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Life Tips from Happiness Expert Dan Buettner

The National Geographic fellow on what he's learned from spending time with the happiest people on earth

For the past 15 years, he’s continued to travel around the world in search of what makes people happy, identifying destinations around the world he calls “Blue Zones,” where people live the longest and are the healthiest. (Erin Wilson)
Dan Buettner illustration

The National Geographic fellow on what he's learned from spending time with the happiest people on earth

Name: Dan Buettner
Job: National Geographic fellow and author
Home Base: Minneapolis and Santa Barbara
Age: 57

As a young man, Dan Buettner pursued his dream of becoming an explorer by throwing himself into ultra-endurance bike expeditions. He cycled from Alaska to Argentina; 12,890 miles around the world via the former Soviet Union; and across Africa. “Those expeditions are useful for a young person but not meaningful for a larger audience,” Buettner says. “The exploration becomes relevant when you can bring something back that can improve the human condition.” For the past 15 years, he’s continued to travel around the world in search of what makes people happy, identifying destinations around the world he calls “blue zones,” where people live the longest and are the healthiest. Buettner has distilled his findings into articles for National Geographic and in a bestselling series of books titled The Blue Zones. In a nutshell, he says, the world’s longest-living people move naturally, eat wisely, connect with community, and have a positive outlook. We asked Buettner about his work and play habits and how he incorporates his happiness findings into his own life.

On His Job Description: “I make complex ideas simple.”

On His Hours: “One could argue that I work all the time or that I screw off all the time. It depends on how you define work. If work is defined by something you don’t like to do, then I work one hour a day. If it’s defined as engaging the brain and moving a goal forward, then I work 12 hours a day. I usually write all morning until noon. Those are my sharpest hours.”

On His Workspace: “Consummately portable and thus perfect. I always have my laptop with me. I work better on a plane or sitting cross-legged outside.”

On How He Broke into Writing for National Geographic: “It took 15 years. After every one of my transcontinental expeditions, I would make a pilgrimage to National Geographic. I’d get turned down, but I learned a little every time. In one of these meetings, Peter Miller, the former expeditions editor, is tapping his pencil and looking at his watch, so I throw a Hail Mary and say that I’ve also been exploring the world’s longest-lived people. He stops tapping his pencil and says, ‘Now that is an idea with hair on it.’ That first story ran in November 2005 and was one of the most successful cover stories in the magazine’s history.”

On How Someone Else Can Break In: “When I started, there were only a few outlets, and if you got a cover story for National Geographic, you were made for life. That is still a huge honor as an explorer. I liken it to winning a Pulitzer Prize. But the bar isn’t as high anymore for young explorers. Today, with social media, you can be your own outlet, and in a matter of years, you can build a following that can be as significant as writing a National Geographic cover story.”

On His Favorite Piece of Technology: “My Mac notebook.”

On What He Eats for Breakfast: “I’m a huge believer in oatmeal, but today I had dal with coconut and chiles. People in blue zones mostly eat a savory breakfast. The four pillars of the longevity diet are whole grains, nuts, greens, and beans. That last one is the most important longevity food anywhere. I’ve become quite a bean virtuoso. Americans have no idea how to make beans taste good. They’re cheap and take on a lovely, meaty flavor if cooked right. People say they can’t afford to eat healthy, and it makes my eyes roll. At Costco, a 25-pound bag of pinto beans costs $8.97. I can eat for year off that bag.”

On His Sleep Routine: “The longest-lived people follow the pattern of sunset and sunrise. I don’t quite do that, but I go to bed pretty late and wear a mask over my eyes so the morning light does not wake me. I sleep until my body doesn’t want to sleep anymore, which is usually after seven or eight hours.”

On the Most Recent Habit He’s Tried to Adapt: “I don’t believe in habits. They almost always fail. If you want to live longer, work better, and be happier, either change your environment or shape your environment in permanent ways that set up nudges to help you do the right thing rather than the wrong.”

On How He Achieves Work-Life Balance: “By 4 p.m., especially in Southern California where this is common, I close my computer and go to happy hour or dinner with people who are interested in the same things I am. I make a point to turn off my phone, because when it’s on the table, you’re saying there are other people more important than you.”

On His Favorite Daily Ritual: “I take an hour to do something physical every day. That is sacred for me. I might go to yoga, ride my bike, rollerblade. Today I’ll go on a two-hour hike wearing a 30-pound backpack and multitask by making calls.”

On His Biggest Fear: “I spent seven years studying the collapse of civilizations—the Mayans, Romans, Anasazi. You see the same arc: Innovation leads to overpopulation and the leverage of society that can’t quite govern itself. Then a climactic event comes and society doesn’t know how to deal with hardship, so the leaders launch attacks to take the attention off their inability to control the situation. Churchill said, ‘Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ I fear the collapse of America. We are repeating the mistakes of the Mayans, Romans, Anasazi.”

Filed To: Sleep / Books / Diet / Environment / Media / Travel / Exploration
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