Hey, it’s Marie Forleo and you are watching MarieTV, the place to be to create a business and life you love. Now, if you want to give yourself the best possible chance of having a long, happy and healthy life, my guest today is here to show us how.
Dan Buettner is an explorer, National Geographic Fellow and award winning journalist who’s discovered the five places in the world dubbed Blue Zones where people live the longest, healthiest lives. He’s a New York Times bestselling author of four books on the topic: The Blue Zones, Thrive, The Blue Zones Solution, and The Blue Zones of Happiness. His Blue Zones projects have dramatically improved the health of more than five million Americans to date.
Dan has been seen on the Today Show, Oprah, NBC Nightly News and Good Morning America. He also holds three Guinness World Records in distant cycling.
Dan, thank you so much for making the time to be here. I’m a huge fan of your work. I was telling you off camera that I saw a talk that you did, and I went down the Dan Buettner Blue Zones rabbit hole. I bought all of your books.
It sounds very dark.
It was really, really fun. After working all day and being on the computer, it was a source of such joy for me. I was like, “Oh, I’m getting to go into the Blue Zones again.” Let’s take it back. Tell us how you ended up for the past 15 years studying longevity and happiness. How’d you get here?
I’ve been a lifelong explorer, started out setting three world record for biking across five continents and eventually got with National Geographic where I led scientific expeditions to solve ancient mysteries. Why the Maya civilization collapsed. Did Marco Polo go to China?
In the year 2000, I stumbled upon a very interesting report from the World Health Organization that found that Okinawans have the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. In other words, they live a really long time and they avoid the diseases that are killing us. I said, “Aha, that’s a good mystery.” It’s been since 2001 or so I’ve been trying to, in a sense, reverse engineer longevity, and then later, happiness.
Happiness, it is somewhat a nebulous term, right? It’s really difficult to define, and from what I’ve learned from you, it’s a composite of things. As you’ve shared that while, yes, we cannot really measure happiness, we can measure the facets of it. There are three big ones. Can you tell us about those?
Yes. The first one and the most commonly used question is around something called life satisfaction. A researcher will ask you, if you think of your life as a whole with your best imaginable life being a 10 and your worst imaginable life being a one, where would you place your happiness? When that’s done at the population level, you can get a really good reading on how well people and places evaluate their lives.
Then there’s a kind of measure of happiness where you get at how people experience their lives. Because you only remember about 2% of your life, you tend to remember your high points––when you got married or had your first child––and your low points––when you got dumped by a girlfriend or boyfriend or when your grandma died––and what happened the last 24 hours. Asking people to remember their lives isn’t a perfect way to measure wellbeing. But if you ask people, in the last 24 hours, how much have you smiled? How much have you felt joy? How much have you felt stressed? You do that a few times, you get a pretty good snapshot in how people experience their lives. That’s called positive affect.
Then there’s the third kind of happiness measurement that ask people how often they’re able to use their strength to do what they do best. That’s in the academic parlance how you measure purpose.
When you ask those questions among populations around the world in a uniformed way, you can start to see, number one, where people are happiest in these three measurements, and number two, the things that associate with happiness or correlate to happiness.
Tell us about some of the happiest places.
Blue Zones of Happiness and the cover story I wrote for National Geographic sought to illustrate each of these three types of happiness. We chose Singapore as the place that best demonstrate life satisfaction. Singapore is a place where it’s very easy to live out your values. It’s very secure. It’s a place that will appeal to the type of people who like success laid out in a very simple path. Go to the right school. Get the right job. Keep your head down. Work hard. And at the end, you’ll have status. You’ll be financially secure and that’s a type of happiness. It’s mostly happiness in the rear-view mirror. I think I’m happy. Therefore, I must be.
