no silver bullet.
n Sleep: Forgoing sleep in pursuit of goals is harmful. Sleep is when our bodies do cellular repair.
“If you’re only sleeping six hours a day, you’re going to be about 30% less happy,” says Buettner. Tired feelings make you feel crappy. You’re also less proficient at work and more likely to be obese. Buettner says we need eight to nine-and-a-half hours of sleep a night.
n Movement and exercise: Forty-five minutes of daily exercise is recommended. This can be broken up into segments.
n Pets: Bonding with a pet has been shown to raise levels of oxytocin, one of the happy hormones. And going for walks also could release endorphins, more “feel good” brain chemicals.
Daily rituals to reduce stressMeditation and prayer time, taking naps and engaging in a happy hour have all been shown to be effective at reducing stress. Again, the best medicine for unhappiness is a social network. Volunteer. Find a spiritual community, a group of walkers or a bridge group. Admittedly, this is more challenging during our pandemic period.
Set up things up in your environment so you don’t have to think about them. Keep the fruit bowl full — so you won’t be as tempted to go to the junk food drawer.
The true happiness test
You can take the True Happiness Test by doing an online search of “true happiness test.” It’s a free five-minute survey.
“It’s never too late to start snatching back some good years,” says John Day, co-author of “The Longevity Plan.” “The best time is to start from childhood. The second best time is today.”