Is it possible to achieve happiness by just choosing the right place to live? Dan Buettner thinks so. His new book “Thrive, Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way” is an interesting read for anyone interested in increasing their happiness quotient. Many of the findings are somewhat predictable, but Buettner has a nice way of weaving an interesting story to support having a healthy perspective on wanting happiness in your life.
Buettner’s first book was a best seller called “The Blue Zones, The Truth About Longevity.” As a researcher, he has studied the world’s best practices in health and well-being. Buettner discovered there are regions around the globe that produce very healthy inhabitants who live unusually long lives, many reaching Centenarian status (like in Okinawa Japan). In his research he found similar attributes to culture, healthy eating habits, and living environment amongst all the Blue Zones. Thrive is really an extension of the Blue Zones, but instead focuses on individual attributes that make people happy. He uses surveys including Gallup Polls to support his findings, as well as interviews with scientists, economists, demographers and locals to piece it all together.
Thrive profiles 4 locations; Jutland Peninsula in Denmark, Singapore, Nuevo Leon state in Mexico and San Luis Obispo, CA (you may have seen Oprah visit San Luis Obisbo last week to see just how happy they are), as they all rank high on the “happiness hot spot” scale. I found the sections on Denmark and Singapore the most credible and interesting. I have visited both places, and Buettner’s initial observations were spot-on. Denmark is dreary and cold, but strangely compelling and a wonderful place to visit. In Copenhagen people walk and ride bikes everywhere, the city seems so livable; it reminds me of my home Portland Oregon. But unlike Portland, in Denmark people are attractive, especially the women, with long languid bodies, blond hair and blue eyes (just kidding Portland, nose rings and tattoos are equally attractive!).
I remember Singapore for its great shopping and good food. It is very clean and orderly, but way too paternalistic for my taste, with many strict laws against everything from chewing gum to graffiti. Upon arriving in Singapore I remember the taxi driver joking “Singapore is a fine city, they fine you for everything.” It’s also the only city to the best of my knowledge, that uses “doilies” in their taxi cabs to keep the seats clean. (You remember doilies; they are the crocheted linens, usually in a snowflake pattern, your Grandmother used to protect her furniture back in the day.) Even the cab drivers wear white gloves. Needless to say, Singapore is obsessed with cleanliness. I do love that part! It’s the only Asian country to fully abolish spitting in its culture (yes, you guessed it – through fines!). Singapore’s national language is English, which makes them stand out in Asia as a terrific place for western companies to do business, and can be credited for much of their financial success.
Remember the big story in the early 90’s about the American teenager who was sentenced to a “public caning” for vandalism in Singapore? There was a big uproar in the US over it, and President Clinton intervened (unsuccessfully) to get the sentence commuted. As it turns out, the vandal did get caned, and spent 4 months in jail plus a $2200 fine. Singapore is not big on international pressure. For a small country, they are very focused on what works for them, and capital punishment and public canings are high on their list. This philosophy appears to be very effective; Singapore has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
The big take away from both of these cities is the high standard of livability. It seems people are willing to give up a fair amount of personal freedom (and in case of Denmark over 68% of their income to taxes) for a stable, safe living environment. They also agree that they need to take care of the less fortunate in their society with very low homeless rates (in Singapore, again one of the lowest in the world), as well as programs to ensure the elderly and handicapped are cared for properly. Also access to outdoor activities ranks pretty high, whether it be parks, beaches, hiking trails, biking trails or outdoor coffee shops. In Copenhagen, it’s not uncommon to see women leave their babies in prams as they stop in for a shot of espresso. As safety is a big plus in Denmark. You’d never see that in the US, you would be arrested for child abandonment.
What about money? How important is it for happiness? According to Buettner, the simple answer is; enough to live comfortably, not too much. Surprisingly, past $60K per year, there was no measurable increase in happiness. In many cases it went down, probably due to the pressure of trying to keep a high paying job and matching life style. What was more important was balancing work hours with socializing and hobbies (this is big in Denmark, where they work no more than 37 hours per week and take minimum of 6 weeks’ vacation annually). This would never fly in the US, where we brag about how little we sleep and insist on bringing our Blackberries to every meal so we won’t miss an important email.
That said financial stability certainly does rank high, a few of Dan’s suggestions for financial well being; pay off your house, automatic savings plans, avoid credit cards and spend on experiences not “things”. Here’s a great stat for my nieces and nephews; “Beginning at age 18, if you can save just $7 dollars a week (and invest in S&P 500 Index Fund), you will retire a millionaire at age 65 (according to historical rates of return).”
The conclusion of the book has some good observations about where and how we might live to help us lead a happy life including; societal tolerance, quality of government (sans corruption), equality, easy access to outdoor activities, finding a job you enjoy, short commutes, take vacations, give to charities, faith/religion and strong social life to name a few. He also sites what he calls the “sun bonus” where people in sunny nations, rate slightly happier than their cloudy counter parts, which would partly explain the Mexico ranking.
Married people are also happier and suffer less stress and live longer with fewer diseases. However not those with children, Dan reports; “studies have shown having children makes both men and women less happy. Women rank caring for children less pleasurable than jogging and only slightly more pleasurable than doing the dishes. The good news for parents is that happiness seems to rebound when children turn 18.” This coincides with what my 80 year old mother recently told me after raising nine children. She claims her 50’s were her best years (coinciding with our exit from her household). I believe it! Interesting to note, she never pushed her seven daughters to have children like many mothers do, instead encouraging us to achieve financial independence first.
“Surround yourself with happy people” is another observation. The single biggest determination of children’s happiness is how happy their mother is. So ladies, be sure not to forget that Prozac before procreating, you children’s happiness depends on it. Other area’s for childhood happiness are; hobbies, sports, music lessons, art, after school jobs and literacy. I was especially encouraged to see the “after school job” mention, because for some reason, today’s parents think keeping their kids home, eating and playing video games is a step up from their upbringing where they were encouraged to contribute to their own financial support.
I was surprised that Dan makes no mention of healthy sex life, considering we spend so much time trying to be attractive to the opposite sex. Perhaps the pursuit of sex makes us less happy, because it is one of the drivers in infidelity and hence divorces (just a thought, no actual data to back that up).
I do have some small criticisms of the book. It could be argued the science behind measuring happiness is somewhat spotty. With the use of so many surveys one might question the accuracy of asking people to rate their happiness. I also found he doesn’t consistently give the same emphasis on ratings for each place he profiles, so it leaves you wondering; “Monterey Mexico, really?” Hard to believe with all the violence and poverty in Mexico, two things he consistently says are anathema to a thriving happy society. Although, to be fair he does address the Mexico conundrum and explains that social interaction, family, sense of humor, sunshine and faith seem to play a major part. His observations on San Luis Obispo, CA are also interesting, seeming to coincide with Denmark in some ways.
All in all Thrive is a very nice read. Buettner is a solid writer and makes some very compelling observations and conclusions. Read it, it may help you lead a happier life!