Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Learning to Live to a Hundred

I very much enjoyed Dan Buettner’s TED talk, How to live to be 100+. He is a National Geographic writer and explorer who has searched around the world for cultures that produce the most centenarians, in the hopes of learning what they have to teach about long and prosperous life.

He found five remarkable communities: Sardinia in Italy, Ikaria in Greece, Okinawa in Japan, Nicoya in Costa Rica, and California’s Seventh Day Adventists. Though these cultures are dramatically different from each other, he was able to isolate what they have in common. In all these communities, they:

  1. Move Naturally - physical activity is a regular part of their daily lives. They don’t have to go to the gym; They are naturally in motion throughout the day.
  2. Right Outlook - they feel a deep sense of purpose in their lives, and they experience periods of calm in every day.
  3. Eat Wisely - they don’t have a special diet. They eat the foods that come from their community. What they don’t have is anything processed, anything made in a factory.
  4. Connect - they keep themselves surrounded by family and best friends. They belong to a community of faith.

While I am fascinated by his adventure, and his findings make intuitive sense to me, there is one thing he didn’t mention that I feel is critically important: none of these people needed to be taught to live this way. They didn’t see Dan’s talk, or read his book, nor did they hear about his prescriptions for long life on Oprah. In other words, far from heaving a set of rules upon themselves, the good life, for them, was automatic, a natural consequence of living the only way they know how.

This next bit may sound a bit heretical to an American audience: the true gift of these cultures to their people is that they were freed from the burden of choosing. In the U.S.A., we take pride in fitting ourselves out with an individualized life: what kind of food we’ll eat, what kind of home we’ll have, what we’ll be “into,” what we do for fun. The trouble is, we, as a culture, traded the effortlessness of being with the unending chore of knowing. We have to know everything all the time. Is there lead in the paint? Are there hormones in the milk? What are the seven secrets that will drive him crazy in bed? We can never know enough, we can never finish choosing. And a by-product of such determined individualism is that you are personally to blame if you fail. So is it any wonder we have a society which is wracked with anxiety?

Perhaps a culture may be judged by what sort of lives people live by default. Our growing crisis in the U.S. is that the default is the polar opposite of the principles Dan Buettner learned on his travels: we don’t move naturally, we have the wrong outlook, we eat unwisely (to put it mildly), and we are increasingly disconnected from family and friends. I don’t mean to suggest that there is nothing we can do, just that the problem runs very deep, and if you want to make a difference for yourself and the people you care about, you will need to dig deep for an answer as well.