In Costa Rica, specifically Cartago in the Central Valley, that’s a place where people are experiencing their life very well from day-to-day. It’s a high valley where the temperature only varies 10 degrees a year between about 65 degrees and 75 degree. Best coffee in the world. But more importantly, it’s a place where the cities are designed so you’re bumping into people with some frequency all the time. You go to the market. You run into the people selling you your fruits or your vegetables or your fish. The streets are built for human beings and not just cars.
One of the biggest predictors of whether you’ll be happy at a day-to-day basis is how many hours of face-to-face time you have with people you like. The happiest people in the world are interacting face-to-face about seven hours a day. Cartago has an environment where it’s easy to do that.
Then we chose Northern Denmark, a place called Aalborg to exemplify purpose because Denmark is a place where healthcare is taken care of. Nobody has to worry about what happens if I get sick. Education is taken care of. Nobody has to worry about can I save enough money to put my kids through college? Because kids not only go to college, they get paid to go to university. Will I be okay when I’m old? Those are big drivers of whether or not you take a job. It’s also a place where status is not really celebrated. You get no extra credit from wearing Prada or driving a Mercedes. In fact, it’s kind of frowned upon.
People aren’t taking jobs for status or health insurance. They’re taking jobs because they love it. In America, only about 30% of workers actually like their job. This comes from Gallup data. In Denmark, it’s about 80%. They’re working 35 hours a week. They’re doing jobs suggestive of flow: furniture design, architecture, niche technology. That’s what they excel in in Denmark. These are jobs that really engage people’s passions and their artistic abilities. It’s not so hard that they give up and not so easy they get bored. They work 35 hours a week, take six weeks of vacation. They have plenty of time for the social interaction we know is really fundamental when it comes to happiness.
Was it interesting for you being energetically in these different places? Could you feel just for yourself, whoa, when you’re in Costa Rica that sense? I’ve been to Costa Rica several times, and what’s the saying of the country? It is Viva …
Yes. I would say more so in Costa Rica than the other places because you really have to live there. It’s not quite as easy to go there. Of course you get the vacation effect. I don’t have to work today for crying out loud. But the sunshine and the beach is near and all those things. That’s a different experience than actually living there.
The reality we find that when it comes to happiness most people are misguided or just plain wrong. In fact we more often than not aim at the wrong target when it comes to lasting authentic happiness. If you really want to understand those places, it can’t just be a facile, “well, I went there. I felt happy and people danced and we went to parties.” That’s not it.
Yeah. Let’s talk more about that though, how people are aiming at the wrong things because I’ve read that you suggest we think about happiness more like a retirement portfolio and that should be balanced.
Yes. People ask me what’s the secret to happiness, and that’s like going to your doctor and say, “Doctor, I’m sick. Make me well.” You have to do some diagnostic. We talked about life satisfaction, how you experience life and purpose. You want those three to be balanced. You could work 70 hours a week and make a quarter of a million dollars a year and feel financially secure and your friends are all impressed with you, but your day-to-day experience is crappy. That’s not happiness even though you checked all the boxes in life.
We actually have on our website, bluezones.com, we have a true happiness test, which is a diagnostic we did with the University of Pennsylvania that will ask you about 40 questions to be able to diagnose you. Are you experiencing mostly life satisfaction or experience happiness or lack of purpose? We assess where you are in those three and then we give you a prescriptive. It’s free by the way.
I love it.
Go try it.
We’ll make sure that we include that in the blog and we include that in the email as well. According to science, we humans have control of about 50% of our happiness, right? The other 50% is about genetics and luck?
Lasting happiness from your perspective is something that everyone can create. How do we start to take charge of that 50%?
I think to realize that… 50% is genetically prescribed for each of us. We all have what I call a set range. Imagine scale 1 to 10 and you’re a really happy person. On a good day, you’re a 10. On a crappy day, you’re a six. But somebody down the street who was born with a bad set of genes, on a good day, they’re a six. On a crappy, they’re a two. You have control of where you are within your set range. You might be able to get out of it a little bit but really you’re sort of, for lack of a better… hormonally endowed with a certain capacity for happiness.
