(Health)

Is Blue Zone Living The Secret To Happiness?

Maybe, but experts say it won’t be easy.

By Erika Stalder
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Blue Zone living

What would you do to live your longest, healthiest, and happiest life? It’s the $4.5 trillion dollar question that the wellness industry is built on, one amplified by a year of living in lockdown and fueled by a never-ending stream of health experts peddling supplements, exercise programs, and diet plans all purported to optimize health.

Then there’s National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner. “Everybody else is going to talk about some damn diet or some exercise program. I am not going to tell you about that because they're full of it,” says the explorer who came on the scene about 10 years ago with a different inroad to longevity and happiness. Buettner and fellow researchers identified five places in the world where people statistically live longer, healthier, and happier lives. They dubbed these places (which include Ikaria, Greece, Okinawa, Japan, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, and Loma Linda, California) “blue zones” and Buettner has been using them as models to appeal to society’s quest for ultimate wellness ever since.

A few of the nine common practices he and his team identified concerning people in blue zones: they eat whole foods-based, plant-based, and bean-based diets. They stop eating when their bellies are 80% full. They sip wine with friends. They also enjoy days peppered with natural and frequent movement (like walking, biking, and gardening) and partake in daily stress reducers, like napping or praying. These habits encompass a lot of what many others aspire to do in the name of self-care — particularly after a year in which everyone cooked more for themselves and enjoyed the little things, like taking walks around the neighborhood.

OK, so Buettner isn’t entirely sitting out America’s $192 billion weight management industry, but he's pitching a bigger idea that requires more than a few new purchases on Amazon to put into play. In order to live to be 100, like those in blue zones, people have to make some major moves and a big change in thinking.

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Why Blue Zones Work

“The general principle of blue zones is to represent a pretty big paradigm shift in the way we think about health because of trying to change people's behavior,” Beuttner says. “We can sell books, programs, and supplements, but they never work (or they only work for a few more than a few percent of people in the long run). When it comes to longevity without a long-term effort or intervention, it's a waste of time.”

That’s because contrary to what we’ve long subscribed to, optimizing health requires more than a change in diet and exercise. As Buettner notes, it’s also about tapping into the structural cultural practices that support a longer, happier life. Those in blue zones tend to live longer because they don’t tend to see the chronic diseases people often battle in their lifetimes, like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. But the reason for this is not because people in these areas are overtly precious when it comes to health. They have another weapon: deep-seated, cultural practices in an environment set up to support their health.

For example, while a city like Los Angeles may have a reputation as being health-conscious, it didn’t make the original Blue Zones list like Loma Linda, California did. What does Loma Linda have that LA doesn’t? A concentrated population that gets a sense of belonging through faith-based community. Loma Linda happens to be home to the highest concentration of Seventh Day Adventists, who have been shown to live 10 years longer than their North American counterparts, according to Blue Zones research.

“People in Blue Zones don’t have better discipline or better responsibility than those outside of Blue Zones. It’s that they're living in an environment where the healthy choice is unavoidable, or at least a lot easier, ” Buettner says. “Meanwhile, we live in a way where the unhealthy choice is in our face 24/7.”

There are plenty of factors that set blue zoners up for success just by way of environment and cultural tradition and they’re factors that we don’t see as much of in many larger American cities or ways of life. For example, this includes the ability to take a nap in the afternoon versus slamming a sad salad at your desk during lunchtime. There’s also natural, built-in opportunities for body movement every 20 minutes (instead of a HIIT workout sandwiched between eight to 10 hours of sedentary work and binge-watching Netflix) and easy access to fresh, plant-based foods.

“The reason people in blue zones are eating mostly a whole food, plant-based diet and are moving every 20 minutes is because their life is underpinned with purpose, they're surrounded by the right to friends,” Buettner says. “It's this interconnected web of mutually supporting factors that keep people doing the right things for long enough so they don't develop a chronic disease. And that's what we've got to be thinking. You've got to be thinking of scaffolding.”

This is where the heavy lifting comes in. If creating our own blue zone bubble extends past an “eat this, not that” mentality or downloading the latest meditation app, then can we really adopt blue zones living if our culture and environment are not set up for it? Buettner thinks it’s possible, but it will take some serious life changes.

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Rethink Your Social Network

“The way you set yourself up for doing it for the long run is number one: get your social network right,” Buettner says. By this, he means investing in friendships that support more active, healthy choices. “I'm not telling you to dump your old friends. I am telling you to know who you're hanging out with and how they're affecting your health and maybe it's a good idea to augment or reorder your immediate social circle,” he explains.

Why start there? According to Tal Ben-Shahar, a lecturer at Columbia University and author of seven books on happiness, including the best-seller Happier, “The number one predictor of happiness is the time we spend with people we care about and who care about us.” So if the time spent with friends is so crucial, it makes sense to make friends that support one’s well-being, too.

Restructuring your friend group is a big deal — and Buettner acknowledges this. “People say that sounds like a lot of crap or a lot of work, but it's probably the best thing you can do,” he says. “If we have friends whose idea of fun is sitting on the couch, what are we going to do when we're hanging out with them? If you really made an effort to make a friend whose idea of recreation is playing tennis or biking, then when you hang out with that person by default you're going to end up doing something active or something that engages the mind.”

