I’ve spent my life traveling the world in the pursuit of health and happiness.
After pinpointing the places where people live the longest, healthiest lives (which I call Blue Zones regions), I turned my attention to the places where people are happiest.
At a certain point, I realized it’s not worth living to 100 if you don’t enjoy the journey. It also wasn’t enough to just identify these places; I travel in search of answers to why these hot spots are unique.
I spent a decade trying to reverse-engineer longevity. Now, that methodology is at work in over 40 cities as part of the American Blue Zones Project, improving the health and life expectancy of the people who live there.
Just as it is with health, where you live is a big determinant for your happiness. So how can we bring these happiness lessons home?
Defining and measuring happiness
For research purposes, it’s important to be able to measure something to study it. And academically speaking, happiness is a meaningless term, because it’s not measurable.
You can, however, measure three things: life satisfaction, or how you evaluate your life as a whole; positive affect, or your day-to-day, moment-to-moment happiness; and purpose, or whether you feel you have meaning in your life.
I call these metrics pride, pleasure and purpose, and enduring happiness is when these three strands are braided together.
There are different ways to happiness. To measure life satisfaction, or pride, we asked people to rate their lives on a scale of 0 to 10. This is considered the gold standard metric of well-being.
Surveys measure positive affect, or pleasure, by asking people how often they smiled, laughed or felt joy during the previous 24 hours. And well-being, or purpose, is measured by asking people whether they “learned or did something interesting yesterday.” This concept comes from Aristotle, who defined true happiness as a life of meaning.
Most happiness reports focus on just one of these strands of happiness, but our research (a combination of original research and Gallup data, called the National Geographic Gallup Special/Blue Zones Index) shows that they are all ingredients in the recipe for happiness.
Just like with a cake recipe or with your retirement portfolio, the right balance of ingredients is key to creating an enjoyable outcome.
You need to have some money in the bank and some long-term stocks and bonds. For example, if you’re totally broke and unemployed, then you’d probably measure low in life satisfaction and purpose.
Hanging out with your friends might improve your positive affect (pleasure) for that day, but it won’t do much to improve your overall well-being. In the same way, if you’re focused on just work all day, every day, then you might be missing out on the experience of joyful moments every day and the important relationships that bring you that joy.
The research shows that making enough money to cover food, shelter, health care and education has a big impact on overall happiness levels. But after that point (about $70,000 per year), money is less effective at giving you happiness. A lot more money doesn’t equal a lot more happiness. So once your basic needs are covered, you will experience more joy hanging out with your loved ones than spending another hour at work.
That’s why I don’t encourage a lot of positive psychology techniques, even though I think they can help in the short run. I have nothing against promoting mindfulness, random acts of kindness or gratitude journals. But I think they focus too much on the pleasure or positive affect strand of happiness.
Spending so much time in the pursuit of happiness neglects the other two important strands of well-being: purpose and pride.
Doing meaningful work and having financial security will make a bigger impact in your long-term well-being. I promote mindfulness, laughter and social activity because they have been shown to improve health, longevity and happiness, but they are not the only elements to consider. Happiness, just like health, is multifaceted.
What we can learn from the happiest places in the world
Our research pinpointed Denmark, Singapore and Costa Rica as the happiest countries in the world, and I spent a lot of time in all of these places.
Within these three and other happy countries in the world, the World Happiness Report researchers isolated six common factors: strong economic growth, healthy life expectancy, quality social relationships, generosity, trust and freedom to live the life that’s right for you. And what we’ve seen is that these factors don’t happen by chance; they are related to a country’s policies, government and cultural values. So where you live has a huge impact in how happy you are.
It’s the same here at home. Just as life expectancy in the United States can vary as much as 20 years depending on what state and county in which you live, happiness levels fluctuate wildly across the country, depending on your ZIP code.
Together with National Geographic, we developed an index of 15 metrics to identify where Americans are most happy and content. We drew on nearly 250,000 interviews in 190 metropolitan areas across the United States, and the results are synthesized in my newest book, “The Blue Zones of Happiness.”
Location, location, location
Boulder, Colorado, is the happiest city in America. Second is Santa Cruz, California, and Charlottesville, Virginia, is third. (You can find the rest of the list at NationalGeographic.com and in the cover story of the November issue of National Geographic magazine.) In these places, people feel safe and secure, have a sense of purpose and have joy in their day-to-day lives.
In these communities, residents are able to weave together the essential strands of happiness: pride, pleasure and purpose.
Looking at the research, it seems that the most dependable thing you can do to get happier is to move to a happier place. That’s not always possible, so the next best thing is moving to a happier neighborhood.
Our data show that people tend to be happiest close to water (lakes, ocean, rivers) and when they have access to nature, green spaces, and fruits and vegetables.
Walkability and bikeability also always correspond with higher well-being. Why? An easy work commute and pedestrian-friendly streets optimize one of the most important happiness secrets: people. The happiest people socialize several hours per day.