The Blue Zones Part 2: The Happiness Project

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‘Something to do, someone to love, something to give, something to look forward to.’

What a wonderful quote to begin with. This blog post is a Part 2 of this week’s Friday Focus on The Blue Zones – Part 1 was a fantastic guest post by a role model of mine, Dr. Concept Merry (medical consultant, write, blogger The Indie Doctor with a special interest in integrative medicine), which you can read here, and I highly recommend that you do before tucking into this post! I will describe what the Blue Zones are again below as an introduction, and following on from that this article is a review of the most recent book I read about the Blue Zones and happiness life lessons we can learn from these regions. I can’t wait to hear what you all think – we could talk about them all day!

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There are many, many mixed messages out there about health. About how to ‘live well’, ‘be healthy’, ‘find the right diet for you’ and others telling you ‘this workout will give you the body you want’ ‘try this workout for ultimate fat loss’, and more still along the lines of ‘carbs are bad’, ‘alcohol is bad’, ‘fat is bad’ – okay, I’m getting a little bit sassy. But you get the picture. It’s confusing. We are overcomplicating life and how to live it. Instead of sustainable, balanced living that optimizes every aspect of our well-being (physical, emotional, mental), we see purported ‘quick fixes’ shared all across social media, all of which promote a degree of restriction and ‘black and white’ style thinking about how to live your life.

Enough, is what I’m saying today. Over the past nine months, I have been doing a lot of reading about ‘The Blue Zones.’ Some of you may have seen or heard me talk about this, but if you haven’t here’s a quick re-cap. The Blue Zones refers to five geographic areas identified in 2005 as the regions of the world where people statistically live the longest- that year, it was the National Geographic cover story ‘The Secrets of a Long Life’ by Dan Buettner. Dan is the founder of the Blue Zones organization, and has written three bestsellers on this topic. A huge amount of research has been done to examine the common factors shared by these regions that are felt to contribute towards their longevity. The five areas are spread across the globe – Ikaria in Greece, Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, Nicoya in Costa Rica and the Seventh Day Adventists population in Loma Linda, California.

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The book I read most recently was by Dan, titled ‘The Blue Zones of Happiness.’ Many of you expressed huge interest in this area when I talked about it on my social media. We also included a talk on the Blue Zones for my doctor colleagues as part of my ‘Wellness for Doctors’ events, titled ‘How To Blue Zone Your Life’, delivered by a consultant mentor of mine with a shared interest in the Blue Zones. Given how successful this talk was, I decided, after the interest from you guys, to write a blog post of a similar nature, talking about the key lifestyle factors highlighted by Dan that are known as ‘The Happiness Power 9’ – the evidence based technqiues Dan feels most contribute towards the high rates of happiness and longevity the Blue Zone populations experience. Dan refers back to ‘the three P’s’ of happiness throughout the book – pleasure, purpose and pride, and these techniques are felt to increase all three Ps. The Ps are three words I have had in my mind ever since finishing this book.

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This is slightly different to the original ‘Power 9’ Dan discusses in his earlier book ‘The Blue Zones – 9 Power Lessons For Living Longer’ – I’ve got these in the below image.

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And I’m specifically talking about the ‘Happiness Power 9’ because I think in all of the health and wellbeing messages we see, a key thing often overlooked is happiness. Does how you eat, move, sleep, work and socialize make you happy? I don’t know if many of us put that first in day to day and longer term life decisions. So let’s focus on it now.

Here are the ‘Happiness Power 9’ gang, and I’ve included a couple of take home messages with each to help you incorporate each one into your life, to improve YOUR three Ps of happiness.

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Love Someone

For anyone who has been blessed to experience love, I don’t really need to put this one into words. Finding your right person, ‘the one’ if you’ll allow the cheese, is a big factor in happiness. Butterflies, laughter, loyalty, dedication through good times and badthere isn’t adjective for what that all encompasses, and I think that’s why they call it ‘finding the one.‘ And if you haven’t found them, then there is plenty to love around you – your family and your closest friends for example.

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Become The Company You Keep – Cultivate Your Inner Circle

Let’s all be really honest here – have you ever done something just because your friend did it? My hand is high up in the air, don’t you worry. Like it or not, to a degree we are all influenced by the decisions and actions of those around us. It has been shown that we tend to be more likely to adopt certain habits, both healthy and unhealthy, if our close friends engage in them. I’m not saying ditch your best friend because she’s a social smoker – but just be aware of how your own habits are affected by that of those close to you. And maybe think about expanding your social circle to include regular time with those who engage in the healthy habits you want to keep.

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Engage In The World Around You

Studies have shown that our happiness is influenced in a positive way by the degree of time we spent in the company of others each day. And it doesn’t take much common sense to agree that although down time in our own thoughts is essential and peaceful at times, it’s not the best idea ALL the time. So get out there! Show the world your sparkle. Figure out what your interests are, and look into joining clubs, groups or organisations that match. That could be a running club, a book club, or even volunteer work – it’s yours to identify and try.