Dr. Camille Johnson, an associate dean for Research and Faculty Success at the College of Social Sciences at San Jose University, whose research focuses on social comparison, backs up this idea that you are the company you keep. “There's research that shows that other people trigger positive goals in us and remind us of our aspirations,” she says.

If you do restructure your network as Buettner suggests, be realistic about how you do it. “Your new friend has to be someone who's sort of within your realm of reality,” says Johnson. Reluctant runners, for example, shouldn’t try to seek marathon runners as their new besties with the idea that they will positively influence healthier habits. “You have to be around people who are at least within your realm of attainability and of reality,” Johnson says.

But there’s more to a friendship than nudging positive health outcomes. If our friends didn’t deliver humor, love, empathy, and other forms of support, we’d still face a social network deficit. Johnson also stresses that we shouldn’t have to ditch legacy friends to make room for a more health-conscious cohort. “Our capacity for friendship is not limited,” she says. “You can make new friends while keeping the old friends understanding that you might come to them for different needs.”

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Location, Location, Location

Once you’ve realigned your friend group to be one that’s supportive of healthy living, there’s another giant ask Buettner brings to the table: Move to a city that ranks highly on the Gallup Well-being Index. That’s right, pack up your things and go.

“This is harder, but it's good to know that just moving to a place like Santa Barbara, California or Boulder, Colorado where the food environment and built environment will constantly nudge you more into eating and living better,” Buettner says. “We know the life expectancy of people in eastern Kentucky is 25 years lower than it is in a place like Boulder and that's not because the people in Kentucky are lesser Americans or they take less responsibility, it's the environment that’s so important.”

Moving in the name of future possible health benefits is a hard sell, albeit one that’s become more palatable since the pandemic, when a slowdown in lifestyle created more fluidity in many peoples’ lives. Still, packing up in the name of health isn’t exactly easy: What about your hard-earned job that happens to only be offered in a stressful city that’s not even remotely structured like a blue zones area? To that Buettner says we’re failing to see the forest from the trees. “At the end of the day, what's more important than you and your family? Keep your job or have your kids stay in the same school or that you live a healthy enjoyable life? The average American moves about 10 times in his or her adult life. That's about 10 opportunities to do your research and move to a place that’s more walkable, where you have access to fruits, vegetables, greenspace, recreation, and to people who share your values,” he says. “Instead we move into these big suburban, soul-less, drywall palaces at the end of a cul-de-sac and think we're gonna find the American dream there. You're never going to find it there.”

As Johnson points out, the freedom to pack up and go assumes a base level of income that not everyone has banked. “The ability to choose a place to live based on health goals is an option that only becomes open to us once we have established a level of income or financial stability that allows us to make that choice either because of a lack of responsibilities to others or financial independence or some sort,” she notes.

If you have that freedom, choosing where to live based on how “blue” it may be could be a very good thing, particularly because holding on to a higher-paying job may not pay off in the long run, considering the connection between money and happiness is actually pretty weak, according to research.

For all the utopic findings from blue zone researchers that show the benefits of overhauling the way we think about and practice wellness, building our own blue zone may be out of reach if not done incrementally. We may be able to adjust our diet, for example, but moving to a new place requires funds. What’s more, given the cultural nature of many of the nine commonly held blue zone practices — which includes keeping your family first, knowing your purpose, belonging to a faith-based community, and attending a weekly spiritually-based services — creating a perfect blue zone copy might not be possible anyway.

“Cultures are rich and there's so many things we don't understand about them and you can't just pick a few pieces out of it and put it in your life and expect it to change everything else about your life,” Johnson says. “Americans tend to be more individualistic as a culture versus in an collectivistic culture — and it's not a bad thing, it's just that we tend to have different thresholds for what we consider a friend versus an acquaintance and feel different obligations to friends and family then other cultures do, so it is hard to pluck what they say happens in another culture and put it into our world because it's complex — and our world is already complex.”

Speaking of cultural tendencies, Johnson offers another dose of reality: When it comes to health and wellness, it’s all too easy for Americans to measure their own standards against those with far more resources (hi Kate Hudson and your in-house pilates studio), only to get frustrated when we ultimately fail. So when it comes to adopting a blue zones way of life, Johnson warns against measuring success against that of prominent wellness figures, as we want to do, and try keeping it real. “Gwyneth? Don't compare yourself to her. I mean seriously. I don’t want to hear about anyone who has a personal chef because that’s not my life,” she says matter of factly. “Compare yourself to those who have similar resources as you do.”

Buettner discourages the idea of cherry-picking just a few aspects of blue zones living and expecting optimal results. But as we start our quest to achieve total blue zones living one day, Johnson suggests adopting manageable measures for now — say modeling blue zones eating, movement practices, or happy hour habits — and being okay with establishing a light-blue zone or cerulean zone until we have further choice and mobility to delve deeper into the blue. “We can cause ourselves more stress when we think we have to adopt every one of these things,” she notes.

What’s more, ultimate happiness doesn’t snap into place the minute you hit a certain birthday or achieve total blue zones living — it’s built by stuff that happens along the way. For happiness expert Ben-Sharar’s money, that includes expressing gratitude for what we do have and can achieve — a realization many of us had during lockdown. “We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, like people, food, and nature,” he advises. With that, and a little conscientious social and environmental restructuring, we may just make it to 100, free of chronic disease and with a fat smile on our face.