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Dan Buettner: The Blue Zones of Happiness

Watch the full interview below or listen to the full episode on your iPhone HERE.

Guy:  This week we welcome to the show Dan Buettner.  He is an explorer, National Geographic Fellow, award-winning journalist and producer, and New York Times bestselling author. He discovered the five places in the world – dubbed Blue Zones – where people live the longest, healthiest lives. His articles about these places in The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic are two of the most popular for both publications.

Buettner now works in partnership with municipal governments, large employers, and health insurance companies to implement Blue Zones Projects in communities, workplaces, and universities. Blue Zones Projects are well-being initiatives that apply lessons from the Blue Zones to entire communities by focusing on changes to the local environment, public policy, and social networks. The program has dramatically improved the health of more than 5 million Americans to date. His books, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, and The Blue Zones of Happiness were all national bestsellers. Buettner has appeared on The Today Show, Oprah, NBC Nightly News, and Good Morning America, and has keynoted speeches at TEDMED, Bill Clinton’s Health Matters Initiative, and Google Zeitgeist. His speech in January 2018 at the World Economic Forum in Davos was chosen as “one of the best of Davos.” Buettner also holds three Guinness World Records in distance cycling.

Audio Version

downloaditunesListen to Stitcher Questions we ask in this episode:

  •  Your last two books, The Blue Zones and The Blue Zones Solution, are about longevity and learning to live like the world’s centenarians. How, if at all, did that work inspire you to focus on happiness for your new book?
  • There are many books already out there about happiness. What’s different about THE BLUE ZONES OF HAPPINESS?
  • With all your discoveries, what has the most significant impact on a person’s overall happiness?
  • The book includes a Blue Zones Happiness Test. How did you design this test?

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Full Transcript

Guy

Hey, this is Guy Lawrence of 180 Nutrition, of course, and welcome to another stellar episode of “The Health Sessions,” where we spend each week reaching out to leading global health and wellness experts, empowering us all to turn our health and lives around. This week, we are doing it with the fantastic Dan Buettner. Now, if you’re not familiar with Dan’s work, he’s a multiple New York Times bestselling author, and he was very famously known for the book The Blue Zones. If you’ve been listening to our podcast, you know we’ve covered the topic a little bit from time to time on the air, which absolutely fascinates me. Essentially Blue Zones are dubbed where people live the longest and are the healthiest. His New York Times Sunday magazine article about these places, “The Island Where People Forgot to Die” was one of the Times’s most popular, and his National Geographic cover story, “The Secrets of Living Longer,” was a finalist for National Magazine Award. I think the Blue Zones has even reached cult status where there’s five of them in the world. And we’ll certainly get into that today. But we’re here today to talk about Dan’s new book, The Blue Zones of Happiness, and what really drives happiness and the lessons he’s learned from that. No doubt, you’re gonna enjoy the show today, so let’s go over to Dan Buettner. Hi, this is Guy Lawrence. I’m joined with Stuart Cooke as always. Good morning, Stuart.

Stu

Hello, mate.

Guy

And our awesome guest today is Dan Buettner. Dan, welcome to the show.

Dan

It’s a delight to be here.

Guy

Mate, I’m itching for this. This topic has come up so many times on our podcast over the last few years. Yeah, I can’t wait to get stuck into it. Now, Dan, we ask a question on every show for a guest, and that is, if a stranger stopped you on the street and asked you what you did for a living, what would you say?

Dan

I explore traditional cultures, and I distill their wisdom for other people to use. How’s that?

Guy

That’s perfect.

Stu

That would get me talking for sure, so I like it.

Dan

I’ve had the good fortune to work for National Geographic for the last 15 years, and I’ve developed a bit of a specialty of finding extraordinary populations and then distilling down their wisdom, and we’re very rigorous about measuring these populations and then also using vetted methodologies to distill down, what can we learn from them? So that’s the general …

Guy

Yeah, and it is really amazing, the work you’ve done, Dan. Now, before we get into your new book, which is what we wanna chat about today, what led you to look in at the Blue Zones in the first place? And I’m assuming the term “Blue Zones” was something that you created from what your findings were, or how did it all come about?

