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Forget about keeping a gratitude journal. Never mind savouring the moment. Can't remember to perform daily random acts of kindness? Don't sweat it.

If you want to be happy, Dan Buettner has a longer-lasting solution – one that doesn't require daily effort: Move to Denmark. Or Costa Rica, or Singapore, or any of the places that rank among the happiest in the world.

Buettner, a Minneapolis-based author, is known for his work on unravelling the secrets of "Blue Zones," around the world where people live longest and are healthiest, which he first described in a 2005 National Geographic cover story. He has since promoted the longevity lessons he's learned through his Blue Zones organization.

But, as he explains, "You realize at a certain point that it's not worth living to 100 if you don't [enjoy] the journey."

So, in his newest book, The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World's Happiest People, Buettner has turned his attention to geographic hot spots for joy and life satisfaction.

Many of the positive psychology tactics that are popular today, such as mindfulness and cultivating gratitude, can increase people's happiness, but their effects tend to be short-lived, Buettner says. They generally stop working once people stop practising them. But he found that in places such as Denmark, Costa Rica and Singapore, certain cultural, economic and environmental characteristics nudge people to naturally live lives filled with pleasure, purpose and pride – the three elements that he argues define happiness.

Relocating to one of these hot spots automatically boosts people's happiness, Buettner explains. But for those of us who can't do so, he offers the next-best thing: blueprints for happiness that we can import to our own communities.

In a phone interview from Santa Barbara, Calif., where he spends part of the year, Buettner spoke with The Globe and Mail while strolling by the sea with his shirt off.


Why they matter

The happiest people in the world spend a whopping five to six hours a day socializing face-to-face with people they like and with whom they can have meaningful conversations. By contrast, Americans merely socialize for an average of 41 minutes a day and it's unlikely Canadians socialize much more than that.

What you can do

"If happiness is your goal in life, you should figure out how to get that five to six hours in," Buettner says.

And you'll want to make sure the people you interact with are happy too, since the attitudes of others can rub off on you. "If your best friends are sour and bitchy, that's contagious," Buettner says. But "for every new happy person you add to your social network, your own chances of happiness go up by 15 per cent."

How your environment can help

If you live in a place with big, wide roads, no sidewalks, no trees and high speed limits, it may be convenient for you to get around by car. But you're probably not going to befriend many of your neighbours. These same characteristics don't make it inviting for people to come out and meet each other.

By narrowing car lanes, putting in bike lanes and sidewalks, planting trees and creating and maintaining parks, a city can not only increase activity levels of its population by 30 per cent, but it can also raise the social interaction level by 50 per cent, Buettner says.


Why it matters

We all have a long and endless list of problems, from bills to pay to new wrinkles to worry about, Buetter says. But if you shift your focus to others who have bigger problems, your own issues seem to diminish in size, he says.

What you can do

Find opportunities to volunteer that allow you to engage with others and to use your skills and strengths.

Ideally, you'd be able to find a sense of purpose through your work. But for most people, that's not the case. "You might be an insurance salesman and you hate your job. But what you're really good at is caring for people," Buettner says. Volunteering at a women's shelter or a retirement home, he explains, may provide an outlet to live out your values.

How your environment can help

It's easier to get involved when you live in a place where volunteering is considered a priority. Communities can encourage volunteerism if leaders, such as mayors or city councils, promote civil service and model it, Buettner says.

He adds that governments can offer tax breaks and other incentives, such as allowing employees to spend an hour a week giving back to their communities.


Why it matters

Most adults spend the bulk of their waking hours at work, Buettner says. Yet, in the United States, only about 30 per cent of workers actually like their jobs.

What you can do

Sure, you need a paycheque. But if you earn enough to feed your family, cover your mortgage and pay for your children's dental work, earning more isn't likely to make you much happier. "Once you have [the basics accounted for], you should stop sacrificing to make more money and shift your efforts to other things," he says.

Ideally, you'd find a job that requires a commute of no more than 30 minutes, that allows you to learn something new and interesting every day and that lets you enter a state of flow, where you're deeply engaged in a task with a clear goal and the time seems to disappear.

But even just having a best friend at work can do wonders for your happiness. In fact, Buettner says, "that's the biggest determinant of whether you like your job."

And using up your vacation time in short spurts throughout the year will likely make you happier than taking one long vacation, he says. That's because much of the pleasure people get from vacations comes from planning and remembering them. So the more vacations you take, the more you'll have to plan and remember.

How your environment can help

Consider Denmark, Buettner says. The Scandinavian country has one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world. Yet Danes typically work about 37 hours a week, compared with the 45 to 50 hours that many work in the United States (In Canada, the standard is 40 hours a week under the Canada Labour Code.) Danes also typically take at least four weeks a year of vacation, and often as much as two months.

"When people enjoy their jobs and they're not spending their whole lives at work, they tend to be more efficient at their work and more productive," Buettner says, adding there also tends to be less turnover.

There's also a financial payoff to making sure workers are happy and not overworked. "If you're at a workplace where people enjoy working, you don't have to pay them as much to make up for stupidly long hours and mistreatment," he says.


Why it matters

Health and happiness are inseparable, Buettner says. People who suffer from pain, obesity and chronic diseases are statistically much less happy than those who are healthy and energetic.

"If happiness were a cake recipe, one of the most important ingredients, the flour, would be health," Buettner says.

Conversely, he adds, arranging your life to boost your happiness can add up to eight years to your life expectancy.

What you can do

Buetter recommends forming a moai, a term that residents of Okinawa, Japan, use to describe small groups of about five friends who commit to supporting each other for the long-term. In his Blue Zone community projects, which include towns and cities across the United States that adopt habits and environmental changes modelled after the longest-lived populations in the world, moais are encouraged to meet frequently for walks and vegetable-heavy potlucks. The benefits are manifold: People become more active, they eat more healthfully and, of course, they socialize.

Buettner also points out the happiest people in the world eat a plant-based diet. "If you're eating five servings of vegetables a day, you're 20-per-cent more likely to be happy," he says.

How your environment can help

To make a community happier, a critical step is to focus on improving the lives of those who are mentally ill. People with mental illness account for 50 per cent of the unhappiness in a community, as well as 50 per cent of a population's health-care costs, Buettner says. He suggests that governments invest in countermeasures, such as providing treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy and reducing discrimination against those with mental illness.

"You not only need access [to treatment], you need to be able to afford it. It's got to be decent. But you also have to be able to admit, 'Hey, I'm depressed and I need help,'" he says.

Dan Buettner will be a keynote speaker at the Globe Personal Performance Summit on Nov. 7 at The Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto. For tickets and more information, go to

The Great Trail, formerly known as the Trans Canada Trail, is a series of hiking, skiing and water trails that together span the country. At the end of August the Great Trial will be considered officially complete, with all of its segments linking up.

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