Best-selling National Geographic author and speaker Dan Buettner shares the factors that boost quality of life in four of the happiest places on Earth.
By Ford Cochran
For much of the last decade, Dan Buettner has traveled to the places where people live longest and where they claim to derive the greatest satisfaction from their lives. His investigations on human longevity culminated in articles for National Geographic magazine and National Geographic Adventure, and in the New York Times bestselling book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. Buettner’s latest book, Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, examines one of the crucial factors in longevity, happiness, and what makes people happy. He’ll share highlights from his new book, including insights on how to thrive in the hectic environment of Washington, D.C., in a National Geographic Live! presentation at Society headquarters next Monday evening, November 29.
I asked Buettner to share some of the secrets of the world’s happiest places.
Dan, how did you first become interested in what lies at the heart of human happiness?
I’ve been a career-long explorer, and Peter Miller–my great editor at National Geographic magazine–at one point told me that modern exploration needs to add to the body of knowledge. That led me away from transcontinental bike rides, and eventually to longevity: What can traditional cultures teach us about how to live longer?
The idea behind The Blue Zones was to find the evidence-based parts of the world where people live the longest, and then to distill out their secrets for people to actually use. The new book, Thrive, is a progression of the same idea: What if you could find the evidence-based parts of the world where people are measurably happier, and what kinds of prescriptive could you distill out of that. Hence the book.
Over the course of researching and writing this book, you went to four very different places where people report that, by various measures, they are exceptionally happy and content with their lives. Could you share some of the details?
Sure. Happiness varies a little bit from place to place. People who live in Asia are hardwired a little bit differently than people who live in the United States. When it comes to happiness, there are some universals, but there are culturally specific differences too.
The key to the book was to find the happiest region or the happiest country on each of four continents and look for universals there. National Geographic gave us the money to work with three big databases that represent 95 percent of the human population to find these places, so it wasn’t just a bunch of editors sitting around and saying “Let’s go here, let’s go there.”
To your question, take Asia: I think most people erroneously believe the happiest place in Asia is Bhutan. It’s not. Bhutan’s Happiness Index is actually more of a PR thing. That country doesn’t have the basic access to food and shelter and health care that is kind of the ante for happiness. The happiest place in Asia is Singapore, and all three databases point to that. It’s irrefutable.
In a nutshell, what are a few of the things about Singapore that make it stand apart?
The leadership there supremely understands how the Confucian mindset works, and has created an environment for people to live out their values. But there are also several universals we learn from Singapore. Number one: From an evolutionary point of view, humans are hardwired to prefer security over freedom. You tend to get one or the other.
Singapore’s a very secure place. You can’t buy pornography at will, but a woman can walk any street in the middle of the night and be certain she won’t be raped or mugged. Children can playgrounds and parents don’t have to worry about them being snatched. That sort of peace of mind is very important when it comes to happiness.
There’s a very high level of home ownership. Ninety percent of Singaporeans own their own home–another source of security. The tax structure is such that you get tax incentives to live close to your aging parent, so seniors are taken care of at a higher level. And it turns out the research shows that we’re happier when we socialize, and we get the most satisfaction from socializing with our parents. So everybody’s happier. To a certain extent, it’s the result of some social engineering on the part of a very clever man and his team, and that man’s name is Lee Kuan Yew.
Singapore has one formula for engendering happiness, setting the stage for its residents to lead happy lives. What about Denmark? We’ve just been though an election here in the U.S., and there’s a lot of conversation about the degree to which the government should provide social services and the degree to which people should be taxed. Many assumptions underly that debate. The way that Denmark manages the lives of its people seems to fly in the face of some of the conventional wisdom in this country, and yet people in Denmark are quite pleased with their lives in that Scandinavian nation. What’s at the heart of Denmark’s happiness?
Let me tell you what the data says, and then I’ll let your readers interpret the data as they see fit.
Worldwide, happiness equates very strongly with equality–mostly status equality, but the countries that have a very short ladder between the richest and the poorest people are a lot happier than those where a few people make a lot of money and a few people don’t make much money. In Denmark, a CEO only makes about three times as much as an average worker, whereas here in the U.S., you can have a CEO making many thousands of times as much as an average worker.