Dan

Right. In the late 90s and early 2000s, I had led a series of expeditions that solved ancient mysteries: Why the Mayan civilization collapsed; we followed Marco Polo’s route across China, and, I think, more or less proved that he didn’t make it across China. I got very good at networking with top experts and synthesizing their information in a way that made sense for lay audiences. And I stumbled upon a finding in the year 2000 for the World Health Organization that found that Okinawa, Japan, had the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world, and I said, “Aha! Now that’s a good mystery!” I knew it wasn’t genes, and I knew there was something to discern and people would be interested in the findings. After having a successful expedition in Okinawa, I got the idea that there must be other places in the world where people live a long time and got an assignment from National Geographic and, with that funding, I was able to hire demographers to start looking. “Blue Zones” was being used in Sardinia to refer to one area called the Nuoro province, and it was just used among a few scientists. I really took the term and made it the international term which it is today, which is one of the five parts of the world where people live measurably longest, and there’s where the results comes from.

Guy

Amazing. Amazing.

Stu

Got it.

Guy

Go on, Stu. Go on. I can ask questions in a minute.

Stu

Well, I was just … Yeah, I was interested because I’ve just read this one … So for everybody who can’t see, it’s The Blue Zone Solution … And thought … And it jumped out at me at the local bookstore and always clearly fascinated in longevity and practices that we could be doing to help us live as long and healthy lives as possible. So from all of your findings in The Blue Zone, your new book, which is Blue Zones of Happiness, focuses on happiness. Why the shift just to happiness, perhaps, over nutrition, lifestyle, exercise, that kind of thing?

Dan

Well, I tackle big themes, so The Blue Zone Solution, which you just showed, really tried to isolate what people can do to live longer, and the general gist of that is trying to change your habits is usually a failure. It almost never works, whether it’s changing your diet or your exercise program or trying to quit sugar, trying to quit smoking. They have about a 10% success rate maybe. Where people live a long time and stay healthy into their eighties and nineties, it’s not because they try to do so; it’s because they live in environments where the healthy choice is unavoidable. Fruits and vegetables are cheapest and most accessible. They’re nudged into physical activity every 20 minutes. There’s vocabulary for purpose. The option to be lonely isn’t available because if they sit in their house too long, one of their neighbors is gonna be knocking on their door to get them to come to church or to the city festival or ’cause they need to be pitched in. Blue Zone Solution advocates reshaping your environment or designing your surroundings so that the healthy choice is easier in ways that will surprise you.

The Blue Zones of Happiness emerged out of, first of all, an observation where people live a long time, they also tend to be pretty happy, but not always, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t make sense to live to 100 if you’re miserable along the way. So why don’t we just apply the same technique? You find the measurably happiest places in the world, and once we know that this place has achieved the outcomes we want, i.e., happier people, now let’s look at the elements of these places that seem to be yielding happiness, and that’s what Blue Zones of Happiness does.

Guy

Yeah, got it. Do you think, is it the happiness that’s contributing to the longevity, or is it that the fact that they’re happy, they’re making better choices, or …

Dan

That’s a very good question, and the answer is, it’s like yin and yang. You cannot separate the two; they have tendrils in each other. If you are among the 20% of the happiest people in Australia, you’re gonna live about eight years longer than the lowest 20%, so managing your life to be happy is gonna add years to your life. And conversely, the same things that you would do to live a long time and live healthily, i.e., we know eating plant-based foods … If you’re eating five or six servings of vegetables a day, you’re about 20% more likely to be happy. If you’re socially connected with good people, you’re more likely to be healthy and you’re more likely to be happy. The happiest people in the world are socializing face to face, not FaceTime, six to seven hours a day. Physical activity … If you’re obese or overweight, you’re 11% less likely to be happy that if you’re in shape. So when you go out and do your morning routine, whether it’s walking or yoga or whatever it is, you’re not just doing it to be fit; you’re also doing it to be happier, or the bonus is you’ll be happier, I guess.

Stu

Are the happiest people living the longest? I mean, as part of your studies, you would’ve looked at Blue Zones and happiness. Was that correlation there, or are there a group of really happy people that perhaps aren’t living as long as the …

Dan

You know, I wrote this month’s cover story for National Geographic, November’s issue, and profiled the statistically happiest places in the world, so one of them, counterintuitively perhaps, is Singapore, happiest place in Asia … Very high in life satisfaction. It has the second highest life expectancy in the world. Costa Rica … One of our Blue Zones areas, Nicoya, is in Costa Rica. Also Cartago, Costa Rica, which is the happiest place in the world, is in Costa Rica. Denmark … Until about 1960, they were the longest living people in the world, also the happiest people. Boulder, Colorado … Happiest place in America. It also has the lowest BMI and the healthiest food index. So yes, they go hand in hand.

Stu

Right.

