“We all need: something to do, someone to love, something to give, and something to look forward to.” — Dan Buettner, Blue Zones of Happiness
When I visited family in Sicily a few years ago for my great aunt’s 100th birthday, it became clear that they were living their best lives on the island in the sun. After a couple of days surrounded by some of the healthiest people I know (like my grandmother and cousins who are in their 70’s and 80’s) I realized what they were getting right… their lifestyle habits were meaningful, joyful, and full of love.
Each morning my cousin Nina and grandmother would walk arm in arm to the early morning market in the center of the village, greeted by neighbors who farmed and sold local produce. They would return and place their goods along the counter that opened out onto the street, chatting with neighbors as they passed. My other cousin, Rosemary, would get up early to make coffee for the family, and once everyone had risen, we would sit and sip rather than frantically run around the house to get dressed or devour breakfast.
This combination of neighbors growing one another’s foods, real vitamin D along the seaside, and bonded relationships are the stuff that “Blue Zone” regions are made of. Coined by National Geographic Fellow, explorer, storyteller, and The Blue Zones of Happiness author, Dan Buettner, in 2005, Blue Zones are the regions of this planet with the longest living populations and the most centenarians. These long-life-conferring zones include the Italian island of Sardinia, Loma Linda in California, the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, the isolated Greek Island of Icaria, and Okinawa, Japan.
I asked my great aunt what she attributed her long life to, and she replied with a laugh, “Il vino rosso!” In fact, when interviewed by Blue Zone researchers, she shared that the ocean breeze and wine consumed with friends is “how they forget to die.”
A handful of inspired communities here in the US have joined Buettner’s Blue Zones Project since 2005, increasing life expectancy and improving social and family bonds. Beach cities in California, notably Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach placed first, second, and fifth in the US respectively for highest overall wellness scores. In Albert Lea, Minnesota, the lifespan increased by three years overall after successfully adopting the project.
Think your community would go for and benefit from a transformation like this? If cooking lots of veggies at home, a daily nip of red wine, a happiness practice, and long walks with Grandma are your thing, Buettner would say you’re already in the club.
In an interview with the New York Times, the author stated: “The secret sauce is the right mix of friends.” When asked why he thought many Americans see happiness out of reach, he said, “Most of what we think brings us happiness is misguided or just plain wrong. In America, we spend too much time pursuing the wrong goals. We think, for instance, that driving 30 minutes to a job we don’t enjoy that pays well will enable us to buy some imagined better life in the future. But science now shows that we like a short commute as much as we like frequent sex — overall, we’re terrible at estimating what will actually bring us happiness.”
According to Buettner’s expansive research, well-tended to relationships are just as important as the food we consume when longevity is at stake.
Blue Zone Healthy Habits and Stats We Can Adopt
Honor relationships with elders —
In Blue Zone hotspots, aging parents often live with their children, therefore staying more engaged and optimistic than those placed in senior care. These elders help with childcare, forming strong bonds with each generation of the family and influencing the next.
Take care of mental health and happiness —
Find what you love. The Japanese ask “What’s your Ikigai?” or, your purpose for living? Buettner suggests making a list of your values, things you’re good at, and things you enjoy doing — the cross-section of the three is your purpose.
Give back —
Researchers found that women and men who become mentors or some type of coach were six times as likely to be happy compared to those who did not.
Eat right —
Centenarians in the Blue Zone regions tend to drink coffee every morning for its antioxidants, and if they do partake in alcohol, they drink it moderately. They eat a 95 percent plant-based diet rich in greens, grains, nuts, and beans. (Consuming five servings of fruit and veggies daily can add three years to your life!) Many also practice the Japanese method, Hara Hachi Bu, and finish their meal when they feel 80 percent full.
Exercise in nature —
Many Blue Zones are known for their well-intended constructs of walking and biking pathways, making natural movement a part of daily living. Instead of traveling primarily in cars, Blue Zone folks tend to travel by bicycle and walking, making for fewer emissions, easy exercise, and a better social life.
Get enough sleep —
Go to bed a little after sunset and rise with the sun. If that’s a bit of a stretch, then get to sleep as early as you can in a dark room with as little EMF exposure as possible, wear a mask to keep the light out, and wake up when you feel your body has achieved enough rest.
Make and keep rituals —
Sacred rituals are regularly practiced to relieve stress and downshift — it doesn’t have to be religious, but instead can be your version of dedicated personal time like yoga, a long bike ride, 30 minutes in the sauna, a hike, and so on.
Intrigued, but not quite ready to purchase a one-way ticket to the nearest Blue Zone? Jump online to take BlueZone.com’s three-minute True Vitality Test to discover how your environment is likely influencing your lifespan. If Alzheimer’s, cancer, cardiovascular, or any chronic inflammatory diseases have been discovered in your genetic data or tend to run in your family, take a cue from the Blue Zone lifestyle and see if maybe you can forget to die, too.
Christine Dionese, co-founder of flavor ID is an integrative, epigenetic health and food therapy specialist. She has dedicated her career to helping others understand the science of happiness and its powerful effects on everyday human health by harnessing the power of the epigenetic landscape. Christine lives, works, and plays in Southern California with her husband and daughter. Listen to her podcast for The Fullest, Well Examined, an exploration of where science and discovery meet intuition and wellness.