LIANE HANSEN, host:
Dan Buettner is a researcher, explorer and author. His 2008 book, "The Blue Zones," was a New York Times bestseller. In it, Buettner tells of his travels to places that nurture longevity. Now he's researched people for a new book, "Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way."
Dan Buettner is in the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Welcome to the program.
Mr. DAN BUETTNER (Author, The Blue Zones): Thank you. A delight to be here.
HANSEN: The people that you profile in this book are living in different places. They range from Denmark to Singapore to San Luis Obispo, California. So what characterizes a happy person in the happy place of Denmark?
Mr. BUETTNER: Okay, so normally when we think of happiness, we think of money and status. But actually, Denmark teaches us the opposite lesson. There, you have a place where youre taxed to the mean. The marginal tax rate is 70 percent. A cultural norm reminds everybody that they're no better than everybody else, so you're not going to choose your career path based on status.
So what you have are four million people who excel at things like furniture design and architecture. They work about 37 hours a week on average. They take their full six weeks of vacation. And they choose their job because it interests them, as opposed to it's going to make them money.
HANSEN: Singapore is another place where you go. Now, this is a place that has a very strict set of laws. How happy are the people, really, if their lives are so regulated?
Mr. BUETTNER: What you have here is a place thats very secure. Evolutionarily speaking, we're more hard-wired for security than freedom. And there's also tax laws in place that encourage people to stay close to their aging parents. And that way the elderly are better taken care of and happier. And it turns out the way socialization works we get more satisfaction, retroactively, socializing with our parents than anybody else.
HANSEN: You write you found the happiest people in San Luis Obispo, California. So what makes them happy?
Mr. BUETTNER: In the 1970s, city council made a very clear decision to shift away from an environment that favored commerce and one that favored quality of life. They outlawed drive-thrus so you didnt have idling cars polluting the air. We know dependably one of the things that Americans hate on a day-to-day basis is commuting in their car. So they made bicycling easier. They were the first city in the world to outlaw smoking in bars and restaurants. So as a result, you have the highest level of emotional well-being.
HANSEN: The climate in each one of these places is different. San Luis Obispo, California - I mean, you know, beautiful, temperate. Singapore, hot, sunny. Denmark, cloudy, cold.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HANSEN: Are people happy inside? Is that the deal?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BUETTNER: Well, there's something called a sun bonus. And if you take these tens of millions of surveys and control for everything else, you do get about a two percent bump if you live in a sunny area. And you also get a bump in happiness if you live on the water. You dont however see that in mountains or deserts.
But you have to realize happiness is a multi-variable equation. And Denmark has some of the really big variables in place, like tolerance. This is a place where you can be gay and married and you dont have to feel bad about it. You can be a minority. It's a place where people can be themselves easier, which trumps just sunny weather.
HANSEN: Define happiness? I mean, is it just the absence of sadness or worry, or is there more to it?
Mr. BUETTNER: The way researchers answer happiness is through surveys that show people a ladder, and there's 10 rungs on ladder. The lowest rung is your worst possible life and the highest rung is your best possible life. And people place their own happiness.
And when you think of it, the answer of that is enormously complex. Because it encapsulizes how do you feel health-wise, how do I feel about my relationships, how do I feel about where I live?
HANSEN: So how does one then perhaps set up ones life to boost the chances for happiness?
Mr. BUETTNER: I think the secret is to set up permanent nudges and defaults. For example, in our financial lives, we know that financial security has a three-times greater impact on our happiness than just income alone. So setting up automatic savings plans and buying insurance, as opposed to buying a new thing because the newness effect of a new thing wears off in about nine months or a year. Financial security can last a lifetime.
We know that the happiest people in America socialize about seven hours a day, which is a lot more than the average person gets. But living in a neighborhood where there are sidewalks; getting married, you're three-times more likely to be happy if you're married. And proactively, adding happy friends to your network. Each new friend will boost your own happiness by about 10 percent.
HANSEN: You also talk about picking the right job. And one of the criteria you mention is to try to work in a place where the people you work with have a happy hour after work.
Mr. BUETTNER: We know the biggest determinant of whether or not you'll like your job is if you have a best friend there, more so than how much you're paid, proactively making sure you have good friends there. One way I assert you can do that is be the one who organizes the happy hour.
HANSEN: And I was surprised to see that in all of the advice you give, you do suggest that people develop an appreciation for the arts or a sport.
Mr. BUETTNER: Yes. When thinking about how you're going to spend your money, experiences provide much longer term happiness than buying things. The luster of an experience can actually go up with time. So, learning to play a new instrument, learning a new language - those sorts of things will pay dividends for years or decades to come.
HANSEN: Are you any happier now that youve written these two books on happiness?
Mr. BUETTNER: You know, you spend most of your waking hours working, most of us do. And I have always followed exactly what interests me and I've never really worried about the money. And when you think about it, to be able to travel the world for "National Geographic" on expense account and pursue exactly what interests you, it just doesn't get much better than that.
HANSEN: Dan Buettner is the author of "Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way." He spoke to us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Thanks a lot, Dan.
Mr. BUETTNER: It was, shall we say, a happy experience to talk to you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.