Think about the last time you had some quality face time (or phone time) with a dear friend. No doubt the conversation left you feeling good.
Our network of loved ones makes us feel cared about and supported. These special people in our lives also create an increase in our overall happiness levels and — believe it or not — in our longevity.
That’s what National Geographic Fellow and author Dan Buettner found during his research on “Blue Zones.” This term refers to the handful of places around the globe where people tend to live longer, healthier and happier lives.
I recently sat down with Dan to talk about his work on “Blue Zones.”
As Dan puts it during our interview, we all want to “get the most good years out of life, and the most good life out of our years.”
There are some common denominators Dan identified in these Blue Zones. We could all strive to adopt these habits in our lives. After all, who wouldn’t want to reap these significant benefits in quality and longevity of life? But apart from packing up and moving to a Blue Zone, just how can we harness these traits and their attendant benefits for ourselves?
It starts with how we structure our lifestyles. A few shared elements of the five Blue Zones are things like having a sense of purpose, feeling a sense of belonging and having the “right tribe.” So, there is a critical component at the center of thriving as we age — our social structure.
Today I want to home in on these types of social elements — like that feel-good sensation I mentioned you probably get after a chat with a close friend.
Let’s start with a scenario, as painted by Dan. Imagine you’re on an airplane and sitting next to a complete stranger. What would you do?
Most of us these days dive right into our electronics — to listen to music, watch a movie or read a book. We may not even look at the person sitting beside us. And if we did, they’d probably be on their device, too.
That’s not what Dan does. He says to his seatmate, “Hi, my name is Dan. How are you?” He or she then says, “Fine, how are you?” To which Dan responds, “I’m feeling chatty and can’t wait to chat with you.” Then, to let the person off the hook and pop in their earbuds, he says, “Just kidding.”
Things didn’t use to be that way. Just a few decades ago, it was completely normal to strike up a conversation with your neighbor on the plane. These days, it’s a rarity.
Keeping up a healthy social life is critical to our well-being. Of course, it extends beyond airline travel, but this is but one example of how we’ve turned inward as a society. People in Blue Zones turn outward and remain plugged into one another.
“One of the most dependable ways to get happier is spend more time socializing,” says Dan. “The happiest people are socializing six to seven hours a day.”
There’s even research that shows friendships are as crucial to health as they are to our emotional well-being. According to Dan, Americans had an average of three close friends in the 1980s. Today, with the prevalence of social media and digital “friends,” and more people moving to the suburbs, he says that number has dropped to an average of 1.7.
“If you don’t have at least three friends who you can call up on a bad day, let’s say borrow money from, it’s as bad for your health as a smoking habit,” says Dan. “It shaves about eight years off your life expectancy.”
Dan uses an example of what Okinawans call “moais,” or a group of about five friends that have committed to one another for life. Most residents of Okinawa have moais, whether of their choosing or whether they were born into this type of close-knit community. Some of the world’s oldest women live here.
One particular moai that Dan discovered was made up of a group of women whose average age was 102. They got together every evening to drink sake and socialize.
Research shows that happiness is contagious, but so are smoking, obesity and loneliness. So, the social circles of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.
To reap the benefits that Blue Zone residents experience, Dan suggests that we reach out more socially and nurture strong friendships. You can’t argue with the science, and the data shows that the more you socialize, the happier — and healthier — you’ll be.
It’s a win-win for you and your friends, whether these folks are new to your circle or have been with you for years. Make the time to socialize as frequently as you can. It could add years (or decades) to your life while providing much enjoyment in the moment.
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