I argue in Blue Zones of Happiness that if you want to maximize your set range, you want to shape your environment so you’re more likely to be happy. There’s big data around happy, the Gallup, World Poll, World Database of Happiness. For the book and the National Geographic article, we sucked in a hundred million data points and did the regression analysis to find out exactly what you could do to stack the deck in favor of happiness.
Tell us Dan, tell us.
Well there’s a number of things you can do. So if happiness were a cake recipe it’s important to… You need food, and shelter, and education. That’s, by the way why Bhutan is not a very happy place. Bhutan is number ninety-one in the world. Everybody thinks Bhutan is a happy place, it’s not a happy place.
They did a good marketing campaign, right?
They did a good marketing campaign, and they do deserve credit for coming up with the idea of Gross National Happiness. So if you can’t measure, you can’t manage it. So they get big kudos. They just don’t have an economy, or a distribution scheme so that enough people have the basics in life. So you need the basics. You need education, you don’t need to have a doctorate degree. But it’s really important to have at least a high school, and some college to maximize your happiness. You need satisfying work, you’re more likely to be happy if you’re in a committed relationship, then not. Having kids, by the way, is a mixed bag. You want to have a feeling of giving back.
But the most important ingredient, the ingredient with the most variance, is where you live. And we know that because watching immigrants move from Moldavia, an unhappy place in the Soviet bloc country, to Copenhagen. And when we watch people from unhappy places in Africa, and Asia, move to Canada, which is a happy place. Those immigrants, they don’t change their sex, their gender. They don’t change their education status much, they don’t change their genetic endowment, they don’t change their sexual preference. They’re the same people, and all they do is move, and within one year they report the happiness level of their adopted home. So Moldavia for example, the average score is three, they move to an eight.
And in Canada they move from a four, or five to an eight. And all they do is move. So your environment, where you live or how you shape your surroundings, is the biggest, most important, and most impactful thing you can do to favor your own happiness.
Let’s talk about that for a second, because we have viewers, excuse me, in a 195 countries around the world. And there will be a certain portion of people listening to this, who hopefully will dive into all of your work, there’s what I want them to do. And they may discover, you know what, I am gonna pick up and move, I’m not a tree. So they might be able to, and we’ll talk about more about what makes for a great environment in terms of where you live. But I know there are many, many other thousands of people watching go okay, well if I can’t pick up and move, or necessarily change where I live, at least right now.
Let’s talk about some of those shapers of our immediate environment, and what we can do to stack the deck in our favor.
Yeah, so the first and foremost is curate a group of friends around you. We now know that unhappiness, and loneliness are contagious. If you sit around with people who are unhappy and are lonely… I’m not telling you to abandon your old friends because they need a hand. But if you’re continuously doing, that’s gonna be contagious. You can actually measure that. A guy named Nicholas Christakis has found that. You want three to five friends who: number one, you can have meaningful conversations with them, and I mean conversations of the heart. Not just spots, or celebrity. These should be friends you can call on a bad day, and they’ll care. That’s kind of the litmus test. If my chips are down, are they still gonna be with me.
And number three, you actually have to like them. And you wanna sense them face to face. There’s no really good research showing that connecting on Facebook, or Snapchat or something is the same as what we’re doing right now, connecting face-to-face. Number two, when it comes to your financial life, the impact of financial security is about three times more powerful than consumption. What does that mean? That means if you just got a raise, or there’s some money left over in your paycheck, over time you’re actually better off paying down your mortgage, buying insurance, joining one of these automatic savings plans, than you are going out and buying a new pair of shoes, or a new gadget. Because the luster of that new thing will wear off in nine to fourteen months. But financial security can last years, decades, or lifetimes. So that’s more important.
I would say when it comes to your work life, this comes from more than two million surveys from Gallup. The biggest determiner of whether or not you like your job, is not how much money you make, not how much recognition you get, not what your boss tells you about yourself. It’s do you have a best friend at work.
