Writer and explorer Dan Buettner has spent his life traveling the world in search of answers. His early life consisted of trekking throughout the world on a bicycle, covering thousands of miles in Africa, Asia, South America and beyond. His travels around the world (and on assignment for National Geographic) inspired him to discover and name the globe's "blue zones," the countries and societies with the longest life expectancy, the greatest happiness and other strengths. His first book to come out of this research was 2008's The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest, a prescription for life extension that became an international best-seller.
Now, Buettner is back with a new book, Thrive, which focuses on happiness in the "blue zones," and how everyone can attain a better quality of life by following the happiest countries' examples. Buettner spoke with Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen about his studies and how we can all infuse more joy into our lives.
'A Place Where A Garbage Man Makes As Much As A Lawyer'
Buettner devotes a section of Thrive to Denmark, where the "gross national happiness" is incredibly high. When asked why this is, he notes that the country's leveling tax structure enables its citizens to have more freedom. "Normally when we think of happiness, we think of money and status, but Denmark teaches us the opposite lesson," he says. "There, you have a place where you are taxed to the mean. A cultural norm reminds everybody that they are no better than everybody else, so you're not going to choose your career path based on status. You're in a place where a garbage man makes as much as a lawyer. So what you have are 4 million people who excel at things like furniture design and architecture."
Buettner also notes that in Denmark, most people only work "37 hours a week on average, and they take their full six weeks of vacation," noting that a liberal work schedule leads to greater happiness overall.
He also traveled to Singapore for the book, finding that the citizens there responded well to the stringent law enforcement. "What you have here is a place that's very secure. Evolutionarily speaking, we are more hard-wired for security than freedom," he says. "So in Singapore, while you can't buy pornography, a woman can walk any street day or night and be completely secure that she's not going to be raped or mugged. And there's also tax laws in place that encourages people to stay closer to their aging parents. That way the elderly are taken care of and happier, and it turns out the way socialization works, we get more satisfaction retroactively socializing with our parents than anybody else."
'The Happiest People In America Socialize Seven Hours A Day'
In terms of translating the lessons from the "blue zones" to daily life, Buettner recommends that people "set up permanent nudges and defaults" in order to maximize happiness.
"For example, in our financial lives, we know that financial security has a three-times greater impact on our happiness than just income alone," he says. "So setting up automatic savings plans, and buying insurance as opposed to buying a new thing. The newness effect of a new thing wears off in nine months to a year, but financial security can last a lifetime."
Buettner argues that relationships are really the key to lifelong happiness, noting that "the happiest people in America socialize about seven hours a day," and mentioning that "you're three times more likely to be happy if you are married ... and each new friend will boost your happiness about 10 percent."
He also states how important good relationships can be in the workplace, adding that "the biggest determinant of whether or not you'll like your job is if you have a best friend there, more so than how much you're paid, so proactively make sure you have good friends there. One way I assert doing that is: Be the one who organizes happy hour."
'The Luster Of Experience Can Actually Go Up With Time'
Finally, Buettner says that he has learned that people are happiest when they spend their time and money on experiences, as opposed to objects. He advises taking up an interest in sports or the arts, which will provide longer-term satisfaction than any one purchase. "The luster of an experience can actually go up with time," he says. "So learning to play a new instrument, learning a new language -- those sorts of things will pay dividends for years or decades to come."
When asked about his own happiness level, Buettner admitted that he is incredibly content. After all, he has spent his life in the hot pursuit of adventure and helping others discover how to live longer and smile more. "I have always followed exactly what interests me and never really worried about the money," he says. "And when you think about it, to be able to travel the world ... on an expense account and do exactly what interests you, it just doesn't get much better than that."
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LIANE HANSEN, host:
Dan Buettner is a researcher, explorer and author. His 2008 book, "The Blue Zones," was a New York Times bestseller. In it, Buettner tells of his travels to places that nurture longevity. Now he's researched people for a new book, "Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way."
Dan Buettner is in the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Welcome to the program.
Mr. DAN BUETTNER (Author, The Blue Zones): Thank you. A delight to be here.
HANSEN: The people that you profile in this book are living in different places. They range from Denmark to Singapore to San Luis Obispo, California. So what characterizes a happy person in the happy place of Denmark?
Mr. BUETTNER: Okay, so normally when we think of happiness, we think of money and status. But actually, Denmark teaches us the opposite lesson. There, you have a place where youre taxed to the mean. The marginal tax rate is 70 percent. A cultural norm reminds everybody that they're no better than everybody else, so you're not going to choose your career path based on status.
So what you have are four million people who excel at things like furniture design and architecture. They work about 37 hours a week on average. They take their full six weeks of vacation. And they choose their job because it interests them, as opposed to it's going to make them money.
HANSEN: Singapore is another place where you go. Now, this is a place that has a very strict set of laws. How happy are the people, really, if their lives are so regulated?
Mr. BUETTNER: What you have here is a place thats very secure. Evolutionarily speaking, we're more hard-wired for security than freedom. And there's also tax laws in place that encourage people to stay close to their aging parents. And that way the elderly are better taken care of and happier. And it turns out the way socialization works we get more satisfaction, retroactively, socializing with our parents than anybody else.
HANSEN: You write you found the happiest people in San Luis Obispo, California. So what makes them happy?
Mr. BUETTNER: In the 1970s, city council made a very clear decision to shift away from an environment that favored commerce and one that favored quality of life. They outlawed drive-thrus so you didnt have idling cars polluting the air. We know dependably one of the things that Americans hate on a day-to-day basis is commuting in their car. So they made bicycling easier. They were the first city in the world to outlaw smoking in bars and restaurants. So as a result, you have the highest level of emotional well-being.
HANSEN: The climate in each one of these places is different. San Luis Obispo, California - I mean, you know, beautiful, temperate. Singapore, hot, sunny. Denmark, cloudy, cold.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HANSEN: Are people happy inside? Is that the deal?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BUETTNER: Well, there's something called a sun bonus. And if you take these tens of millions of surveys and control for everything else, you do get about a two percent bump if you live in a sunny area. And you also get a bump in happiness if you live on the water. You dont however see that in mountains or deserts.
But you have to realize happiness is a multi-variable equation. And Denmark has some of the really big variables in place, like tolerance. This is a place where you can be gay and married and you dont have to feel bad about it. You can be a minority. It's a place where people can be themselves easier, which trumps just sunny weather.
HANSEN: Define happiness? I mean, is it just the absence of sadness or worry, or is there more to it?
Mr. BUETTNER: The way researchers answer happiness is through surveys that show people a ladder, and there's 10 rungs on ladder. The lowest rung is your worst possible life and the highest rung is your best possible life. And people place their own happiness.
And when you think of it, the answer of that is enormously complex. Because it encapsulizes how do you feel health-wise, how do I feel about my relationships, how do I feel about where I live?
HANSEN: So how does one then perhaps set up ones life to boost the chances for happiness?
Mr. BUETTNER: I think the secret is to set up permanent nudges and defaults. For example, in our financial lives, we know that financial security has a three-times greater impact on our happiness than just income alone. So setting up automatic savings plans and buying insurance, as opposed to buying a new thing because the newness effect of a new thing wears off in about nine months or a year. Financial security can last a lifetime.
We know that the happiest people in America socialize about seven hours a day, which is a lot more than the average person gets. But living in a neighborhood where there are sidewalks; getting married, you're three-times more likely to be happy if you're married. And proactively, adding happy friends to your network. Each new friend will boost your own happiness by about 10 percent.
HANSEN: You also talk about picking the right job. And one of the criteria you mention is to try to work in a place where the people you work with have a happy hour after work.
Mr. BUETTNER: We know the biggest determinant of whether or not you'll like your job is if you have a best friend there, more so than how much you're paid, proactively making sure you have good friends there. One way I assert you can do that is be the one who organizes the happy hour.
HANSEN: And I was surprised to see that in all of the advice you give, you do suggest that people develop an appreciation for the arts or a sport.
Mr. BUETTNER: Yes. When thinking about how you're going to spend your money, experiences provide much longer term happiness than buying things. The luster of an experience can actually go up with time. So, learning to play a new instrument, learning a new language - those sorts of things will pay dividends for years or decades to come.
HANSEN: Are you any happier now that youve written these two books on happiness?
Mr. BUETTNER: You know, you spend most of your waking hours working, most of us do. And I have always followed exactly what interests me and I've never really worried about the money. And when you think about it, to be able to travel the world for "National Geographic" on expense account and pursue exactly what interests you, it just doesn't get much better than that.
HANSEN: Dan Buettner is the author of "Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way." He spoke to us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Thanks a lot, Dan.
Mr. BUETTNER: It was, shall we say, a happy experience to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.