Guy

Yeah, wow. And how do you break that down and then measure it. I’m fascinated. Is it, like, something you’ve put together and then you go and kind of work your way through it so they meet all this criteria and go …

Dan

I have this special little happiness box with really sophisticated electronics. No, I’m kidding. So, there are these enormous databases, Gallup World Poll and the World Database of Happiness out of the Netherlands, and together they have aggregated survey results from 155 countries. And all the surveys kind of work the same. They ask people to think of their life as a whole and to tell the surveyor how happy they are on a scale of one to ten, so that gets you to evaluate your whole life. You get some places like Moldavia, where people, on average, say four, and places like Denmark, where people say almost a nine. Then they also ask another version of happiness. In the last 24 hours, how often have you felt joy and happiness and smiled and laughed and felt stress? So that gets at something called positive affect, or your positive daily emotion. You ask those two questions, and then you ask 70 other questions about people’s age and gender and values and how they spend their day and how much money they make, and using this statistical maneuver called a regression analysis, you can find out when people say they’re very happy, you can also find out the things that they do that seem to accompany happiness. So before I struck off on my research, I spent about a year with these databases to identify what things accompany happiness. So where people are saying, “I love my life, and I’m experiencing my life wonderfully,” what’s going on with their life? And you can see very clearly those things. You can also deploy these databases to tell you the happiest places in the world, or where people report the highest, and that’s what I did for Blue Zones of Happiness and the geographic story.

Guy

Wow. That’s comprehensive, eh? A question that pops in, you mentioned the word “stress” as well. Are these areas … Do they have stressful environments there at all, and does that influence their outcome as well? ‘Cause I just think about our lifestyles and things, and stress can be quite a constant, which is deterring from our happiness, but …

Dan

Well, I actually argue that our build environment generates stress. So imagine that you could live in one of two cities. The first city … a lot of freeways, no sidewalks, traffic zips by at 100 kilometers an hour, there are no trees, there are no parks, same people; or option 2, where the City Council has made sure that traffic moves slowly, there are bike lanes, wide sidewalks, there are trees, traffic is routed outside, lots of access to green spaces. Which place do you think you’re gonna experience less stress?

Guy

Totally. Yeah.

Dan

The latter. So the places that I profile in this magazine article and the book are places where they’ve designed the built environment to be less stressful. Where people get in trouble is, they say to themselves, “I’m really stressed. I’m gonna remember to meditate every morning and be less stressful.” It never works, because you remember to do shit only for a few months and then you forget, but if you move from a place with terrible traffic to a placid place with walkable streets, you’re gonna naturally feel less stress for decades, or as long as you live there. What I try to do in Blue Zones is for each of these–life satisfaction, purpose, positive affect, stress–to try to describe how you would shape your environment to stack the deck in favor of a better, happier life for the long run. In other words, I suggest how to reshape your environment for happiness.

Guy

Got it.

Stu

In terms of reshaping your environment, are there any of those elements that you’re looking at … In terms of changing your environment to become happier, are there any of those elements that sit higher than others, that if we made immediate change would have a massive effect on our happiness?

Dan

Yes. So if happiness were a cake recipe, everybody needs the basics, right? You need food. You need water. You need shelter. You need some healthcare. You need health. Having the right partner’s important. Having meaningful work is important. Having a little bit of money to treat yourself … being able to give back … All those things are important, but the most important ingredient in that cake recipe is where you live. In other words, if you live in an unhappy place and you and your family want to get happier, the best thing to do would be to move to a happier place. So you might roll your eyes and say, “Ugh! How do you do that? I can’t move!” Well, the average adult moves 10 times in their adult life, and now if you look at Gallup–they have a huge database–you can find exactly the places in your country where people are happiest. And that’s about the most powerful thing you can do. We know this works because when you follow immigrants … 500,000 immigrants … from unhappy places like Africa and parts of Southeast Asia as they move to very happy Canada, regardless of their age, their gender, their sexual preference, their education level … The only thing they change is their home, and within one year, they start reporting the happiness level of their adoptive home, not Canada. So moving is the biggest thing. It’s just important to know that because most of what we think makes us happy is misguided or just plain wrong. People think having a baby is gonna make them happy. No. Usually it creates a drop in your daily promotions. Making more than about $60,000 a year … You might feel better about your life and feel more pride, but your daily experience usually doesn’t improve as you make more money. It’s knowing the things that make a difference. What does make a difference is, if you hang out with grumpy people who sit around and bitch, if you make an effort to make some friends who have meaningful conversations with you, who care about you on a bad day, who like comedy, who are naturally happily disposed, that is contagious. And [inaudible 00:17:01] tend to be longterm adventures. So how you cure your immediate social network, how you shape your social environment, has enormous, immeasurable impacts on your happiness over time.

