Research shows that our inclination to be happy is only 50% dependent on our genes. The other 50% is largely dependent on external factors and circumstances. According to the latest CDC stats, the average adult life expectancy in the US is about 78.8 years (a decline since 2014 ), but that number is likely to further plummet due to the rise of chronic diseases — something that could certainly put a damper on our happiness. It’s true we can’t control everything that happens to us, but as the Serenity Prayer goes, if we have the courage to change the things we can, how would that affect the trajectory of our lives? If we could unveil the secret to living a longer, healthier, and happier life, what would we say? I know what I’d say — “Sign me up!”

New York Times best selling author, Dan Buettner, may have found people around the globe who know this secret. Buettner teamed up with National Geographic to find areas known as “Blue Zones”, where people reported a high level of well-being and, in turn, had greater longevity than average. The original 5 areas found were Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nocoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California. He chronicled his findings in his book, The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.

The team discovered that the people who lived in these Blue Zones had 9 main commonalities.

The good news? These are all healthy habits we can incorporate into our daily lives today.

  1. Move, Move, Move — You don’t need to necessarily put on running shoes or hit the gym every day. Buettner suggests that most centenarians (those that lived beyond 100 years of age) live in environments that foster movement. Activities like planting a garden, cycling, taking the stairs, and walking to the store are all ways we can incorporate more movement into our lives.
  2. Purpose and Meaning — What gets you excited to wake up each morning? Turns out that those who lived longer and more vibrantly had a purpose that resonated with them. Buettner’s research team found that having a sense of purpose could add 7 years to your life.
  3. Stress Busters — We all know that ongoing stress can wreak havoc on your body by producing inflammation, thereby putting you at risk for a host of diseases. Some strategies for shedding stress from the centenarians in the Blue Zones included praying, spending time with friends, taking naps, and pausing a few moments each day in gratitude for their ancestors.
  4. Mindful Eating with the 80% Rule — Do you often get into a food coma after that heavy lunch or dinner? The Okinawan say the mantra “Hara hachi bu” before meals to remind them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. This requires mindfulness, something that is missed if we’re checking emails or watching tv while we eat. People in the Blue Zones also report eating their heaviest meals early in the day and a light meal at the end the day.
  5. Eat a Plant-Based Diet — You don’t have to become a vegetarian but most of the centenarians leaned toward a diet that included fresh vegetables, nuts, and beans, like soy and lentil. Eating meat was limited to less than five times a month.
  6. Drink Red Wine— The American Heart Association associates health benefits and decreased mortality with moderate wine consumption (1–2 four-ounce glasses a day). People in all the Blue Zones (except the Adventists) were found to drink alcohol moderately and regularly with food while socializing with friends.
  7. Have Faith— 98% of the centenarians that were interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. It didn’t matter what you believed. Research shows that attending some faith-based service four times per month will add up to an extra 14 years of life.
  8. Family Commitment — Centenarians in the Blue Zones valued family. Many were part of an extended family, either living in the same house or nearby. They all prioritized quality time with their loved ones. Most of them had been in committed partnerships, which the research shows, can add 3 years to life expectancy when in a loving relationship.
  9. Positive Social Circle — I once read that you become the average of the 5 people you surround yourself with most. Research from the Framingham Studies, which focuses on risk-factors of heart disease, shows that “smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious.” Having a close knit group of dependable friends that foster positive behaviors is crucial to longevity, according to Beuttner. Okinawans create “moais” — groups of friends that are committed to each other for life.

The commonalities of these centenarians show us that the likelihood of living a longer, happier life goes much farther than our genetic makeup. Furthermore, they demonstrate that lifestyle choices may help combat many chronic conditions that contribute to mortality. These choices can have a significant impact in adding years to our lives — not just more years, but years filled with purpose, happiness, health, and love. Now, that’s something to live for!

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