Happiness is an active process, not something you get by sitting back and waiting. It’s something to be grabbed by the horns or more vulnerable areas and then conquered. At least, this is the gist of the message from Tony Robbins and gurus of his ilk.
Many also say happiness is not something we can buy, or steal, or work too hard to acquire. If you work too hard at it, you end up obsessing over your own state of mind—Am I happy? … Really though? And like love, if you have to ask, the answer is no.
So what’s the right way to think about effort and happiness? Should I be trying for “happiness” per se—or something more magnanimous, like purpose or meaning?
Or money? Is happiness actually all about money? That would be a real twist.
Few people bring the unique perspective to this mess of questions like Dan Buettner. Over the past 15 years, he has carved out a niche at National Geographic, where he travels the world in search of the healthiest people and “distills their lessons,” as he puts it, translating existential philosophy into practical information for limited-attention-span U.S. readers.
The result has been a mix of journalism, academic epidemiology, advocacy, and entrepreneurship delivered in easy-to-implement bullet points. The mix allows Buettner a certain vantage to synthesize information and see it through to the real world. After publication of his 2008 book Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, he launched a company of the same name that works with local communities to integrate health-based changes.
I first talked to Buettner at the Aspen Ideas Festival a couple years ago, where he was one of the few people in jeans and a T-shirt. While most people there were sitting listening to interviews and panel discussions, he texted to see if I wanted to cut out and go mountain biking.
I couldn’t, because I have a job. Buettner’s job is to find and hang out with the healthiest people in the world. When we did sit down, he told me about how he was working with Gallup on finding a way to identify the statistically “happiest” people in the world. This month that work is published as the third book in the series, The Blue Zones of Happiness.
With it, the graying, ever-tanned Buettner is at something of an inflection point in his career. Notable in the new pages are a shift from what started out as more traditional guru-type personal advice for longevity—drink a glass or two of wine after 5 o’clock with friends or food, eat a plant-based diet, maintain a bicycle, join a faith-based community, etc. Buettner hasn’t entirely given up on self-improvement, but he has come to believe it gets way too much emphasis. His focus now is improving our surroundings, for the same reason that “dieting” tends to fail but changing a food environment works.
Last week I talked with Buettner about his experiences and how his understanding of health and happiness has shifted over the years. He was about to go rollerblading. Our conversation is lightly edited and condensed.
James Hamblin: Define happiness.
Dan Buettner: Right away there’s a problem because, academically speaking, happiness is a meaningless term. You can’t measure happiness. It’s really a composite of things: health, emotions, the way you evaluate your life, and the extent to which you’re living out your values.
Hamblin: It sounds like you’re arguing for a reframing of the idea of “happiness” toward something bigger—an aggregate of purpose and joy and satisfaction and meaning. We’ve run pieces in the past that touch on, for example, Viktor Frankl and others who have said that life is really about pursuing meaning, and if you pursue happiness as we Americans tend to think about it, you end up going to amusement parks and shopping malls and trying to do things that are supposed to be making you happy but are sucking life out of you.
Buettner: Yes, exactly. So this was our challenge. Even though you can’t measure happiness, you can measure life satisfaction, partly by asking people, and partly by discrete questions about how much you smile or laugh or feel joy. You can also measure people’s sense of purpose, with questions like, “Do you learn new and interesting things every day? Have you used your strength to do what you do best this past week?”
So for this book I worked with statisticians to run the numbers on data like this around the world. That pointed us to Singapore, Costa Rica, and Denmark as globally illustrative of facets of happiness. And so I spent a lot of time in those places, as well as a few U.S. cities, and tried to piece together explanations.
Hamblin: Did that change the way you think about happiness?
Buettner: There are two points that I make that you might not have heard elsewhere. Number one, I like the idea of thinking about happiness in the same way you think of your retirement portfolio. You want it balanced—the short term and long term, stocks and bonds. The hell-bent pursuit of purpose kind of loses the point a little bit, because there is value in the sum of positive emotions we experience every day.
So if all you’re doing is pursuing your purpose, or if all you’re doing is very goal-oriented, you forgo joy today for a perceived better future. We now know that humans reliably mis-predict what will make them happy in the future. You could work your butt off, pursue your purpose, become financially independent, and get there and realize “Oh, my life sucks.”