It may feel like bad news for many of us, but decades of global research into longevity have now demonstrated that where we live and our social environments are much more important factors in determining our long-term health and happiness than anything we can do for ourselves as individuals. This was the overarching takeaway from a fascinating extended conversation I recently watched on Amanpour and Company with National Geographic fellow and founder of The Blue Zones Project, Dan Buettner. There are loads of interesting insights in this conversation, and few people are better positioned than Buettner to be able to speak clearly about the science behind them. Here’s a heavily abridged and edited version of his conversation with Hari Sreenivasan:
SREENIVASAN: So Dan, you have made a career out of figuring out the quintessential things that enable us to lead healthy, long lives. So explain the “Blue Zones” – what are they?
BUETTNER: Well, the idea behind the Blue Zones was to in a sense reverse-engineer longevity. Something called “the Danish twins study” established that only about 20% of how long we live is dictated by our genes. The other 80% is something else – lifestyle, environment, what have you. So with funding from the National Institutes on Aging and an assignment from National Geographic I hired demographers to go through worldwide census data and identify places where people either have the highest centenarian rate or they have the highest middle aged life expectancy, factoring out infant mortality and so forth. And then once we identified these places, I took another team of experts there to try to parse out why, try to find the correlations or the common denominators of longevity in these disparate parts of the world.
SREENIVASAN: So between Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece – what do all these people have in common?
BUETTNER: Well, first, I just finished a book on this topic doing a meta-analysis of their diets. The four pillars of every longevity diet in the world are  whole grains – sometimes corn, rice, wheat;  greens – often greens that we overlook in the United States, greens that, you know, we’d weedwhack from our backyard, they’re making delicious salads and pies out of them;  tubers, like sweet potatoes, and then  I would say the most important longevity food in the world is beans – beans of all kinds. If you’re eating about a cup of beans a day it’s probably adding three or four extra years to your life expectancy.
SREENIVASAN: So besides the food that’s going in their bodies, there’s no magic, specific exercise these people in Blue Zones are engaging in – they’re not all watching the same Richard Simmons videotape or something?
BUETTNER: No, shockingly, and I would argue that exercise in the U.S. has been an unmitigated public health failure… In Blue Zones, in some of them, fewer than 1% of people were ever obese, yet here in the United States 70% are obese or overweight. People in Blue Zones are not intentionally doing exercise, but rather, every time they go to work, or to a friend’s house, or out to eat, it occasions a walk. They have a garden out back. [Etc.] So every day into their 80s, 90s, and 100s, they’re moving gently, weeding or watering or harvesting. They don’t have all the mechanical conveniences that have engineered physical activity out of our lives. There’s not a button to push for yard work and another button to push for housework and another button to push for a kitchen work. They’re still kneading bread by hand and doing other things by hand. And it’s this idea of moving naturally all day long that makes the difference – my team figures that they were nudged into movement every 20 minutes.
SREENIVASAN: So they’re burning calories, they’re just not going to the gym to do it?
BUETTNER: They’re actually burning more calories than they would in thirty minutes in the gym, but more importantly, their metabolisms are kept at a higher rate because they’re moving all the time. If you sit at your office for more than about an hour and a half at a time, your metabolism drops into a hibernative state. And by the way, on average, even people who say they go to the gym, it’s less than twice a week.
SREENIVASAN: And then, what about this sort of social aspect of it?
BUETTNER: In my book Blue Zones, I actually identified nine common denominators for these places and they fall in essentially four categories:  There’s diet.  They move naturally throughout the day.  They also all have sacred daily rituals to reverse the stress of everyday living. You see, stress triggers something called inflammation, and if you’re always stressed it becomes chronic inflammation, which is at the root of every major age-related disease – heart disease, cancer, diabetes, even dementia. So the Okinawans have ancestor veneration – they take a few moments every day to remember where they came from. The Ikarians in Greece and the people of Nicoya in Costa Rica – they’re taking a nap once a day. The Adventists in Linda Loma are praying – they begin each meal with prayer, they wake up and pray. The Sardinians just do happy hour. But in all cases there’s a daily time where you just slow down and you let the stress reverse course a little bit.  And then, I would argue this is the most important aspect of life in Blue Zones: they connect, and not necessarily intentionally. They live in communities where they’re nudged together in social spaces, so the option to be isolated in your house on your device doesn’t really exist. If you’re not showing up to church or to the village festival, somebody’s pounding at your door. They tend to put family first. And interestingly, in almost all Blue Zones, when you see people making it to 100 they have a very concentrated, solid, committed social circle of three to five friends. In some places, like Okinawa, it’s culturally determined that you have these close friends. They’re called moais.
SREENIVASAN: Do they make these commitments to each other early in their lives, the moais?
BUETTNER: So, traditionally when you’re five years old or so, your parents bring you down to the village and you meet four or five other people, the ceremony ensues, and you’re supposed to travel through life together. When things go well – a good crop or a raise – you’re supposed to share it with them. Likewise when things go poorly. We hear a lot about these social determinants of health now and that’s come about 15 years after I wrote the book, but they’re so important. Like loneliness: if you don’t have at least three close friends you can call on a bad day, it shaves about eight years off your life expectancy, as bad as a smoking habit. So these things that we’ve kind of overlooked because they seem too subtle to make a difference, really come to the forefront when you’re studying populations of longevity.
SREENIVASAN: So you’re talking about almost the opposite of 5,000 friends on Facebook – you’re talking about three real friends that you can call or that have that ability to sustain you emotionally?
BUETTNER: That’s right. In fact, with National Geographic we created a happiness quiz called the “True Happiness Test” – it takes about five minutes – and we asked the question about life satisfaction and then we asked how much time people are spending on social media. You see that there’s a very clear curve: people who aren’t on social media at all aren’t optimally happy. Up to about 45 minutes a day seems to be the sweet spot – suggesting that they’re using it just for maybe a little intellectual repose or to connect with some friends so they can meet up later in real life. But it’s very clear: after two hours a day of social media use, happiness drops off a cliff, and the least happy people are on there eight hours a day.
SREENIVASAN: So let’s talk a little bit about how you’re taking all this knowledge that you’ve learned through these explorations of these Blue Zones and now applying it to different American cities that are willing and interested in trying to sort of hack their outcomes. How did that happen?
BUETTNER: I’m going to tell you something now that took me eight years to figure it out: in populations where people live a long time it’s never because they tried. They never pursued any of the crap that we try. They’re not on diets and exercise programs or supplements. Longevity just ensued. These 100-year-olds have no more idea how they got to be 100 than a tall man knows how he got to be tall. They are simply products of their environments. They live in places where the healthy choice is not only easier but unavoidable. So this idea that longevity ensues became the organizing principle of our efforts. In 2009 I got some funding from AARP and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health to go about trying to manufacture an American Blue Zone and the idea was not to try to convince a whole city of individuals to change the behavior. You’ll fail. It’s never happened in the history of the world where you get a whole population to get on the same diet or exercise program. But instead we work on optimizing city policy, we certify restaurants, grocery stores, workplaces, and schools, and we get a critical mass of individuals to agree to optimize their home and social network. In every case it’s permanent or semi-permanent changes to the LIFE ENVIRONMENT that we’re encouraging so that people are mindlessly nudged into better behavior all day long. And it works fabulously.
SREENIVASAN: So, give me some examples. Let’s focus on the workplace. Everybody spends 8-10 hours a day at work, it’s an enormous part of how they perceive the happiness in their life – so how do you certify a business in a way that is going to contribute to someone’s either increased longevity or happiness?
BUETTNER: So, to begin with, you think about how they get to work. We know that somebody who takes public transportation or walks has about an 11% lower chance of dying of heart disease than somebody who drives their car every day. So in a Blue Zone certified workplace maybe you pay for your own parking but you get subsidized if you take a bus. In some Blue Zone workplaces, they actually pay their employees to walk or take a bike – five dollars a day. You also tackle the food environments: when you’re eating at work, are there some plant-based options or is everything pizzas and burgers? So we help them change the food defaults. And then there’s another very important thing: the biggest determinant of whether or not an employee is happy at work is not how much you pay him or her, not how much you promote him or her, but whether or not he or she has a best friend at work. So we have these techniques of putting employees together – organizing them around their interests and their values… If an employer does these three things, we give them Blue Zone certification. The important thing to realize though is that you can’t rely on just one microenvironment. You have to think of orchestrating the perfect storm of policies, places, and people for at least 5-10 years and changing that whole life radius, that whole city comprehensively, with enough intensity, before you start to see a difference…
SREENIVASAN: How do you help people figure out: how do I make a sustainable change in my life that contributes to my happiness or my longevity?
BUETTNER: To put it simply, if happiness were a cake recipe, some of the ingredients are: you need food, you need shelter, you need health care, you need some mobility, you need some education, you want to partner up with the right person – that’s very important – you need a sense of purpose or meaning in your life, and a feeling of giving back. But the variable with the most influence, in other words, the most important ingredient to that cake recipe is where you live. What I mean to say here is, if you are unhappy where you’re living, about the most effective thing you can do is move to a happier place. And we know this because when you follow immigrants from unhappy places like Moldova moving to happy Denmark or unhappy places in Africa to relatively happy Canada, within one year their happiness raises to the level of their adoptive home. Their sex doesn’t change, their age doesn’t change much, their sexual preference, their education, their religion – none of the fundamentals of their life really changed, except they moved. So the point here once again is: if you want to get healthier or happier don’t try to change your behavior. That will almost always fail for almost all people in the long run. Instead, change your environment. There’s lots of statistically underpinned ways to optimize your environment to favor both longevity and happiness.
SREENIVASAN: And even if you cannot move you could still change your environment?
BUETTNER: Yes. My grandmother used to tell me, “Show me your friends and I’ll tell you your future.” So if your three best friends are obese and overweight, there’s 150% better chance that you’ll be overweight yourself. Smoking is contagious, drug use is contagious, junk food eating is contagious, unhappiness is contagious. So, for example, proactively surrounding yourself with three or four friends whose idea of recreation is playing tennis or walking or bicycling, or a few friends who are vegetarians so you’re not always eating burgers and baby-back ribs, and at least a couple friends who care about you on a bad day – that’s the litmus test – friends who, when you’re feeling crappy and you’ve been fired, you call and they’ll come see you or loan you money when you’re out of money. So really curating that social environment is very important.
Well, I hope you learned a few things. I know I did. Listening to Buettner makes me wonder what toll this year of intense stress and social distancing is going to take on health. Oh well! Anyone want to move to New Zealand with me? If you want to watch the full conversation, it’s below.