How To 'Thrive': Short Commutes, More Happy Hours Dan Buettner visited some of the happiest populations on Earth to figure out what makes them tick. After five years of study, he argues the real keys to happiness lie not in wealth or beauty, but in fundamental changes to the way we live. Buettner lays out his findings in his book Thrive.
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How To 'Thrive': Short Commutes, More Happy Hours

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How To 'Thrive': Short Commutes, More Happy Hours

How To 'Thrive': Short Commutes, More Happy Hours

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Many people pick a place to live because of a higher-paying job, sunny skies or to be close to friends and family. It turns out that people are happier in some places than others.

As social scientists learned reliable measures for an inherently subjective quality, people in some cities and countries consistently report that they are happier. National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner visited four of the more fortunate spots in the world to see if they share secrets the rest of us might learn from. If you moved, what factors made you think a new place might make you happier? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll look ahead to the World Series, which gets under way tonight in St. Louis. But first, Dan Buettner joins us from a studio in Minneapolis. His latest book is "Thrive: Finding Happiness The Blue Zones Way," and it's nice to have you with us today.

DAN BUETTNER: Well, I'm thrilled to be part of TALK OF THE NATION, Neal.

CONAN: You visited four - well, we like to think of it as a particularly happy spot on the radio.


CONAN: But you visited four places: Denmark, Singapore, the state of Nuevo Leon in Mexico - that's Monterrey - and the community of San Luis Obispo in Central California. These are very different places.

BUETTNER: Yes, the conceit of the assignment was to find the statistically happiest region of the happiest country on each of four continents, recognizing that there are going to be some cultural differences from place to place.

But what we were really trying to do were tease out the universals, essentially see if these places could teach us some lessons about getting happy ourselves.

CONAN: And there are a lot of personal lessons, which are idiosyncratic: get exercise, get a lot of sleep, have a lot of sex, things like that, which we can learn from your book. Those are about people. We're interested in the places, and, well, for example, you were very skeptical in Denmark. The tax rate there is 70 percent. Could people really be happy paying that much in tax?

BUETTNER: Yes, but, you know, we often think about happiness as trying to increase our joy, but it's also about decreasing our worry. So what you get for paying those high taxes is if you're a parent thinking about putting your child through school, you don't have to worry about it, because all education through college is free. In fact, college students get - draw a salary.

You don't have to worry about health care. Government takes care of that. And you don't have to worry about what happens when I get old. Will there be Social Security around? Danes don't have to worry about that, either.

So there's a certain lowering of stress in people's daily lives.

CONAN: You follow around a garbage collector who is the happiest garbage collector I've ever read about.


BUETTNER: Okay, so now the point there, of course when you tell a story of a place, you don't want to just spew scientific facts all the time. But what we know is that the richest 10 percent are only about three times richer than the poorest 10 percent in Denmark. So we tried to find somebody who might be emblematic of somebody we don't think would normally be happy.

So we followed this garbageman around. The garbageman made about $80,000 a year, a perfectly happy guy. But what struck us as extraordinary is he lived between a doctor and a lawyer, and he lived in a very nice neighborhood, and he was the perfect emblem of this notion of status equality.

Unlike places where you always feel like you have to have a bigger house or a nicer car or a better job, Danes are pretty comfortable with just being in the pack, part of the pack. The tallest tree gets lopped off. They call it the Jante Law.

CONAN: And interestingly, one of the things that makes that work so well in Denmark, it's a very homogeneous place: Everybody looks like everybody else.

BUETTNER: Yeah, it's a little easier to pay taxes when you know that your taxes are going to help somebody out like you. But nevertheless, there - it's a very tolerant place. You know, the fact that gays could be in the military is big news in America. Well, gays in Denmark have been able to marry since 1968.

And not only that, if you're a parent, whether you're heterosexual or homosexual, and you have a child, you know, that first year of life is so crucially important to the development of that child, in Denmark you have the freedom to take 10 months off and make sure that child gets a good start, whether you're a gay dad or gay mom, or a heterosexual parent.

