Living well is the best revenge was always on the back page of a regional newspaper in Marin County, in the San Francisco Bay Area 50 years ago. A nice reminder that always made me smile. While “revenge” is not necessarily a goal it could be restated as “living well is the best revenge against aging and unhappiness.” The Blue Zones represent not only the healthiest areas on Earth, but also the happiest places. Social scientists have been studying almost 100 countries for happiness levels since the early 1980s. Health and happiness go hand in hand. Let’s face it, it’s harder to be happy when you’re unhealthy.
But what can you do to “get happier” and “healthier”? People often ask this when they want a simpler lifestyle or more happiness in their lives. You can do this, but it means lifestyle changes, attitudinal changes. Studies of the happiest places on Earth have shown lots of consistencies. And surprisingly the areas where the rich live are not the happiest areas!
The happiest areas are Denmark, Mexico, and even the city of San Luis Obispo, in California. Singapore comes in fourth but it’s more of a manufactured happiness than a lifestyle. For the record, the United States came in 20th on the list of happiest nations! The least stressed states in the U.S. are those with the most space–Alaska, Montana, North and South Dakota. Maybe you have no intention of moving to these slower, roomier states but you can change your lifestyle and become happier and healthier.
The Danish people cultivate “hygge” which translates as the “art of relaxing in a warm and cozy environment.” This could mean anything from candles to street vendors selling herring instead of sweets. A relaxed attitude means slowing down—better to arrive late than to not arrive at all. In 1988 I made my move to this area. I’d spent the previous months packing up our small 800 sq ft house and was spending the weekend on an herbal retreat. I was late and stressed about meeting a friend of mine on time. Though dusk was fast approaching, the greeters to the retreat sat in the parking lot awaiting the last minute arrivals. While apologizing for my lateness, profusely, they let me know it was no problem and pointed me in the direction of the cabins, assuring that my pickup truck full of household goods would be perfectly save there. We had touched on the happiness factor.
The Monterey area of Mexico also has a laid back attitude when it comes to stress. We all know that less stress is going to be better for your health all around. The Mexican people are much more family-oriented than most U.S. citizens. They spend six to seven hours a day in social time, which includes helping each other accomplish tasks, long Sunday dinners, with lots of laughter, and church activities. Laugh therapy does not mean putting down others, but instead humor is aimed at corrupt government, (otherwise ignoring it), poverty (most are considered very poor), and even death (the only guarantee in life).
San Luis Obispo took it upon itself to make this university town livable and lovable. In 1990 they were the first city in the world to ban smoking in workplaces. This town limits growth to a mere 1% a year. They discourage distracting signage and fast food restaurants. The nearest fast food location is in a city twenty minutes away. They encourage bicycle and pedestrian lanes, encourage tolerance, and support the arts. Is it any wonder this city of decreased stress is considered the healthiest city in the United States?
Americans (U.S. citizens) tend to think more is better. They work forty plus hours a week to earn money for the gym, a bigger car or refrigerator, or just to buy more stuff, most of which ends up in thrift stores and landfills. Where’s the satisfaction in that. Americans take six to eight days of vacation a year. Europeans are required to take six weeks of vacation. If you’re on vacation right now, enjoy it! You will go back to work renewed. Extend your vacation if you can.
There are plenty of things you can do to increase your happiness level and thereby your health level:
• pay off your house (no matter what catastrophe you’ll have a roof over your head)
• then pay off your car and try to have only one car per household, or at least per person
• have not more than one credit card (if any). I was recently writing a check in a store and the man in line explained to his daughter what I was doing. I told her that no credit cards means no debt.
• decrease screen time. One TV per household is plenty. If you want interaction with your kids, take the TVs out of their rooms. Set a good example and turn the TV OFF!
• invest in experiences instead of stuff. You only get one life and this is it. Play games, read books, cook, sew, garden, work on the car, take a walk.
• get outside more. Most Americans in the U.S. do not get enough Vitamin D. Fifteen minutes in direct sunlight will give as much Vitamin D as a gallon of milk! Take a walk or a bike ride, garden, socialize more outside, go on a picnic.
• socialize more with people of all ages (it teaches tolerance) It might be hard to get six or seven hours of socializing in each day but you could do it.
Few will make these changes in their lives. Even getting rid of the alarm clock and getting a smaller refrigerator is probably not going to happen. Start small: take your own bags to reuse at the grocery store; take your own containers to restaurants for bringing home leftovers; use bars of soap instead of expensive plastic containers of mostly water with a little soap that become non-recyclable garbage.
Put family before friends and make time for socializing. Chat with the people you meet. Facebook and Twitter are not real face-to-face socializing. Don’t get a fancier phone or a bigger TV or more clothes. You don’t need them. Strive for decreased use of electronics, less garbage, more time for pleasurable activities. You can be happier!