Move, eat, connect – the secrets to a long and happy life

By Alive & Well


We’ve come a long way from the days when we thought rising GDP meant rising happiness levels.

In fact, in the U.S. alone, while GDP has tripled over the past 50 years, life satisfaction has not changed, rates of depression and anxiety have increased dramatically, and for the very first time in history, it is thought that our children will not outlive their parents.

So what is it that makes for a happy and long life?

Over the past few years I’ve followed Dan Buettner’s work studying the health and happiness hot spots around the world, areas he calls ‘Blue Zones’. Together with National Geographic and some of the world’s best longevity researchers, he identified ‘blue zone’ communities like Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy and Ikaria in Greece where people live significantly longer and happier, and set out to work out why.

What they found was there were 9 main components to living longer, including:

  1. Knowing your purpose
  2. Moving naturally – walking, riding, taking the stairs, gardening
  3. Finding time to meditate, nap, pray or enjoy a happy hour each day
  4. Eating mostly plant-based foods
  5. Gathering supportive, nurturing friends around you.

They’ve also distilled the secrets to happiness into what they call the 6 Thrive Centres – community, workplace, social life, financial life, home and individual – and outlined how you can optimise your life in each area.

Positive psychology research backs this up

Credit: wallpaperrsaseloledesign.blogspot.com/Diener and Seligman [1] found that the top 10% of happy people had one key differentiator – strong social relationships.

Peterson [2] reviewed research from a range of experts to show the following correlations with happiness and life satisfaction:

  • Large effect: gratitude, optimism, employment, self-esteem, extent to which an individual experiences positive moods such as joy, interest, alertness.
  • Moderate effect: number of friends, religion, physical health, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism.
  • Low or no effect: age, gender, education, social class, income, having children, ethnicity, intelligence, physical beauty.

It’s liberating to think that so many of the things Western society might normally associate with happiness – income, beauty, intelligence – have little to no impact at all. And it shows us we can take practical steps to increase our happiness right now, rather than waiting for our ships to come in.

Getting in touch with your happy side

Sometimes the simplest things can have the most impact:

  • Take your dog to the local park or dog beach and chat to other dog owners – and if you don’t have a dog, adopt one! It will lower your daily stress hormone levels
  • Limit how much TV you watch and get out to the local café for a cup of tea or glass of wine. Chat to the owners and other regulars.
  • Take time to know your strengths, talents, values and interests – and put them to good use. Those who give regularly of themselves have higher levels of happiness
  • Join a club that does something you’re interested in. Meeting up with like-minded folks just once a month has a demonstrably positive effect on happiness
  • Decide to feel grateful – for the simple pleasures, as well as the important relationships in your life. Set yourself a project to write down 3 things for which you are grateful every day. Or take photos of those simple things that make you smile – the light shining through the leaves or a nice message from a friend perhaps
  • Foster relations with your neighbours – chat over the fence, on the footpath/sidewalk or at the school gate, mow their nature strip too or take their bins in one night.

What are your top tips for feeling happier? How do you connect with your local community?

 

1. Diener E & Seligman MEP. (2002). Very Happy People. American Psychological Society, 13 (1), 81-84.
2. Peterson C. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.