How to thrive in the ‘happiest places on earth’

At the Library: Susan Withee

By A Contributor

A while back I wrote about “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” a bestselling book by Dan Buettner, an explorer, scientist and National Geographic Fellow. The book grew out of a cover story he wrote for National Geographic and from studies on health and longevity done in collaboration with the National Institute on Aging. Traveling to several places around the world where groups of people had been documented to live the longest, Buettner attempted to discover and distill down the essential elements of the path to vigor, long life and health. 

Recently, I read Buettner’s follow-up book, “Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way,” and, like his previous book, I found it engaging, thought-provoking and very enjoyable. It is part travelogue, part sociological study and part self-help guide. Using as his guide the King of Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness Index and the World Database of Happiness” from the Netherlands’ Erasmus University, Buettner traveled to some of the happiest places on earth - countries, regions, cities and villages - and tried to discover the secrets of their success. The following, according to Buettner, are some of the building blocks for happier individuals and communities.

More than any other factor, where people live affects their level of happiness. Places with economic freedom, high employment, tolerance of diversity, greater status equality, a fair legal system and a strong democratic process provide people with security and purpose. People are happiest in neighborhoods that provide quiet and safe surroundings that offer proximity to services, churches, shops, culture and that are walkable and bikeable. The happiest communities have plenty of parks and natural spaces, vibrant city centers, good public transportation and lots of opportunities for social interaction.

Limiting retail shopping hours and limiting the workweek afford people time and energy for more beneficial pursuits and more social interaction, both big happiness factors in their own right. Support for the arts, opportunities for personal growth and learning at all ages and plenty of nearby locations for contact with nature also increase emotional well-being.     

In addition to living in a place with economic freedom and high employment, it’s fundamental to personal happiness to find a job that is optimally challenging, draws on one’s natural talents, feeds their passions and provides for contact with friendly co-workers, while still leaving time away from work to spend on personal interests and family relationships. The happiest people limit their workweek to 40 hours (or even work part-time), avoid long commutes, take their vacations and socialize with colleagues. 

The happiest communities are the most connected. Those offer plenty of opportunities for social interaction, whether formally in organizations or clubs or informally in common spaces like parks and public gathering places. The happiest people seek out positive, trustworthy and supportive friends; they are connected to a faith or spiritual practice and, no surprise, have a long-term legally committed relationship with a spouse or partner. 

The happiest people have sufficient money to meet their basic needs and feel secure but don’t overly aspire to great wealth and don’t dedicate most of their energy and time to acquiring it. They spend carefully and save automatically; they have less debt. They shop less, have less stuff and have little preoccupation with the latest consumer products. They invest instead in experiences, by spending money on travel, activities with family or friends, hobbies or lessons.

Most of the world’s happiest people don’t generally have large or luxurious homes. Instead, most of them live in houses that range anywhere from modest to minimal but their homes are places that foster a sense of well-being and contentment, that create space to engage in activities and interests and to gather with family and friends. They serve as a refuge and often have areas, however small, set aside for spiritual practice and meditation. 

There were a lot of takeaways in “Thrive,” just as I found there were in “The Blue Zones,” much to inspire and instruct and food for thought at a national, community and personal level.

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