CONAN: Then you go to Singapore, and that's a very heterogeneous place. There are, well, three major ethnic groups there, and when the place was created, the city-state there at the bottom of the Malay Peninsula, everybody said this is a tinderbox waiting to go up.

BUETTNER: And Le Kuan Yew, the mentor, prime minister there, he was a very clever guy. I was ridiculed in a few columns about suggesting that he actually helped manufacture happiness because Singapore is famous for caning, and if you're caught with a certain amount of drugs, you could face the death penalty.

But on the other hand, this is a place where, statistically speaking, it's the happiest place in Asia. And when you write for National Geographic, we have to go with, not the gut, like Bhutan or Fiji, but we have to go with the numbers.

And sure enough, this is a place where the three ethnicities are all put on a level playing field in that Lee Kuan Yew made English the lingua franca back in the 1960s, even though he had lots of pressure from China to make Chinese the lingua franca. Actually, the dominant ethnicity are Han Chinese there. But he put everybody on the same footing, and there's all kinds of laws in place to make sure that people mix with each other.

About 90 percent of Singaporeans own their own home, but every high-rise reflects the ethnic proportion of the country. So you have the Malay, the Indian and the Chinese all living together, day to day.

CONAN: All those are interesting. There's also big tax incentives to take care of your family, your parents, yourself.

BUETTNER: Yes, so in trying to explain happiness in Singapore, I found other research that showed that as a rule, the more we socialize in a day, the happier we are. And the people with whom we're most happy socializing with, counterintuitively, are our parents. So here you have a culture that's - Asian culture, that spends more money, per capita, on taking care of the elderly.

And one of the ways that they help elderly is if your aging parent lives with you or within 100 meters of you, you actually get a tax break, knowing that then the kids tend to take care of their elders. And then the kids get a bit of a well-being bump because they're doing what science tells us bumps happiness among individuals, socializing with parents.

CONAN: Well, questioning the happiness over the tax rate in Denmark, you found that to be a plus. In Singapore, all those crazy rules - you mentioned caning, you know, littering, chewing gum in public, that sort of thing, there are many, many petty rules that are strictly enforced.

BUETTNER: Yes, but Singapore's government goes out of its way to explain why. First of all, you have to realize that Asians have, as a rule, have generally a different value set than people in the West. People in the West, we highly celebrate individual accomplishment, whereas in the East, it's more about how well you march in step. It's more important to impress your friends, to take care of your mother, so to speak.

So this is a place where, in Singapore, cleanliness is really important. And when Lee Kuan Yew more or less got started with Singapore in the 1960s, he was charged with converting a fishing village into an economic powerhouse, and he told me he simply could not attract talent from the West with people spitting and bad hygiene. So they put the laws in place because of that, and they explain people, why. So they live with it.

CONAN: We're talking with Dan Buettner, who traveled to four continents to find the happiest places on each and reports about them in his book "Thrive: Finding Happiness The Blue Zones Way." If you moved to someplace, what factors did you count that you thought might make you happier? 800-989-8255. Email We'll start with Tre(ph), Tre with us from Monk's Corner in South Carolina.

TRE: Well, I didn't factor anything in, really, when I moved. It was more of a financial decision to move to Monk's Corner from North Charleston because it was just a lot cheaper. But once I moved, I got exponentially happier because I was a lot closer to the lake, I was very close to the egress points on the Palmetto Trail and a lot of other natural attractions, and it's just a bigger open space.

I was paying the same rent that I am now, for a lot in a trailer park as I am in a two-bedroom house on an acre. So it's just everything is better.


CONAN: I can understand the improvement. And obviously, Dan Buettner, improving your immediate surroundings, going from a trailer to a home on a piece of land, that's going to factor in a lot.

BUETTNER: So Ron Inglehart, he runs something called the World Values Survey out of the University of Michigan, and they conduct a lot of these big, worldwide surveys, he's done a very convincing paper that shows that once you have your basic necessities covered, the biggest variable in the happiness equation - did I marry the right person, do I have engaging work, do I have my health - the biggest variable, most variable variable is where you live.

So if you take a Moldavian, for example, from the Soviet Bloc country, and Moldavians on a scale of one to 10 - this is oversimplifying - place themselves as a three, and move them to Copenhagen, within about a year, they start reporting the levels of happiness of their adoptive home.

So similarly in America here, if you move from an unhappy place to a happier place, you're also stacking the deck in favor of being happier yourself.

CONAN: And Tre, thanks very much for the call. So you're now living on this nice piece of land. You get out and actually take advantage of all those natural beauty?

TRE: Every day that I can.

CONAN: Every day that you can.

TRE: I'm an avid mountain-biker. So the trails are excellent. The lake is fantastic.

CONAN: Well, congratulations, Tre, thanks very much for the call.

BUETTNER: Tre actually brings up a good point. Now, when you look at the tens of millions of data points gathered by these subjective well-being surveys - Gallup and Healthways and the World Values Survey - you do the correlation, what is the - the things that are most strongly correlated with happiness in nations are tolerance, trust - can I trust the police - access to recreation, access to green space and how easy it is to get the six or seven hours of socialization we should all be getting to optimize our happiness.

CONAN: Six or seven hours?

BUETTNER: That actually comes from 1.4 million surveys from the Gallup Healthways Well-being Index. The happiest Americans are reporting between six and seven hours of social interaction. And by the way, that is face-to-face, not Facebook.

CONAN: And then eight hours of sleep, too. It's a busy life we're talking about.


BUETTNER: Yes, but, you know, I think often in America, we think that if we work really hard and make a lot of money, we will be happier. But $75,000 seems to be the ceiling when it comes to day-to-day experienced happiness. So it makes no sense to spend a lot of time working beyond that $75,000 level.

CONAN: We'll talk more with Dan Buettner in a moment. His book is titled "Thrive: Finding Happiness The Blue Zones Way." If you changed cities or towns, what factors made you think a new place might make you happier? 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The study of happiness has boomed in recent years, offering a critical mass of data, as Dan Buettner puts it. For his book, he talked with dozens of people from some of the world's happier places. He introduces us to three of them and asks you to identify who's happiest.

In an excerpt at our website, you can read the opening of the first chapter from "Thrive: Finding Happiness The Blue Zones Way." That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. If you moved, what factors made you think a new place might make you happier? Call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, And you can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go next to Meg(ph), Meg's on the line with us from Denver.

MEG: Hi there.


MEG: I moved from Houston to Denver. I was born and raised in Denver, lived in Houston my adult life and couldn't wait to get back to four seasons, a change of terrain and, kind of, access to the mountains - too urban in Houston, too hot, too humid.

CONAN: Too hot and too humid in Houston, and you're much more comfortable in Denver, where...

MEG: Oh my lord, so much happier, yes.

CONAN: And did you have family and friends there, too?

MEG: Actually I had no family in Texas but wonderful friends. It was hard to leave them behind. I had some - few family left here. I just finished visiting my 101-year-old grandmother, and she actually agrees. She lived in Houston and likes Denver a lot better.


CONAN: Interesting, Dan Buettner, one of the findings of the scientists you spoke with is that people tend to be happier in cities.

BUETTNER: Yes, if you look at all worldwide data, 141 countries, tens of millions of datapoints, we find that people who live in rural areas are less happy than those who live in cities. And one researcher who sits atop of most of this data, Ruut Veenhoven from the World Database of Happiness, theorizes it's because if you live in a rural area, you're less likely to grow up and date a lot of people to find the right match for you.

Marrying the right person is really important. And the other factor is you're more likely to end up in a job that doesn't exactly suit your skills and your talents and your passions, whereas if you live in a city, there's a lot more work opportunities. And as you know, we spend most of our waking hours working. So it's really important to get that right.

CONAN: Meg, do you like your job?

MEG: You know, actually I'm a stay-at-home mom, and I teach yoga. So I kind of get the best of both worlds. The job thing, you know, I loved my job down there, but still I'd give it up to come someplace where I can be outside and not be attacked by mosquitoes and hot and humid all the time.


MEG: So for me it was all environment and weather.