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Make Your Happiness Contagious

I’m a big believer that if you put out positive energy into the world around us, you’ll get it back in bucketloads. Even if you aren’t naturally a positive person, this really is a ‘fake it until you make it’ scenario. I find that even when I’m in the biggest of funks and moods, a good laugh with my best friend, sister or mom pretty much always does the trick to make me feel better. What an amazing gift to give someone right? So make your happiness contagious – spread your good vibes, share a smile, be generous with your time and ears to listen. The world will bring it back to you.

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Move Naturally

Many of you will have heard me talk about ‘movement snacks‘, but if you haven’t, this is a concept based around the recommendation that we should focus more on movement as an integrated PART of our daily lives. Seeinng exercise not as a separate entity, like the sweaty spin class we do at 7am before we sit at a desk at work all day without moving – instead, it should be something we do often without thinking, and without considering it a big chore to be ‘fit in’ around our busy lives. Examples you can bring into your day to day are things like short ten to fifteen minute strolls before and after work, and at lunch, taking the stairs instead of the lift, or getting off your bus or train a stop early. I’m not saying to stop the exercise habits you have – but make sure you’re getting up and away from that desk regularly throughout the day. We’ve seen a trend towards standing desks and people taking quick walking breaks each hour – this might have seemed abnormal  few years ago, but we have the science now to back us up!

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Find Your Purpose And Follow It

I’ve talked about this a little bit in other blog posts, and it’s something very close to my heart. I’ll be brutally honest here and say that I think many, many people are afraid to put their hand up and say ‘You know what, I’m not sure if I love what I do.’ It isn’t easy to figure out your path early on in life, especially when we (in Ireland anyway) basically have to choose a career direction straight from the age of 18, and we’re literally just finishing forming our young adult brains at that time! You guys know I’m a medical doctor, but it’s taken me quite some time to figure out my passion within medicine, and I struggled trying to find it, let me tell ya. But it was really important to me that I find the area that makes me excited to get out of bed in the morning, the area that I feel I can never know enough about. The Japanese have a phrase for your ‘purpose’ in life – Ikigai. I love that word. And I’m still figuring out my way along my path, trust me. Don’t be afraid to take a long hard look at whether you feel excited to start your day to day – it’s something you’ll do for a long time, so make sure it’s making you happy.

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Don’t Skip On Sleep

I recently posted a Friday Focus article on my blog about the importance of adequate quality and quantity of sleep. Yep, it’s still just as essential for optimal health and happiness. I won’t repeat myself on the point, and you can read my sleep article here anyway. But in short, aim for a minimum of 7 (ideally 7.5 to 8) hours of sleep per night. Being honest, we’ve all felt that total ‘bleurgh’ feeling when you’re knackered after a rough night, so I don’t need to hammer home how a good night’s rest is a key factor in your day to day happiness. Trust me, it is!

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Find Your Tribe

A community that supports you, and supports well-being is a really important factor in your happiness. This point touches on a couple mentioned already – optimising your friend circle, and shaping your surroundings in particular. It’s really important that the environment in which you live your day to day life at home and at work supports access to healthy choices – access to quality nutrition, amenities for out and indoor exercise, recreational activities and facilities (e.g. parks, playgrounds, even beaches nearby) and groups that encourage and foster healthy lifestyle habits, for example. Friends and family in relatively close proximity, opportunities for socialising in local cafes or restaurants, community centres – all support healthy lifestyle choices, and contribute towards your happiness. So take a look at your community, and identify what positives you see, as well as maybe spotting room for improvements that you could help with!

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Shape Your Surroundings For Happiness

And that leads me nicely into this. What can you do to shape your environment for your happiness and health? And by environment, I’m talking at home, at work, your social network and your personal life. Create the environment you will thrive in. Create a space around you where you both want to and enjoy making healthier choices – the food you keep in your fridge and cupboards, the time you allocate for eating meals with family/friends/significant other, choosing a work location that isn’t (if possible) a massive commute to (e.g. bike-able distance or a short hop on public transport or walk), and a community that fosters well-being as discussed above. The little things DO make a difference, and the beauty of it is, you can shape so much of them for yourself.

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And that, you lovely people, is a few simple ways to ‘blue zone’ your way of living to improve your health and happiness. Some will resonate more than others, but importantly, ALL are achievable, important, and valuable ways you can live better. I really hope you enjoyed reading this article, and I highly recommend checking out Dan Buettner’s Blue Zone books for yourselves if you want to know more! We can learn SO MUCH from the Blue Zone way of living, and that’s what I want to bring more of into my own life, and yours. As always, you know where to find me if you have any questions/comments/ideas – @theirishbalance on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook!

Ciara 🙂 x

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