Dan Buettner pulls back the curtain on the science behind a long, happy, meaningful life
Kamada Nakazato’s family was so poor that she dropped out of school in third grade to help her mother raise her siblings. At 18, she entered an arranged marriage with a man four years older. Kamada shouldered most of the parenting when their six children were small, because her husband traveled often in search of work. She wove straw hats for supplemental income, but the family still survived almost entirely on sweet potatoes. Eventually her husband could return home and help her finish raising the children to adulthood.
Then World War II broke out, turning her native Okinawa into a battleground and changing the island’s culture forever. But Kamada’s life changed little: She had family responsibilities and still needed to work hard to eke out a modest existence.
In 2005, at age 102 and a widow for 10 years, she met Dan Buettner, an American on a research expedition seeking the health secrets of centenarians from Okinawa. Kamada wore a traditional kimono and brushed her hair straight back. Buettner noted her gentle brown eyes, which held wisdom, kindness and a deep spirituality. Everyone in the little community on the Motobu Peninsula revered her as a spiritual leader.
Buettner also treasured Kamada, one of the individuals who helped him uncover the well-being formula of the world’s longest-lived people.
“I remember the little house in rural Okinawa.… This woman was born in the rain, outside, and now sort of knew life was angling in on her,” Buettner says. “To watch her go through these daily chores in this ancient house—it just felt like I was living history.”
Digging into the backgrounds of centenarians like Kamada refined his life mission, making Buettner a best-selling author and earning him TV time alongside Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey. But conducting in-depth interviews with the elderly and studying their lifestyles wasn’t always his passion. “I had no great affinity for old people when I started this, as some might think,” he says with a chuckle.
Instead, Buettner’s research into the “Blue Zones”—regions containing the highest concentration of people 100 or older—appears to be the apex of a lifetime exploring the globe… or perhaps only half a lifetime, it may turn out.
Buettner learned to live self-sufficiently in the woods of his native Minnesota by age 6. His father, a special-education teacher, passed down a desire to experience the world in every way. Well-spoken and confident, Buettner, who turns 53 on June 18, has barely a wrinkle on his face and only a touch of gray in his hair. Seeking adrenaline during and immediately after his college days at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis-St. Paul, he sold newspaper subscriptions in a program that paid for long excursions to Spain and Morocco. Only later did he embark on real adventures.
He set a Guinness World Record for biking across the Americas, from Alaska to Argentina. The 15,000-plus miles of Americastrek were completed in 1987. Then the Soviet Union began to break up, and Buettner cycled across that empire, in 1990’s Sovietrek. Two years later, Africatrek covered almost 12,000 miles.
MayaQuest, when he and a team of experts on Mayan civilization traveled to Central America seeking an explanation for the society’s sudden collapse roughly 1,100 years ago, ultimately made Buettner an Internet pioneer in 1995. During that journey, the travelers uploaded their findings for—and responded to questions from—teachers and students at 40,000 participating schools.
“We were all trying to figure out how we could use the Internet as a communication vehicle for schools,” Buettner says. “But also, how do you engage students in a meaningful way, so they’re avidly learning about science?” MayaQuest attempted to explain how environmental factors influenced the Mayans and other cultures, and in the process encourage naturalism in a new generation.
“MayaQuest was the first one out of the chute,” Buettner says. The “Quest” series later expanded. “We went on to explore the legend of Marco Polo, human origins in Africa and origins of Western civilization. Eventually, we stumbled upon a World Health Organization finding that Okinawa had the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. I thought there had to be a non-genetic explanation—something is going on with their lifestyle and environment. We used the quest mentality to try to open that treasure chest.”
Into the Blue Zones
So began Buettner’s investigation into the secrets of centenarian-rich pockets of Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, Italy, Greece and even Southern California—the research tour that would earn him publication in National Geographic and The New York Times led to his 2008 book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, and what has become his life’s work, an attempt to spread the same healthy, happy principles to U.S. communities.
In 2009 Buettner formed the Blue Zones Project, an organization that works with companies, schools, cities and towns to improve community well-being. More than 750 businesses and 40 schools have taken up the lifestyle principles, and dozens of city councils have joined in, adapting their communities to encourage the health of residents by building more bike paths, for example, and changing construction codes to encourage more pedestrians.
Like SUCCESS, Buettner believes there’s much more to life than amassing a fortune. Everyone has needs, and certain luxuries are always welcome, but making the most of life is about finding personal peace, enjoying family and friends, realizing a purpose, giving back, and passing on wisdom to future generations. The better their diet and health, the longer people can live, thus giving them a greater chance to impact the world. Astonishingly, these “success measures” directly relate to longevity.
This revolutionary work has tied together the sciences of health and happiness with the search for meaning, so naturally SUCCESS’s interview with Buettner focused on how anyone can relate to his findings and how the Blue Zones studies have changed his life.
Q: As an explorer, your M.O. was to tackle one challenge and search for the next. Why did you settle on longevity as your life’s work?