Stu

Got it. Yeah.

Guy

Yeah. Wow.

Stu

That makes sense.

Guy

It does. They say you’re the sum of the five closest people to you, I think, or something like that. I do often think about community, so it’s definitely something people should be starting to look at if they’re starting to feel they’re not happy at any level at all. Yeah. Amazing. Question for you as well, Dan: Since you’ve been looking at this work around this, have you changed your lifestyle a lot over the last few years, or have you always kind of gravitated to this kind of way of being anyway?

Dan

Well, I’ve become mostly plant-based. I generally don’t take on too much work. I say no a lot more. Getting sleep is huge for both happiness and longevity. If you’re not sleeping at least seven and a half hours a night, you’re cheating yourself on both longevity … so I get that. And I put a real emphasis in my relationships. I’ve gotten rid of a bunch of …

Guy

Sorry, Dan, we lost you for a sec there, mate.

Dan

[inaudible 00:18:24]

Guy

Yeah, you’re back. Yeah. Sorry, could you repeat that last answer. We missed that one.

Dan

No, it’s a shameless plug for my friend Sarah Wilson. I read the book I Quit Sugar, which actually is a very good book and helps people get healthier. Yeah.

Guy

Right. Got it. Okay. Yeah, no, we had Sarah on the podcast a while back. She’s a great advocate for living simply as well, for sure. Now before we move on, ’cause I got a few questions outside of the Blue Zones as well for you, in the original Blue Zone book … and I just wanna touch on this ’cause I believe we’re gonna be exposing you to a lot of people who are not even familiar with the whole Blue Zone thing, and this will be the first time they’re gonna be hearing it … But you talk about the power of nine, and I was interested … if you could quickly talk about that and then how that influences the happiness factors as well. Dan: Well, so we found five areas where people live the longest: Sardinia, Italy, longest-lived men; Okinawa, Japan, longest-lived women; Ikaria, Greece; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and among the Seventh Day Adventists. And we tried to find the common denominator. So no matter where you go and people live a long time, here are the characteristics, and there are nine of them. They [inaudible 00:19:46] rather than exercise. They eat a plant-based diet. They have vocabulary for purpose. They curate their social network, and they have four or five really good friends that they invest in. They invest heavily in their family. They tend to be religious and show up. They have sacred daily rituals to reverse the stress of everyday life. They have strategies to keep from overeating, like eating a big breakfast and a small dinner, no electronics in the kitchen. And finally, they drink a little bit; they drink probably two, three glasses of wine a day, and no, you can’t save up all week long and have 14 on the weekend. So those are the nine things. But the bigger point when it comes to longevity … I could tell you all day long things that you can do to live longer. If I told you, “Guess what, guys! Don’t tell anybody, but if you eat broccoli every day, you’ll live an extra ten years!” Well, if you don’t like broccoli, you ain’t gonna get those ten years. At the end of the day, places where people live a long time, they do so because they shape their environment. The longest lived people in the world, they have no idea how they live so long. Longevity happened to them. It ensued from living in the right place. It’s not something that they pursued through diet or exercise or taking a supplement or any of that other crap.

Guy

Yeah, yeah. We can definitely get caught up and stress ourselves out if we’re doing the right thing as opposed to just living, you know? We see it all the time.

Dan

Yeah, but I … You know, Blue Zone Solution, which you just held up … Thank you for that … a moment ago … That choice, once again, suggests a blueprint of how you shape your life, rather than asking you to remember to eat vegetables all day long, I will ask you to reshape your kitchen, redesign your kitchen and learn a few plant-based, ideally bean, recipes. I would say beans are the cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world. Learn plant-based recipes that you like, make sure your kitchen is set up so it’s easy for you to make them, and make a few vegetarian friends. That’ll have a bigger impact on how you eat that any diet, program, Paleo, or any of that other crap, that people do with great enthusiasm for nine months and then they drop off and they never do it again.

Stu

Dan, where’s the unhappiest place on the planet?

Dan

Usually my house after a night of hard drinking. Well, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Syria … I mean, they’re places you would expect, actually.

Stu

Yeah, okay.

Guy

Yeah, fair enough.

Stu

Interesting.

