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WFAE's "Finding Joy" explores stories of joy and hope, offering you a bright spot in the news landscape.

Author Dan Buettner on how we can live long, happy lives, and what the 'Blue Zones' have to teach us

Dan Buettner
Theo & Juliet Photography
Dan Buettner.

All this year WFAE — amid all the conflict in the world — we’re looking for stories of what makes you happy. We’re calling our series Finding Joy.

One man who has spent much of his career studying happiness and how to live a long, healthy life is Dan Buettner. He’s a National Geographic Fellow, an award-winning journalist, and a New York Times best-selling author.

Buettner will be at Queens University of Charlotte on Tuesday night for a program called "Unlocking the Secrets of Happiness." He spoke with WFAE's Nick de la Canal ahead of the program.

How to be happier
Dan Buettner talks with WFAE's Nick de la Canal about how to live a happier, longer, healthier life.
Dan Buettner

Nick de la Canal: You've found what are referred to as "Blue Zones." These are places in the world where people tend to live the longest and healthiest lives. Where are they, and what makes them so special?

Dan Buettner: Well, to put a finer point on it, my specialty has been finding extraordinary populations and then learning their lesson. And most of these populations, they're either longest-lived or happiest because of some statistical underpinnings.

But the longest-lived places in the world — longest-lived men are Sardinia, Italy. Longest-lived women: Okinawa, Japan. You have an island in Greece called Icaria, where people live about eight years longer, largely without dementia. The Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, population that has about a threefold better chance of reaching the healthy age 95, spending one-fifteenth the amount we do on health care. And then in the United States, it's among the Seventh Day Adventists in and around Loma Linda, California.

De la Canal: And what makes these places special? Is it something in the water, or what's going on here?

Buettner: Well, it's the sum of a number of small things that add up to about 10 extra years, and those 10 years tend to be good years. They simply live in a place where the healthier choice is the easier, cheaper, more accessible choice. And, you know, my work in the United States here is working with American cities to help set up those nudges and defaults to set up Americans for longer, better lives.

De la Canal: Yeah. What does that look like?

Buettner: Well we assume that individuals are genetically hard-wired to crave fat, salt, sugar, and take rests whenever they can. So instead of trying to convince people to work against their genes, we work with city council to pick policies that favor healthy food over junk food and junk food marketing, to favor the pedestrian over the motorist, to favor the nonsmoker over the smoker. And then, over the course of our stay in a city, and it's usually mult-year, we work with 30-40% of all restaurants, grocery stores, workplaces, schools and churches to help them optimize their designs and their policies so that people mindlessly move more, eat better, socialize more, and know and live their purpose.

De la Canal: I know that making healthy choices, living a healthy lifestyle — these are all things that can really contribute to a person feeling good and feeling happy about themselves. But I also wonder, too, about the broader state of the world. You know, with so much conflict going on right now — whether it be violence or the state of economy, contentious politics — is that also having an influence on our happiness and healthiness? And do you maybe think it's harder for people to be happier now than maybe in previous decades?

Buettner: It depends where. I mean certainly in the Rust Belt of America it's harder to be happy. I mean if you have Fox News on 24/7, or one of these other news channels that makes its money off of ratings, you're going to be triggered all day long. So, you have the control over your home to get rid of screens, or turn off the bings and notifications on your phone.

But no, now is not necessarily an unhappier place. America as we've seen — the way we measure happiness is through something called life satisfaction. It has dipped a little bit in the last decade. That's the bad news. The good news is we're about as happy right now as we were as a nation right after World War II. So we're staying pretty steady as a country.

WFAE wants to hear from you! Amid all the conflict in the world, what activities are bringing you joy, comfort or happiness? Find out how to share your story with WFAE by clicking here.

De la Canal: So one big final question for you: What is making you happy and bringing you joy right now?

Buettner: Well I live in an area right now that's very walkable. We know that people who live near water are about 5-10% happier without controlling for everything else. I eat very healthy. But mostly, I focus on curating a social circle who's idea of recreation is something active; people with whom I can have a meaningful conversation; people who care about me when I have a bad day. Those are things that really work at producing happiness.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal