Joseph Heller’s satirical novel Catch-22 has a memorable character, Dunbar, who intentionally cultivates boredom, reasoning that a life that feels long is just as good as a life that actually is long. It’s true that boredom makes time crawl, but it’s hard to imagine a better illustration of why longevity doesn’t make much sense as a goal all by itself. What we aspire to is not just a long life, but a long, good life. With that in mind, I was curious to see what modern research has to say about longevity and staying mentally and physically healthy. What I found was reassuring: apparently the long life and the good life are tightly woven together.
In 2005, Dan Buettner of National Geographic set out to find the places in the world where people lived unusually long and healthy lives. He found four such “blue zones” around the globe and visited them to find out what they all had in common. They are Loma Linda, California, a community with a large population of Seventh-Day Adventists; Nicoya, Costa Rica, an 80-mile peninsula in Central America; Sardinia, a Mediterranean island with a long memory for its lifestyle traditions; and the Japanese island of Okinawa.
I was most interested to learn what these diverse cultures all have in common, and whether the factors that made the lives of their people so long and healthy also made them good. Are their lives filled with meaning and love? Are they living in a way that respects their humanity and their relationship with the natural environment? Are they mentally sharp and engaged? Diet is surely involved, but is nutrition for them just a matter of chemistry, or does it make their lives not only physically healthy but mentally healthy as well?
Here’s what stood out to me about how a long life can also be a good life from Dan Buettner’s 2009 TED talk summing up his findings.
Attitudes toward people: In Sardinia, old people are valued for their wisdom and contribution to the family. Because of this cultural understanding, grandparents stay close to their grandchildren (which also greatly benefits the children). This seems to me to be the most culturally humanizing element of all: aging people in Sardinia keep their connections with their families even as they age and their roles change.
In Okinawa, connections are very intentionally fostered. There’s a tradition of grouping children together into lifelong support groups, to help in crises but also just for daily connection. While it may be harder to establish such long standing groups in a culture where people tend to move around a lot, the Okinawa tradition underlines the importance of cultivating lifelong friendships.
Loma Linda is an example of a faith-based community. A shared religious culture is one way to give people not only a support network and common interests, but also a sense of belonging.
These are different examples of a life of harmony with community. The long and good life involves carefully fostered connections with other people.
Attitudes toward food and exercise: What stands out in all four areas is the way both food and exercise are integrated into daily normal life. In Sardinia and Okinawa, the diet is extremely traditional, based on what grows well in the area. In Loma Linda, among the Seventh-Day Adventists, the diet (vegetarian) is integrated with the religious beliefs of the community. The diets of all four areas are at least mostly plant-based, but what stands out to me is that the diets are so intensely cultural: food is seen neither as mere nutrition nor as a chore. The same is true of exercise: none of these mini-cultures emphasizes workouts in the gym, but all have healthy exercise integrated into the tasks of daily life. For example, in Okinawa, you sit on the floor—which means you are up and down many times each day.
The integration of food and exercise into cultural life provides a harmony with nature. The long and good life involves carefully fostered connections with the environment.
Attitude toward life: The third thing that stands out to me about all these cultures is that each emphasizes a sense of purpose. In Loma Linda, the reason for living may be primarily understood in religious terms. In Okinawa, they have a special word (ikigai) that means your reason for waking up in the morning. You need one! It could be your job or your passion, or, like one of the long-lived residents of Okinawa, it could be your great-great-great granddaughter. And in Loma Linda, 24 hours out of each week are set aside as a sabbath, to step back from the busyness of life and connect with something deeper.
Understanding life as meaningful and thinking of your own life in terms of purpose gives you a harmony with yourself. The long and good life cultivates the connection between even mundane daily tasks and a deeper meaning.
Living a life in harmony with the people around you, the natural world, and yourself, apparently makes for a long and mentally healthy life. But more than that, it creates a life whose worth is easy to see. These are harmonies we can actively cultivate to improve both the length and the quality of our years.