A: I think each of us has a desire to find something that’s meaningful to others, not just ourselves. Most explorers start with an individual journey, and it eventually evolves into an expedition that has a chance to somehow make humans better. From the first trip to Okinawa, I knew, Wow! Here is a body of wisdom that can make a huge impact on America.
At the time there were 77 million baby boomers who were getting old. I thought it was going to be something a lot of people would care about. It was the perfect alignment between my personal interests and a bigger interest.
Q: How would you describe the experience of spending so much time around centenarians?
A: It’s special. It really is. There’s a certain awe you have to have for someone who has reached triple digits. Somewhere between knowledge and wisdom is experience, and this demographic literally has more life experience than any other on Earth. I had a great editor at National Geographic named Peter Miller, who told me to go and not just interview a bunch of centenarians, but go live with them.
When you spend enough time with them, you discover a uniformity—they tend to have a sense of humor. They tend to listen. The grumps are kind of weeded out before age 100.
Q: They’ve had many peaks and valleys over a long life. Why does happiness shine through?
A: It comes not from money, although it’s important they have enough. They have food, shelter; they can treat themselves once in a while; it’s not just a life of drudgery. They have good access to healthcare, not top-of-the-line healthcare, but public healthcare that keeps them from developing diseases.
But there’s also a connectivity you wouldn’t feel in a big city or a soulless suburb in America. Your neighbors are in your business a little. If you don’t show up to the local festival, they’re going to knock on your door and say, “Where the heck have you been?” It’s not a lonely existence. It’s a connected existence the human species has evolved with for the past 2.5 million years.
Q: Has being around people who follow such a healthy routine led you to have more self-discipline?
A: One thing I learned is you can enjoy rich foods and sweets occasionally, but one way to cut about half of that is just don’t bring it into the house. I don’t bring meat into my house, or sweets, or snacks. If you put a nice steak, or chips or a bowl of ice cream in front of me, I’ll eat it, but the fact it’s not in my house cuts a lot of it from my diet.
People in the Blue Zones have no more discipline than we do. It’s really not our fault so many of us are overweight and unhealthy. It’s not a lack of discipline. We just let our environment careen out of control. People in the Blue Zones teach us how to set up our environment correctly. It’s not a magic diet. It’s a game of inches.
I’m working around the country to lay out all those inches that add up over time. The places that have adopted early have innovative leadership that works well together. They’ve tried a number of things and seen them fail, and are ready to try something pioneering.
Q: Studies suggest that because of obesity, today’s generation of children may have shorter lives than their parents. If they take care of themselves following these methods—and we assume medical advancements occur—how long do you believe a baby born today can live?
A: [Demographer] James Vaupel has shown, pretty convincingly, that life expectancy jumps about two years every decade. A child born today could probably look forward to living 15 or 20 years beyond the current life expectancy [about 76 years for men and 81 for women in America].
That jump is not linear. It’s erratic. When we discovered penicillin and antibiotics, the life expectancy of the human species leaped enormously. The life expectancy for a male in 1900 was about age 46. We’ve almost doubled it. If we could double it again, the life expectancy goes up to 150 or 160.
We cannot see what that innovation would be in the same way we couldn’t have seen penicillin coming. But things like the sequencing of the human genome provide a glimpse of the potential for life expectancy.
Q: As important as healthy living, your research indicates the ability to articulate a purpose for life is crucial. How can we find purpose, which seems like an abstract concept amid our daily grind?
A: One is religion. If you’ve strayed from religion, go test it again. [Most] people who make it to 100 belong to some faith-based community. Along with a faith comes a value set you sign up for, a goal—whether it’s to be a good person to get into heaven, or be reincarnated. It puts the numbers on your side for longevity and happiness.
People who pledge to our program are invited to a three-hour purpose seminar. We take them through an internal inventory to identify passions, strengths, things they enjoy doing, and how they can put those to work. In that cross-section, you get a pretty good idea of purpose besides “I’ve got to make money” or “I’ve got to raise my kids.”
You’d be shocked how many Americans never have time for that internal inventory between waking up, going to work, getting dinner for the kids and then watching four hours of TV, on average. The internal inventory is the biggest step.
What gets people in the Blue Zones out of bed in the morning, out of the easy chair—what gets them taking their medicine—is an expectation. They don’t just expect to receive love or resources, but they are expected to love and to contribute. Expectation and purpose are part of the same package.
We have a mindset in America that you have productive years into your mid-60s and then you retire. There’s no retirement in the Blue Zones. Rather than quitting their jobs and golfing for a couple years, then asking what’s next, these people continue to work for city mayors as a consigliere, or take up town patrols, or continue at their job, but not as many hours.
Q: To make it personal, can you envision keeping up your current pace for another 50 years?
A: I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. I’m sure it’ll evolve. I’m thinking about purpose a lot right now and where people find that around the world. Working with these cities through the Blue Zones Project is satisfying because I can impact so many lives. The model isn’t exactly perfected, so I don’t see any reason to stop doing this for the foreseeable future.
I have as much energy as I did when I was 30. So it’s hard to think about a sunset.