Guy

What would your advice be to someone if somebody listening to this right now is … ’cause when you’re unhappy or depressed, it can be difficult to make good choices, I believe. That’s what it was like for me when I wasn’t in a great place. What would your advice be to them? Would it be to grab a copy of the book and start having a look at that and then they can start to see the areas that they’re there …

Dan

No, but thank you for saying that. For some people, yes. There’s a distinction between depression and anxiety, which about one-sixth of people will suffer. And if you think you suffer from depression and anxiety, you should go online and there’s a simple depression test, very easy. It asks you 10 questions, and if you have the symptoms, you go see a therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy … and there’s a bunch of them in Australia, and it’s a proven approach for about 50% of people suffering from depression and anxiety to resolve that. Lack of happiness is not the same as … Or getting less unhappy is not the same as getting more happy, if you know what I mean. In other words, if you’re depressed, that takes you down one path that you need … you should get attention. But if you’re a normal dude or woman. How do you say dude and woman in Australia? It’s like …

Guy

Sheila, would be …

Dan

Sheila! A sheila! And a joey! Yeah, so if you’re a normal sheila and a normal joey … I actually know a joey who’s a little kangaroo, but anyway. So one thing to start is on my website, bluezones.com, we have this true happiness test, and it’s free and we did it with the University of Minnesota. It’s very well done, and it will diagnose you. There’s three kinds of happiness: your positive affect, day-to-day emotions; your life satisfaction; your purpose. It will grade you and will tell you the things that you could do to get happier. And I would start there. Of course, I’d love it if people bought Blue Zones of Happiness, and I think it really does work, but I don’t wanna just self-promote here. Took me a decade to write the book.

Guy

Yeah, well.

Stu

A happy period in your life, no doubt.

Dan

Right now?

Stu

No, when you were writing that book, during that decade.

Dan

No, let me tell you something. Anybody who tells you they love to write, you can be pretty sure they’re not a writer. A flogging! I like doing the research, and I like having it written and do cool podcasts with cool guys in Australia, but I hate writing.

Stu

Yeah, no, you’re not the first author to say that either. It’s a common trend. Oh, boy. Well, we’re very thankful that you did write the book and I thoroughly enjoyed the others. And I’m very much aware that we’re running short on time for you as well, so we just got a couple of wrap-up questions that we just like to get through. And the first one for me is, your daily non-negotiables, to be the best person of yourself, things that you simply can’t live without and you do every single day, what would they be?

Dan

A, sleep at least seven and a half hours. B, eat mostly plants all day long, you know, nuts and beans. C, give something back; find something to give back and not just focus on yourself and your own 99 problems. I like to talk to somebody in my family even though I travel around a lot. I go out, I socialize every single day. Non-negotiable. And I get some sort of physical activity every single day. It is a rare day that I don’t … In fact, it’s a rare day. In fact, right after I get done with this, I’m gonna go jump on my bike and ride the hills.

Stu

Brilliant. Brilliant.

Guy

Beautiful. Beautiful. And last question, mate: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Dan

Well, my editor at National Geographic said to me a long time, if you want to be an explorer, you can’t just go places. In the past, you know if you climbed Mount Everest or found the South Pole, that was a big find, but we’ve now covered every inch of the earth. As an explorer, if you wanna be relevant, you have to find something that adds to the body of knowledge or somehow enlightens the human condition. And that exploration with a purpose has really been a guide to my professional career over the past 20 years. I know that’s very sort of personalized to me. I think Joseph Campbell probably summed it up best when … It sounds like a cliché, but … “Follow your bliss.” And at the end of the day, if you’re following your bliss, even if you don’t make your goal, you’ve enjoyed the journey.

Guy

Yeah, totally.

Stu

Good advice. Good advice.

Guy

And judging by your books, it’s been quite a journey you’ve been on, Dan. That’s for sure, mate. So it’s fantastic. Mate, for everyone listening to this, where’s the best place to send them if they wanna check out more of your work, do the test, and grab a copy of your book?

Dan

Twitter or Instagram, @BlueZones, plural, and Amazon’s a great place for the book. BlueZones.com, we a have a free True Vitality Test which will match you your life expectancy and a free happiness test called the True Happiness Test, which tells how happy you are. A lot of the information that you might otherwise have to go to the book to find, quite honestly, we provide a lot of it for free just on our website, so we’d love to see you there. I’m very proud to have a connection to my Australian brethren and sisteren, or all the lovely sheilas out there.

Stu

As we would say over here, you’ve been a great bloke.

Dan

Oh! That’s bloke! Bloke and sheila, thank you. What a good one.

Stu

So no, look, thank you so much, Dan. We really appreciate it. We’ll share all of the links and the notes across our audience. We won’t stop you from hopping on your bike and

Dan

Hitting those hills.

Stu

Very thankful for sharing some of your time. Thank you, mate.

Dan

I really had fun, guys. Have a nice day.

Stu

Thanks, guys.

Guy

Thank you.

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