The Best Places to Live if You Want a Long, Happy Life

The average life expectancy for US citizens is 79 years, and while that may sound like plenty of living to you NOW, who knows what the future holds?

But never fear! There are five places -- called Blue Zones -- where a disproportionately high number of residents live to 100: Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Nicoya, Costa Rica. If researchers could unlock the characteristics of these seemingly magical areas, the rest of us might be able to glean some life-extending information.   

Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and bestselling author, has spent years studying the habits of people who live in the Blue Zones. "Only about 20% of our genes determine how long the average person lives," says Buettner. "This means our lifestyle and environment will greatly shape our health and happiness in later years."

So what secret formula do Blue Zoners follow to live longer and healthier? The short answer, unfortunately, is that there's no magic pill (though that hasn't stopped scientists from trying to find one). There are, however, shared traits of Blue Zone residents you can try to emulate.

They exercise -- without the gym

Americans are kind of extreme. Many people sit on their asses and watch too much TV, or believe that the only path to fitness is through marathon training and completing obstacle courses that deliver electric shocks and simulate drowning. But in Blue Zones, physical labor isn't approached begrudgingly; it's a natural part of everyday life. In Okinawa, that's maintaining a garden; in Ikaria, it's using walking as your main mode of transportation. Blue Zoners embrace physical activity throughout their lives.

They have a reason to get out of bed every morning

Not as depressing as it sounds! While having a meaningful job and close family is important during all stages of life, it's especially important as you reach retirement. "Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy," says Buettner. "Our society looks at retirement as a time to sit around, relax, and play some golf. But one of the most dangerous years of your life is the year you retire, because of a sudden lack of purpose."

People in Blue Zones fight this by placing value in raising their family's children, and in participating in their communities well into old age. In Nicoya, Costa Rica, for example, this is an explicit part of daily life -- known as the plan de vida -- and helps centenarians maintain a positive outlook late into life.

food in Okinawa
food in Okinawa | EijiA /

They don't stuff themselves silly

According to Buettner, Okinawans say the mantra "hara hachi bu" before each meal, which means "eat until you're 80% full." Do you really need a double cheeseburger when a single would have done the trick? Speaking of cheeseburgers…

Many people who live in Blue Zones follow a vegetarian diet. Sad, yes, but it's tougher and tougher to deny the benefits of a plant-based diet, whether you want to go full-on vegetarian or not. Beans and greens are the big winners in all five Blue Zones. In Sardinia, meat is usually reserved for Sundays and special occasions, and Loma Linda, California, is notable because it's a Seventh-Day Adventist community that advocates for a vegetarian diet as a religious tenet. Okinawans are also known for their adherence to a plant-based diet.

They drink!

If there isn't meat, at least there's still booze. In Buettner's research in Sardinia, for example, moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. This might be because a drink can help people de-stress, and the libations are usually shared among friends -- as if you need more reasons to hit up happy hour. Obviously this doesn't mean you can go out and party hard every night, but extreme limitations can be just as bad for you.

They have a solid network to take care of and lean on

People who live longer are usually surrounded by family, friends, and romantic partners, and prioritize them over others. A whole other network they're tapped into is religion. Regardless of their denomination, people who attend faith-based services four times per month add up to 14 years to their life expectancy, says Buettner. And 14 years is a long time!

Beachgoers in Sardinia
Beachgoers in Sardinia | <a href="">luis abrantes</a> /Shutterstock

They live less-stressful lives and know how to deal with stress when it pops up

"Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease," says Buettner. Maybe you should not-so-subtly forward this to your boss? Eliminating unnecessary stresses, knowing how to identify stress, and positively coping with it are all important skills. If you look at some of the other shared characteristics, you can see how an entire balanced lifestyle can reduce stress; exercise, family, and having a few drinks help people in Blue Zones stay even-keeled.

They surround themselves with other health-minded people

People who make good choices will encourage you to make good choices. You can probably divide your social group into two kinds of friends: the ones who top off happy hour with one -- or two! or three! -- slices of pizza, and the ones who prefer bike rides and vegetables. Whether you're conscious of it or not, social pressure is real, and you're likely to mirror your friends' behaviors, for better or for worse.

The shared "secrets" of these places aren't really that secret, nor are they very complicated. The trick is putting them all together, especially in places that don't encourage work-life balance and strong social bonds. A vegetarian diet isn't going to do you much good if you don't have friends and drink all the time, and a huge friend group and supportive family aren't going to outwork a diet of pizza and candy bars.

Maybe it's time to take that cruise to Sardinia?

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Kristin Schwab writes about health, fitness, and the arts. She's now thinking about moving to Greece. Follow her on Twitter: @kkschwab.