What’s the path to happiness? Poets and writers have written countless pages pondering the answer to this question. If you ask Google, you’ll get an overwhelming number of search results. Visit any bookstore’s self-help section and you’ll find an abundance of advice.
Don’t have time to wade through all that information? You don’t have to, thanks to National Geographic explorer and New York Times best-selling author Dan Buettner’s latest book, The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons From the World’s Happiest People.
In this companion to his prior books on health and longevity, The Blue Zones and The Blue Zones Solution, Buettner shifts his focus to what the happiest places and people can teach us about designing lives and communities that thrive.
Academically speaking, happiness is a meaningless term because you can’t measure it. But “if you dig a little deeper you can measure life satisfaction, which I call pride,” explains Buettner. “You can also measure ‘positive affect’ or your daily emotions, and for the purposes of the book, I call that pleasure,” he says. “You can measure purpose by asking people if they feel they have the opportunity to use their strengths to do what they do best every day. And not only is it measurable, it’s being measured in 155 countries worldwide.”
The insights in the book are valuable for government and community leaders, who, Buettner suggests, can improve people’s lives by shifting their focus on gross domestic product (GDP) to measuring and making policies focused on other things that make life worthwhile.
In order to make the happiness of citizens a priority, leaders can measure national well-being; focus resources on the least happy by doing things like running public information campaigns to destigmatize depression; investing in education; and promoting volunteering and national service.
Shiny, Happy People
To show how these types of policies set the conditions for prosperity and happiness, Buettner spotlights people living in the world’s happiest countries — Costa Rica, Singapore, and Denmark.
His interviews and research suggest that long-lasting happiness weaves together those three strands of well-being: pleasure, purpose, and pride.
According to Buettner, the people of Costa Rica exemplify the strand of pleasure. They’re often heard saying “pura vida,” — literally “pure life,” but more informally “all good” or “take it easy.” For Costa Ricans, pura vida isn’t just a saying but a way of living.
Buettner suggests that the happiness experienced by Ticos (the word Costa Ricans affectionately call one another) may be explained by having a culture of generosity, turning competition into cooperation, shopping for their groceries daily, and enjoying extraordinary social support. Ticos socialize as much as possible — often up to six hours a day!
According to Buettner, the citizens of Denmark excel in almost every facet of happiness. They rank near the top in both pleasure and pride. Buettner theorizes that because their government has provided basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, and education, Danes are allowed to focus on finding their purpose by pursuing activities that fuel their souls rather than their egos.
Thanks to amazing cycling infrastructure, Danes tend to prefer handlebars to steering wheels. They also prioritize club memberships; value quality more than quantity of everything, including food; and focus on creating a culture of trust.
For those who prefer security over unlimited freedom, seek a clear path to success, and place a high value on belonging, Buettner suggests that Singapore’s flavor of happiness (pride, or life satisfaction), might hold some valuable lessons.
Singaporeans subscribe to Confucian values and favor group welfare over that of the individual. They’re known to take on challenges that match their skills and interests and set attainable goals. They also prioritize healthcare. Unlike Denmark and its government-provided healthcare, Singapore’s residents pay into a system to get basic care, and more if they want better hospitals and doctors.
Learn to Thrive
While The Blue Zones of Happiness offers policies that governments can enact to set the groundwork for happier citizens, it also offers practical recommendations that anyone can adopt to boost his or her own happiness quotient.
For a population as a whole, happiness levels are affected by our life circumstances (an estimated 10 to 15 percent) and genetics (about 40 percent), but the rest is shaped by our behavior, Buettner notes. So, changing what we do and how we think has a profound impact on our well-being.
Here are some suggestions from Buettner for designing happiness in several key areas of your life:
Choose Your Social Network Wisely
Who you spend time with plays an enormous role in your experience of happiness. Research shows that happiness is contagious, so limit the time you spend with people who consistently harbor negative attitudes.
Buettner suggests arranging your schedule to socialize six to seven hours a day and ensure that some of that time is spent daily doing active pursuits.
Optimize your love life and marry someone who shares your values, interests, and attitudes to make long-term living more harmonious.
Finally, be realistic about parenting. Having children doesn’t automatically bring greater happiness. It has its rewards but can also bring additional stress from financial, relationship, and responsibility issues. If you do have kids, find ways to enrich your lives as parents.
Design Your Home for Happiness
When it comes to living spaces, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Research shows that a happy home is one that nudges families into connecting more with one another and has areas to enjoy nature or that bring nature — like houseplants and cut flowers — indoors.
You can also maximize natural lighting by installing skylights or investing in full-spectrum light bulbs. And, try limiting screens — many homes average seven screens — by only having one television and by putting it in a cabinet or room that’s not in the center of the house.
Buettner suggests that you can design your home for happiness by decluttering and organizing annually. There are many approaches to this. Here are some ideas from our archives.
Find a Meaningful Workplace
To balance the three P’s at the office, Buettner advises that companies create an environment where a job is not just a paycheck but a calling, and a place where employees look at their work with a sense of pride.
Before taking a job, consider whether it will challenge you and use your talents in a meaningful way. Does the company’s mission align with your own values and purpose? Is the work you’re doing giving you a sense of accomplishment?
Buettner also suggests avoiding working in places that involve long commutes, taking all of your allotted vacation days, unplugging after hours, setting goals, and making at least one meaningful relationship with a colleague that transcends work.
Certain policies have been the most successful at building happy communities. The blueprint includes improving food choices by limiting fast-food restaurants, limiting smoking, and enacting soda taxes and clean-water ordinances.
Other initiatives, such as building active infrastructure — for instance, by creating complete streets designed to enable safe access and usage by pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders, and motorists; planting trees along streets; limiting billboards; and offering plenty of green spaces — make walking, biking, and personal interaction easier and greatly enhance citizen satisfaction as well as improve overall health and quality of life.
Also getting citizens involved in their neighborhoods and cities by creating leadership committees and panels is a key way mayors, police chiefs, school superintendents, and local businesses can increase engagement and accountability, and improve trust.
The importance of trust in a society can’t be overstated. Buettner says it’s a stronger predictor of a nation’s happiness than any other factor besides its gross domestic product.
Before you get started employing Buettner’s recommendations, it’s a good idea to take the Blue Zones Happiness Test to help you find out where you land on the happiness continuum.