I loved this insight, tell us more.
Yeah, so if you don’t like your job, or its suboptimal, making the effort to invite a coworker out, to organize the happy hour. I actually, I run these Blue Zone projects around the world, or around the country actually. About forty cities, and we have over a hundred workplaces that work with us, and one of things we do, we actually create Moais. We require, a Moai is a committed social network, and we get all the employees to come together and we have a process by which we help them break into groups of five, and then we organize them around either walking, a healthy activity, or eating Blue Zones food, which is to say plant based whole foods. We find that about 60-70% of the time, these people, these kids, or these workers stay together, and become best friends.
That’s amazing. I was talking about this to someone the other day, and I was telling you off camera that we have a virtual company. And so we don’t see each other face to face every day. But, Team Forleo, which we call ourselves, everyone really actually-
Where did you get that name?
I don’t know, it was such a creative brainstorm. But everyone really likes each other, and one of the things that’s been really satisfying for me, as a boss is often times when my team has break time, or we go on vacation, or there’s downtime, they get together in person on their own. And it makes me so happy, because everybody winds up sending pictures. And like oh I visited my friend here, but then I’m gonna go see so-and-so, and it’s such a great feeling to know how connected everyone is. And then when we talk with folks who don’t have a culture like we have, and I see so much pain because they don’t feel connected to anyone at work. It becomes really apparent, because we’re spending what eight, ten, twelve hours a day, five days a week, if not more.
Most of your waking life.
Do you actually vacation together?
So last year I took the entire company, they’re off camera raising hands. We actually all went on vacation together to Mexico, and there was absolutely no business meeting at all. We danced, we drank Margaritas, we went in the ocean at midnight, because we were like dancing and sweating and we were like we need to cool off. But it was one of the best things that we’ve ever done as a company.
Oh fantastic. That’s so smart.
Yeah, it was really great, and we have memories that will last a lifetime.
And then it also kind of sends the message, by the way, that your employees aren’t just here to further the interest of the company. That you actually care about.
Oh yeah, they know that.
And that’s transparent, yeah.
Absolutely, I mean how do you feel? You know mama loves you?
Mama, I like that.
Mama Marie. Well I don’t have biological kids, I have a step son, but I’m affectionately known as Mama Marie. So let me… One of the other things I love about your perspective, because it’s so fresh. That you’re not a huge advocate of positive psychology techniques like savoring, or appreciation, or gratitude. Not that they don’t work, but only in the short run. So tell me about why not that, and why again, I agree with you, optimizing our environment is the way to go?
I could not find any research that shows that positive psychology interventions have any long term. It’s a lot like a vegan diet. So there is indisputable evidence that eating a vegan, whole food diet will help you lose weight, and live longer. But people can’t stay on that diet. Diets last on average, well they work for 10% of people for three months. Within seven months you lose 90%, and within two years you lose about 97%. I believe it’s the same with these positive psychology interventions. Savoring, appreciation journals, gratitude. There all great ideas, and they all work, I don’t dispute the studies. But the studies are all done in three months, or something like that.
So when it comes to happiness, it’s gotta be a long term pursuit, and I don’t know of any way to establish gratitude for more than a year.
Well I think most of us as humans if we look at our own lives, and again I have to say this because I know my audience, and I know there gonna be like “Ahh, no Dan.” Especially because Kris Carr and I are best friends. She used to be like vegan is not a diet, it’s a lifestyle. So yes everyone, for those of you who have adopted, and you eat vegan as a lifestyle, we love you. What Dan’s talking about is research, and slightly different. Again, I have this ability to hear people’s… what they’re gonna say in advance.
Are they, what are they worried about?
Remember when you said well the vegan diet, like people only do it for a short amount of time. I know people that live that way, that’s their life.
Like Kris Carr, for example.
Right, so I just mean, yes, and you’re right vegans more of a moral way of living, an ethical way of living. But I should say, just getting on any diet.
