Can we create health and happiness in a society?

Is it possible to manufacture a healthy society? Is it possible to manufacture happiness in a society? I have had these questions in mind for a while. I was completely unaware that the answer to both of these questions is yes and yes. Dan Buettner and his team have successfully created healthy and thriving societies in multiple communities in the United States. And they did so by observing the world’s happiest and longest living societies and adopting their diet and lifestyle. Dan Buettner calls these hotspots of longevity around the world, Blue Zones. Populations in the Blue Zones not only live long but they live better without chronic disease, they are healthier, both physically and mentally. If you’re not much of a reader and prefer watching videos instead, there is a presentation on Blue Zones by Dan Buettner on Ted Talks here.

Where are these Blue Zones?

1) Ikaria, Greece

2) Okinawa, Japan

3) Ogliastra region in Sardinia, Italy

4) Loma Linda in California, United States

5) Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Learning from the Blue Zones 

What Dan Buettner and his team learned from the blue zones is not a secret by any means. The wisdom acquired from these longevity hotspots is as old as the hills. And surprisingly, a lot if it is common sense. Based on observation, below are some of Dan’s recommendations, also coined as the Power Nine, that can help you live long, healthy and happy.

1) Move naturally: This is a very interesting observation, one that makes a lot of sense to me. People living in the blue zones are not weightlifters or bodybuilders nor do they go to the gym. Rather, physical activity forms a part of their daily chores such as kneading dough, cleaning, grinding grains on a hand mill, herding cattle, gardening, walking or biking to work and many other low intensity exercises through out the day. These cultures do not set aside time to go workout at the gym, run marathons or participate in high intensity contact sports. This might suggest that multiple low-intensity activities through out the day might be better than lifting weights for an hour at the gym. High intensity weightlifting stresses the body causing inflammation which triggers the body’s healing and repair mechanisms draining the body’s resources. While this maybe ideal for packing on muscle mass, it might not be great for overall health long term.

2) Purpose: People living in the blue zones have a purpose in life beyond work and their career and they never really retire. Your purpose in life can be as simple as cooking and feeding your family four times a day, raising and caring for your children and grandchildren, making your community a better place, helping the less fortunate etc. If simplicity doesn’t fit your style then your purpose can be as ambitious as Shahjahan’s, who built the Taj Mahal in the memory of his beloved wife. Your purpose in life can change and evolve over your lifetime but the bottom line is to never let that flame extinguish.

3) Downshift: People living in the blue zones have ways built into their culture that help them decompress after a long busy day. It can be happy hour after work, praying with your community at church on Sunday, observing sabbath, taking an afternoon nap or simply cracking jokes with the family at the dinner table. People in the blue zones don’t wait to go on vacation to decompress rather they decompress every single day in some form or the other.

4) 80 percent rule: The rule is to stop eating when you’re 80 percent full. My grandpa strictly followed this rule and on multiple occasions reiterated this rule so that it would stick with me. Unfortunately, I unknowingly ignored this rule at every meal once I moved to Canada simply because the meal portions were humongous.

5) Plant slant: Most centenarian diets are plant based and rely heavily on all kinds of beans, lentils, whole grains, a variety of seasonal, local vegetables and fruits. Centenarians do eat meat but only occasionally, about once a week on average in a serving about the size of a deck of cards. Meat is not the ‘meat and potatoes’ of their diet but is rather treated as a condiment.

6) Wine @ 5: People in the blue zones drink alcohol moderately and regularly with their family and friends at meals.

7) Right tribe: People in the blue zones have a strong social support system. They have a circle of close friends that they can rely on in bad times and share their joy with in good times.

8) Community: Almost all centenarians belong to a faith based community. They are religious people and are actively involved in their community.

9) Loved ones first: People in the blue zones have strong family ties. Family forms an important part of their social support system. Large families with grandparents and uncles live together under the same roof and share in each other’s misery and joy. I have always believed that sorrow diminishes with sharing whereas joy soars exponentially.

None of the recommendations mentioned above surprise me. The western world, especially the more developed nations are lacking in many of the ingredients necessary to live a long, healthy and happy life. People in the western world work long hours and do not spend sufficient time unwinding as compared to the people in the blue zones. The sense of community, family, friendships and togetherness is much stronger in the blue zones. People in the blue zones do not take life too seriously and live in the present moment rather than resenting the past or being anxious about the future. People in the blue zones have a purpose in life beyond their jobs. Their purpose in life is usually a selfless one which as a result makes their life gratifying. Whereas in the western world people are raised to focus more on the ‘I’ rather than ‘We’. In the western world children are taught from a young age that success is the success of the individual rather than the success of the community as a whole. People who care about others/strangers beyond their own immediate families are rare. The American Dream is generally a fast car and a big fancy house. Which might explain why a mid life crisis is a common occurrence in the western world and unheard of in the blue zones. Not to mention the unhealthy diet of the western world where people find it hard to carve out time from their busy work schedules to actually prepare every meal of the day from scratch, daily.

Recreating Blue Zones in the United States

Dan Buettner and team have successfully created multiple blue zone communities such as Albert Lea in Minnesota, Hermosa, Redondo and Manhattan beach cities in California, and Cedar falls and Spencer in Iowa. There are many more and you can learn about them here . These communities experienced a measurable improvement in their health and happiness and these improvements surpassed the national average by a long shot. Dan’s team focused on making these communities healthy and happy by changing the environment in such a way that promoted a healthy diet and lifestyle. They didn’t point their fingers at the inhabitants and tell them that they needed to eat healthy and be physically more active. Below are some of the ways in which Dan’s team nudged the citizens of these communities in the right direction without telling them what to do;

1) Dan’s team created marketing strategies to encourage health promoting foods and discourage unhealthy foods. And then they collaborated with the local grocery stores to implement these strategies while making sure that the profits of these grocery stores were unaffected.

2) The blue zones team worked with the local policy makers to create an environment where people would feel encouraged to be more physically active for example, turning vacant lots into community gardens and parks, adding more sidewalks and bike paths etc.

3) Dan’s team worked with local restaurants to revamp their menus to incorporate healthy food choices without affecting their revenues. For example, offering only fruits and salads as sides whereas fries were available only upon request. It is fascinating to see that simple changes like these have shown to drop the sales of fries and boost the sales of fruits and salads at the restaurant without impacting the revenues.

4) The blue zones team helped nudge people into social networks by creating ‘Walking Moais’. A ‘moai’ in Okinawa is a circle of 5-6 close friends that maintain their friendships throughout their life and meet each other almost everyday. The blue zones replicated this idea by pairing up people with similar interests into groups who would go for a walk together everyday. This would give the group an opportunity to create strong bonds over time while getting their exercise.

The success of Dan’s team in recreating blue zones in the United States and measurably improving people’s health and happiness just reiterates that humans are highly adaptable. We are like water, taking the shape of the container we are poured into. Put us in a nurturing environment and we thrive whereas tell us what to do without changing the environment and maybe only less than half of us will listen, even if it is for our own good. You can learn more about how the blue zones team is transforming communities here. Live longer better!

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