Blue Zones at MAPP Summit

This is the last in my series of positive speakers at the 2012 MAPP Summit in Philadelphia. Previous posts in this series discussed reciprocity rings, connectedness, perception of time, and MAPP alumni sharing.

You may have heard of Blue Zones, the fabulous research by Dan Buettner about healthy longevity around the world. Essentially, Dan has travelled to those places in the world where there is a higher-than-normal percentage of centenarians and researched what makes a long healthy life possible.

A few ideas that really resonated with me:

  • About 80% of how long you live is attributable to lifestyle and environment. Only about 20% is genetic.
  • People who have healthy long lives eat mostly plant diets (including grains).
  • Societies where people tend to have healthy long lives have a positive collective attitude towards aging, and people in their 80s, 90s and even 100s still have meaningful jobs and are valued.
  • People who have healthy long lives savour and don’t overeat. They stop at 80% of stomach capacity.
  • They have a reason to get up in the morning and feel that they make a valuable difference in their community.
  • They have “inconvenient” lives, which mean that they must physically move every day – gardening, working, climbing stairs, etc. Activity is integrated into their day and they move naturally.
  • They get outside regularly as part of their normal lives.
  • They remain connected in meaningful ways to friends and family.
This all sounds well and fine – and seemingly basic. Until Dan told us that no healthy-living intervention has ever lasted in the US. There have been several attempts, but nothing has lasted significantly. The researchers typically arrive in a community, implement some intervention, and then leave – and the intervention eventually fails. Dan wondered if it would be possible to create a sustainably healthier community in the US. And so he and his research team set out to replicate the success of Blue Zones in a town where it had not existed before.
There were some levers that the team used to “nudge” people into a better healthy lifestyle:
  • city policy – to make active options the easy options
  • built environments – such as walking paths along the lake and connecting sidewalks
  • social networks – such as creating friendly walking clubs in neighbourhoods
  • building designs – how schools and grocery stores were physically set up to encourage healthy choices
  • purpose  (inner self) – to get people to contribute and volunteer (they set up a “speed dating” with volunteer organizations)
It was a great model on paper – but did it work? It appears so.
The town where they worked their magic was about 20,000 people and 50% of the local restaurants participated. They built city community gardens for people to grow vegetables and make social connections. They disallowed candies as rewards for good behaviour at school. 25% of the adult population signed up to nudge their home environment towards healthier choices. They created groups of social support who took walks together for 10 weeks – and 60% of them stayed together, walking, 3 years later.
There were positive changes to the environment, such as a 40% reduction in city health-care costs.
Overall, you do need 100% buy-in from the city and people to orchestrate this “perfect storm”. Yet it’s so exciting that this could work! What small changes could you make in your life right now to help you live a longer, healthier life?
For another positive psychology viewpoint on Dan Buettner, please visit Caroline Miller’s fabulous blog.
Dan Buettner’s TED talk is below – I hope you enjoy it and that it inspires you to make some meaningful healthy longevity changes in your life.



I’m off this afternoon to give another free talk about positive psychology, and talked with yet another interested host organization this morning! Would you like to bring more positive psychology to your organization – be it your workplace, club, volunteer group or anything else? Please see my original blog post about my 51 free talks on positive psychology, and contact me for more information. I’m now taking bookings for February 2013. 


Lisa Sansom

Lisa Sansom has her MBA from the Rotman School of Management, and over two decades of experience in teaching and training. Her years of work in the organizational development field have included projects on change management, employee engagement, leadership development, team coaching and employer of choice strategies.

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