As the warm coastal breeze danced through the branches of the Mother Oak tree and birds bathed in the concrete bird bath covered in moss, I stood in quiet observance by my Great Grandmother’s side. grandmother’s hands were submerged in dirt, clearing up space in the earth to plant a young gardenia. Having curated a lush and whimsical landscape in the backyard of her home, grandmother was commonly sought after for her gardening advice and botanical resuscitations using her two green thumbs.
My grandmother lived until she was 101 years old, actively gardening until she had a stroke at the age of 90 that catalyzed her decline. Bouncing back from the stroke proved challenging; she spent the last three years of her life on her deathbed with a pacemaker and exhaustive needs. I remember sitting with her, holding her frail hand and thinking… ‘this isn’t living, she’s already gone.’
I held her hand, a hand that had planted hundreds of seeds, cooked hundreds of family meals, wrote hundreds of love letters and rocked dozens of babies, grandbabies and great-grandbabies to sleep. I held this withered and worn-out hand while she held onto her life, gripping the material world and grappling to hold onto her own survival. The grasp was weak and tired.
I became curious…why do we hold onto life so tightly? Why do we prolong the inevitable, clinging to life as opposed to embracing our death with humility and grace? In the name of longevity, many people commit to lifestyle changes in an effort to live healthier—and thus longer lives. The best example are people who live in areas around the world known as Blue Zones; those in Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, CA; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Sardinia, Italy, are among the world’s humans who, on average, live longer lives. And it’s not just because they’re lucky enough to be immersed in nature; longevity is actually correlated to factors like a sense of belonging to community, having a strong belief system and clarity of one’s life purpose.
Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones, actually identified specific ‘life lessons’ which contribute to a long, healthy life. In order to write this book, Buettner teamed up with National Geographic to compile a team of medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers, and epidemiologists to find the longest living populations and people, and the things they all had in common.
While accepting that we’re going to die may prove to be quite liberating, we can also embrace of the current life we live, and the ways in which we live it. As inspired by the philosophy of the Blue Zones, below are the nine life lessons derived from Buettner’s project:
1. Enjoy regular, moderate physical activity. Across the board, those living in Blue Zones live lives where exercise is easily accessible. Natural movement is folded seamlessly into their lifestyles; without having to think too hard about it, they engage in things like miscellaneous house or yard work and walking. If these communities were positioned on a spectrum of physical activity, they’d sit somewhere in between the bodybuilders or triathletes, and the sedentary couch potatoes. We can find that middle ground by integrating spontaneous, casual movement without force or an agenda like choosing to take the stairs.
2. Identify your life’s purpose. The Japanese Okinawan’s call it ‘ikigai’ while the people living on the Nicoya Penninsula of Costa Rica refer to it as the ‘plan de vida’; based on the Blue Zone research, having some sense of ambition or connection to a higher purpose can contribute up to seven additional years of life expectancy. Hints toward identifying our life’s purpose can be found in the things that spark our interest, consume our day dreams, activate our creative drive and propel our energy forward. The Japanese ‘ikigai’ acts as a beautiful tool for mapping out our purpose.
3. Lower your stress levels. While no human is entirely immune to stress, those in Blue Zone communities enjoy frequent activities that help to reduce it. Whether it’s a moment of prayer, a recreational happy hour or a mid-day siesta, these times that we carve out for ourselves have been proven to lower cortisol levels in the brain and decrease chronic inflammation (which have been linked to all the big hitters in age-related disease). Regular, routine chances to shake ourselves of the natural build-up of energy in our modern world are highly impactful for overall stress reduction. The devotion of our attention—a hot commodity in our modern world—allows our brain to slow down and feel at peace. While there are various modalities of stress reduction, they’re all seem to elicit a sense of ‘feeling at home’. When we feel at home— whether in worship, in recreation, in rest, in relation with another, or in meditation— we reconnect with a sense of peace that only we can give to ourselves.
4. Have a moderate caloric intake. Also known as the 80% rule by the Okinawan, who recite an ancient Confucian mantra before eating each meal – ‘hara hachi bu’ – as a reminder to cease consumption when their stomachs are 80 percent full. Beyond Japan, there’s a common denominator across all Blue Zones regarding the last meal of the day, which is also the smallest meal of the day, in the late afternoon or early evening. This lesson is rooted in a theme of mindful consumption.
5. Have a plant-based diet. The Blue Zone project found a similarity of plant proteins among most centurion diets; beans and lentils serving as a staple in most cases. Although meat isn’t ruled out entirely, these communities only consume meat about five times a month, and the serving size doesn’t run larger than the size of a deck of cards.
6. Enjoy moderate alcohol consumption. These communities aren’t committing their lives to sobriety, but they also aren’t drowning in the sauce. With the exception of the Catholic Adventists, people in these Blue Zones drink alcohol regularly. Those who have a drink with friends and/or food, especially wine, are said to enjoy longer lives than their non-drinking counterparts. The key here (and arguably, everywhere) is moderation; the Blue Zone communities aren’t exhibiting excessive tendencies or addictive behaviors, but rather a healthy relationship with the recreational and stress-relieving qualities of fermented grains, fruits or vegetables.
7. Having a sense of spiritual belonging. Whether they belong to a faith-based organization or religious community, all but five of the 263 centurions interviewed by the Blue Zone project identified with a group that devotes themselves to some sort of spiritual practice.The group becomes a vessel, and within the vessel, individuals are able to then identify with the whole. This feeling of belonging, of being a part of the whole, translates to a direct impact on our livelihood and our relationship to our human experience.
8. Enjoy family life. The people of the Blue Zones tend to put their families first. Generally speaking, they find partners for life, raise children with loving care and attention, and keep their elders close as they age. None of these communities exhibit ‘homes’ for the elderly on the outskirts of town or hire nannies. Keeping family ties strong proves to be in our best interest.
9. Engage in your social life. These people have friends, and some of them are friends for life. It’s not simply about being social, or even having ‘forever friends’; the implicit lesson here surrounds the notion of contagious behaviors. Buettner quoted research from the Framingham Studies within Blue Zones, which shows that obesity, loneliness, smoking and happiness are all contagious. Surrounding ourselves in circles of healthy behavior not only adds years to our lives, but arguably enhance the quality of our lives in the meantime.
So then, the question arises: do we want more quantity or quality of time in our lives? Is longevity really the goal?
Our society is built on distractions and external stimuli telling us how to look, what to value, how to eat, who to trust, how to feel…the list goes on. We’re conditioned to look outside for the lessons that only we, arguably, can teach ourselves. These lessons can act as a prompt to give ourselves credit where credit is due, and get to know ourselves on a more intimate, authentic level.
As a culture, we have very few safe spaces to experience ourselves authentically. Said spaces can take shape as families, religious havens, fringe societies, alternative lifestyle niches or intentional communities. Perhaps Blue Zones spaces are a function of living authentically.
By pulling inspiration from these Blue Zones, we can take what’s useful and apply it to our lives as a means of a happier, healthier life. For it’s only when we allow spirit to express itself through us, by way of breathing in these life lessons, that we may be able to optimize our human experience.
I’m not exalting radical longevity. Instead, I hope to plant a seed of inspiration toward living lives that are stronger—not necessarily longer. Living in acknowledgement of our divinity, of the phenomenal fact that we are mere combinations of matter and protein, expressions of cosmic consciousness taking these rentals for a spin around the material plane.
So here’s to the ride. Take the long way home, the scenic route. Go off-roading. Have a laugh and appreciate the little things. In the words of Hunter S. Thompson, “life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a ride!”