A handbook on happiness

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November 22, 2010
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie
// Dan Buettner’s new book, ‘Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way,’ gives insights from some of the happiest places in the world //

Explorer Dan Buettner has released a new book called “Thrive” that reveals lessons he’s learned from studying the happiest people in the world.

He shares secrets from people he interviewed during a five-year study backed by the National Geographic Society. He visited the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark, Nuevo Leon in Mexico, San Luis Obispo in California and surprisingly Singapore — an island better known for its harsh criminal penalties than sunny dispositions.

Buettner chose those locations based on statistics from three enormous databases on happiness — one from Europe, another from the University of Michigan and the World Poll from Gallup. The databases had tens of millions of data points gleaned from studies from the past 70 years looking at factors that directly impact happiness.

The internationally recognized researcher and author came out with the New York Times bestseller “The Blue Zones” in 2008 — a book that examines the lifestyles of people living the longest and most high quality lives in the world. He also runs an organization called the Quest Network Inc. based in the North Loop neighborhood that promotes the principles of the Blue Zones, health products and community well-being programs.

As for key lessons from “Thrive,” Buettner highlighted the importance of being a social butterfly.

“It’s very clear that the people who are the happiest report seven to eight hours of social interaction a day,” he said.

How happy the people you interact with also makes a big difference. By adding one more truly happy person to your social circle, you increase your chance of being happy by 11 percent, Buettner said.

Another sure-fire way to boost happiness is volunteering.

“If you make that effort to volunteer, there is an immediate tipping point,” he said. “You are going to feel the joy that comes from taking the focus off of yourself, which diminishes your own problems.”

The sweet spot when it comes to money for happy people is around $75,000 to $110,000 for a family of four.

“It turns out that people who make a lot of money also have a lot of things to worry about — their kids go to private schools, they have bigger houses that need more repairs and their spouses are often higher maintenance,” he said. “They have bigger portfolios, are more subject to the whims of the market and tend to have more stressful jobs to make this money.”

Working around 37 hours a week appears to be the optimal amount and having at least six weeks of vacation each year is ideal.

“You still have a big chunk of time to make sure you’re fit and work on a hobby,” Buettner noted.

The people from the four regions featured in “Thrive” offer in many cases, distinctly different ways to achieve happiness. To be considered a “thriver,” someone has to rank themselves at least an 8 on a happiness scale of 10 and believe they will be even happier in the next five years.

In Denmark, Buettner profiled a happy garbage man who had a high standard of living and relaxed work schedule. The Danes tend to limit their work hours, choose careers that they are passionate about and free up enough time for hobbies, family and friends.

Buettner also visited Singapore — a counterintuitive hotspot for happiness. He interviewed a real estate tycoon who retired early to embrace the country’s culture and fashion scene. Singaporeans credit their happiness to the country’s high sense of security and harmony among different ethnic groups.

The happiness quest also brought Buettner to Monterrey, Mexico. Despite many obstacles that would seemingly thwart happiness — corruption, a poor educational system and malnutrition — Mexicans in this region reported having the highest level of happiness in the Americans when he visited the area in 2008. Some of the factors attributed to the positive outlooks included the high number of hours of sunlight, a strong sense of faith, good sense of humor and an emphasis on social interaction with friends and family.

The happiest destination in the United States is San Luis Obispo in California — a city midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The town is a prime example of showing how urban planning can make an impact on quality of life. It has a protected green belt, pedestrian and biker friendly infrastructure, vibrant town square and a thriving arts community.

While the book shows that there are many paths to happiness, truly thriving people share some common characteristics: enough money to meet basic needs, a strong group of caring and healthy friends, meaningful work and engaging hobbies.

“We think we know what we need to be happy. Maybe it’s physical beauty, financial success or the esteem of our peers,” Buettner said. “But the evidence I found points in a different direction. The true sources of happiness are deep patterns of behavior and thinking in our lives — patterns that we can adjust if we put our minds to it.”

Happiness also has an impact on longevity.

“I can tell you anecdotally from interviewing 260 centenarians, that I didn’t find a grump in the bunch,” he said. “But we also know that unhappiness is as bad for you as a smoking habit. Some of us are genetically predisposed, but we all have some control over how happy we are.”

He points to research that suggests that for most people, 50 percent of happiness is determined by genetics, 10 percent on life circumstances and 40 percent on how an individual thinks and acts on a daily basis.

As for changes in his own life as a result of the book, Buettner said he is more proactively social than he was before. He typically cuts work off at 5 p.m. and rarely says no to a party.

“My research doesn’t guarantee you happiness,” he said. “But what my research does is if you’re a deck of cards playing the black jack of life, I can tell you how to put more aces in that deck so you’re more likely to win at it.”