We know that trust is hugely correlated with happiness, places where people are trustworthy and you can trust the government, low corruption. Also tolerance: You can be a minority, you can be gay, you can marry your gay lover and raise a baby with him or her and not be chastised or be discriminated against. Those things also correlate with happiness. In Denmark, gays have been able to marry since the late 60s, 1968, I believe.
Those sorts of things, I think, can inform politicians. If their interest is really the well-being of a society, not simply maximizing GNP, Denmark provides us with a really good reflection of what worldwide correlations teach us.
We also looked at Nuevo León, the happiest region of Mexico, which was the happiest country in Latin America when we did this work–actually the happiest country in the American hemisphere. Something interesting’s going on there. Religion is very important: For more than 80 percent of the people in this part of Mexico, religious faith tops their list of values. We know worldwide that religious people are happier than non-religious people.
Their definition of family is about an order of magnitude bigger than a typical definition of family. Theirs includes no only kids and moms and dads, but also cousins and second cousins, aunts and uncles, godparents. And that does some helpful things.
The premise of the book is about having an environment that nudges you into things that make you happier. What you have going in Mexico, these big families, they provide a financial safety net, a buffer from stress. They do suffer from all kinds of stressful things in their lives, but they have a way to shed the stress–family helps. And then there are so many weddings, birthday parties, first communions, that they’re kind of compelled to show up socially so much that they get close to that seven hours of social interaction a day that seems to be optimal when it comes to happiness.
People might infer that, since so many Mexican citizens looking for better economic opportunities have come across the border into the United States, we must be happier here in the U.S.
It would be an erroneous mistake to think most of the immigrants come from this part of northern Mexico. There’s lots of industry in Monterrey, they have the highest rate of employment, it’s the richest of Mexican regions, better healthcare there. The people who end up coming across the Texas border are typically from southern Mexico–Chiapas, Yucatan–or other places in Central America. They pass through Nuevo León to get to America, but they’re not from Nuevo León.
And finally, for those who want to find their happy place but who might live here in the United States and don’t want to leave home, there’s San Luis Obispo.
San Luis Obispo paints a really good picture of the way we ought to be setting up our cities. I’ll tell you a secret right now about happiness: There’s no silver bullet. You have to find some silver buckshot. San Luis Obispo has the best emotional health in the country and the highest level of well-being, I believe, because they have a dozen or so things going for them that were put in place in the late 1970s.
They made the decision as a city, rather than making the city optimal for commerce, to make it optimal for quality of life. It used to be a forest of signs. Signs beget more signs. They instead limited the size of signs and put the resources into aesthetics. They outlawed fast-food drive-throughs so you don’t have idling cars polluting the air, it’s harder for people to eat fast food. They were the first place in the world to outlaw smoking in bars and restaurants, so as a result you have about the lowest rate of smoking in the country.
You can stand any place in San Luis Obispo, a city of about a quarter of a million people, and look around and see green. They have zoned it such that there’s no building beyond a certain point, so everybody has access to green space, which we know lowers stress levels, and has access to recreation.
And then there’s the big one that we know on a day-to-day basis, commuting in our cars, is one of the things we like the least in America. San Luis Obispo has created an urban environment where driving is a little bit of a hassle, but it’s really easy to bike and it’s easy to walk. They have 16-foot-wide sidewalks, there are outdoor cafes, and people walking to work see their friends. It’s just a pleasant place.
It goes back to Ken Schwartz, an architecture professor and five-term San Luis Obispo mayor, and his students, who intuited that quality of life was the important thing to focus on. They audaciously suggested that the city’s 250-year-old Mission Plaza be used, not as a parking lot, but as a common area for people to gather. They put an art center there, a place for festivals. That seemed to be the galvanizing event.
Learn more about Earth’s happiest places and get practical tips for making your own life happier in Dan Buettner’s books The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest and Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way. Get tickets to his NG Live! event “Finding Happiness” November 29, 2010, in Washington, D.C., or book Dan Buettner for your own event. Find out more about Blue Zones.
Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.
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