Trying to adopt a new diet, and there are hundreds of them that come on the scene every year, and there’s been no diet in the history of the world that works for more than 2-3% of the people for over two years. So trying to ask somebody to remember to do the right thing, and to have the discipline to do the right thing by themself will almost always fail.
Yeah, and that’s why I like this idea about really setting up your environment to nudge you.
We were talking, again, before we had the cameras rolling. I spend some of my time here in New York City, and I also spend some of my time in Los Angeles, specifically in Venice where I ride my bike a lot. And I notice how happy I am there, because I’m riding my bike, I’m walking around, there’s less congestion typically then there is here in New York City. And I think it’s just so interesting that rather than striving to be happy. I feel like what your perspective is kind of laying out for us, is like the lazy way to do it. In the sense where if you set up your environment it almost starts to happen automatically.
That’s right, exactly. And by the way. When you’re in Venice there is something called the sun bonus. So if you control for everything else, if you live in a sunny environment, you’re about 5% more likely to be happy.
That’s what it is for me.
And also if you live by water. Well it’s actually water or mountains. Those two, you’re just more likely to be happy, and it may be because water’s serene, or maybe because you get to swim, or maybe because you like sunsets. But moving to a sunny, beachy area stacks the deck in your favor.
One way to do it. So, shifting over to longevity for a moment. I thought one of the most interesting things to come out of the research that you’ve done in Okinawa, where we have the longest lived women, was this concept of Ikigai. Can you share a little bit more about what that term means?
Roughly, it’s an Okinawan term that means roughly the reason for which I wake up in the morning. Interestingly, the Okinawan language does not have a word for retirement. So there’s none of this artificial punctuation between productive and useful life and my life in repose or whatever. It’s legislatively mandated in this country, in many places, in many professions, you have to stop working. It doesn’t happen in Okinawa. You’ll see 104 year olds still in the market and 102 year olds who are still doing karate. They’re putting their Ikigai, their sense of purpose to work, and that’s so important. I also believe the notion of Ikigai… and I was just in Okinawa two weeks ago, I’ve been there several times for this research.
Also metabolizes the notion of responsibility, so it’s not just “I like to knit,” or it’s not just “well, I like to golf.” It’s living out your meaning, but in a way that gives back. In all these Blue Zones longevity hotspots, older people A) are celebrated, but B) have a feeling like it’s their job to make sure the next two or three generations have a successful life. So they’re helping raise the children, raise the garden, pass down culinary wisdom, pass down resilience in many cases, pass down information on making sure crops work and how to deal with hardship and depression. Something called the grandmother effect has shown that when there’s a grandmother or grandfather living in the home or near the home, the children in that home have lower rats of disease, and lower rates of mortality. So it’s a beautiful kind of circle that favors life expectancy, it favors happiness. None of it requires a pill, none of it requires you paying for program, none of it requires that you conjure discipline. It’s just a way of thinking about life that’s very different than what’s de rigueur here in the United States.
For all of the research that you’ve done, and all of the experiences that you’ve had over the past 15 years, how have the insights that you’ve gleaned, changed or not changed your own personal behavior? Have you noticed yourself making different life choices based on what you’re discovered?
Yes. I was an ultra-marathon athlete and now I don’t believe in that at all. I believe that’s a net negative, be older than about 40 and trying to run triathlons. I think it’s a bad idea. So I’ve gone from ultra-distance cycling to doing yoga. I’ve gone mostly plant based. I’m 99% plant-based. I’m a big believer in that. I’m very clear at what my sense of purpose is and I order my day so that I’m doing thing to further purpose rather further my bank account or something. I don’t chase after money or status, these things that I might have done when I was younger. I put a lot more time, energy and effort into my friends, and I have let some friends go because I realized they weren’t good for me, and I’ve added a new social network to my life in the last two or three years.
They tend to be people who are plant-based, they tend to be people whose idea of recreation is playing tennis or ocean swimming, or scuba diving, so that’s what I do with them rather than sit around watch football or eat hot dogs or something. They’re friends that care about me, and so I’ve done that.
How did you find your sense of purpose?
I learned the importance of it, and I thought about… I actually sat down and wrote it down. It’s not hard to do. We actually give purpose workshops, and purpose is really the cross-section between what your values are, what you like to do, what you’re good at, and what you have to give. One easy way to do it is to simply take a piece of paper, four columns, each of those I just mentioned, and the heading, and write down… just has to be two words: I’m good at the first idea, I’m good at communication. I’m good at education. I’m good at resolving conflict. Then you do the same thing with your values, and what you like to do, and what you can give back.
You look at that page, it becomes very clear, you’ll see the same words show up in each of the four columns. That’s what your purpose is. You should be asking yourself, is that why I do my work? And if not, you might rethink your work. Then you should ask yourself, are the people I’m surrounding myself with, are they reinforcing what my purpose is? Asking yourself, in my leisure time, am I in my… do I have an outlet for that?
Given the whole spectrum of what we’ve covered, if we want to leave folks with one or two things that from your heart to theirs, you’d want them to either focus on or think about. What would you say?
The cross-section for both longevity and happiness are your social network, who you hang out with, and also think about where you live. I know this sounds stupid, and you think well I can’t move, but it’s so clear, places like Boulder, Colorado, and San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Minneapolis, Minnesota, that people there are living measurably higher quality lives. I say this because nobody else will say it, but I also say believe me in that we’ll have the base. If you live in an unhappy place, the most important thing you should do is move to a happier place. We now know what those are. You can go to the Gallup website. There’s something called the Gallup Share Care Well-Being index that measures happiness in 250 or so cities. You can very clearly see which ones are producing happiness, and moving there. Because again, it’s long term, and it’s nudges. It’s not meeting that person that you dreamed of, or getting the raise or the job, or if I could just save $500,000 I’ll be happy.
It never works like that. We almost always miscalculate the amount of happiness that we’ll get from… this has been proven, than anything we think we want in the future. But we’re wrong about half the time. So, saying to ourselves, I want that, and then ordering our whole life to get that’s a bad strategy. Much better strategy will get that. What are statistically more likely to make me happy, then set up your life to do so.
And then I know you also mentioned too, that you guys have an incredible meals food planner. Can you mention that as well?
Yeah, so the average American can live about 10 extra years by optimizing their lifestyle, and I believe that one way is your diet. We have a new meal planner at meals.bluezone.com that makes it really easy to eat like a centenarian. We went and found not only the foods that the longest lived people eat, but also the recipes that make them taste good. Most important ingredient in any longevity diet is taste. I could tell you that fermented tofu will add eight years to your life, but if you taste fermented tofu and hate it, you ain’t going to eat it. So it’s got to be food that’s delicious and this Blue Zone meal app does a really good job of that.
Dan, thank you so much for your work and for your adventure and for everything that you’re bringing to us. It’s made a big difference for me, I love… I’m sharing it with my family and I’m excited about all the MarieTV audience getting it too, so thank you.
I’m delighted. Just let me say, you absolutely exude happiness. It was really a pleasure to be here.
Thank you. Now, Dan and I would love to hear from you. We talked about so many things today, but I’m curious. What’s the biggest insight that you’re taking away, and most importantly, how can you turn that insight into action starting right now? As always, the best conversations happen over at the magical land of marieforleo.com, so head on over there and leave a comment now. Once you’re there, be sure to subscribe to our email list and become an MF insider. You’re going to get instant access to an audio I created called How to Get Anything You Want. Plus, you’ll get exclusive contests, special giveaways, and personal insights from me that I don’t share anywhere else. Stay on your game, and keep going for your dreams, because the world needs that very special gift that only you have. Thank you so much for watching. We’ll catch you next time on MarieTV.
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I drink less tequila now.
Do you? I still like tequila.
I do too.
Yes, yes. Everybody say yes.