CONAN: Thanks, Meg. We have an email to that point from Charles(ph) in Mountain View, Colorado, California rather. I'm from Louisiana. I married a woman who was living in Syracuse at the time. After our wedding, she wanted to continue to live in Syracuse. After three New York winters, I decided I had shoveled all the snow I ever wanted to shovel. Plus the skies were overcast for weeks at a time. We moved to sunny California, and I have never been happier.

So obviously that environment, there's a sunshine bonus?

BUETTNER: Yes, again going all to these ten million of data points, if you control for everything else, people who live in the sun and people who live on water are two to three percent more likely to be happy. And you do not see that effect with mountains or deserts.

CONAN: I was fascinated to read - well, that's interesting, but I was fascinated to read, you were talking about San Luis Obispo, the place in this country that you studied, and that one of the big factors there was sidewalks, bikeability, the ability of people just to get around downtown.

BUETTNER: So my job is to start with the statistics. These people are saying they're happier than anyplace else, and I tried to answer why. And I traced it to a professor at the nearby university named Ken Schwartz who became mayor. And when he came in as mayor, he kind of galvanized the city council to focus and rather than focusing on policies that bettered the commerce environment - the Chamber of Commerce was sort of running things before 1970 - he focused on policies that favored quality of life.

And I think at the end of the day, he aggregated what I call kind of a silver buckshot. He got enough good policies in place that favored human habitation and well-being that lo and behold, 40 years later, people are saying they're happier there than anyplace else.

CONAN: Let's go next to Bishop(ph), Bishop with us from Crosses in Arizona.

BISHOP: No, sir, Arkansas.

CONAN: Arkansas, excuse me. Go ahead, you're on the air.

BISHOP: Very nice to talk to you. Yes, sir, I moved from Boca Raton, Florida, which is a pretty opulent place, to way out here in the hinterlands here in Arkansas. And I've never been happier here, nor have my parents. It's definitely extended their life. It's much slower here, a different kind of work, but much slower, much more satisfying.

CONAN: Your parents are retired?

BISHOP: Yes, sir, they are.

CONAN: And there is a huge retirement community in Boca Raton.

BISHOP: Yes, there is, but there's - they stack them up like cordwood there.

CONAN: And they're much happier with a little more space there in Arkansas?

BISHOP: Yes, sir, they have 35 acres, and I have 11. And we both have water. They have a huge pond, and they live on a huge lake, and I have a huge pond.

CONAN: And there's access to the kinds of services they're going to need?

BISHOP: Oh yes, sir. Where we have them located at is very, very retirement-friendly. They live a few hours away from me, just close enough where I can get there to see them when I need to.

CONAN: And you're happy in your work?

BISHOP: Oh yes, sir. I have my own business now. I'm a retired Teamster, and I run a welding shop. I have a backhoe. I dig ponds and build roads. I'm in the woods most of the time.

CONAN: Well, that sounds like a pretty good life, Dan Buettner, but a rural life, not in a city.

BUETTNER: Yes, so when it comes to the big picture of happiness, about 40 percent of it is our genes. That comes from the Minnesota Twin Study. About - so whether you're predisposed to be glum or happy. Fifteen percent or so is chance. If you're born with chronic pain, or you have chemical imbalance in your brain, it's hard to be happy.

About 40 percent of it is up to you. You can, I say, stack the deck in your favor for more happiness. So the fellow we just talked to - and by the way, I love the image of stacking them up like cordwood. But it may be that he is just naturally inclined to have a sunny outlook, and it doesn't matter where you put him.

But I talk more about how to get the most out of that 40 percent we have control over.

CONAN: Bishop, thanks very much for the call.

BISHOP: Thank you.

CONAN: And it's interesting, also you discovered that the opportunity to start your own business might be more important than, in fact, how much income you earn.

BUETTNER: Yes, we put a lot of emphasis on political freedom, but economic freedom, it turns out, is more - it's more important to be able to start and run your business than it is to start your own political party and run your own political party. So when you look at Singapore, and you're trying to explain how could Singapore be happy, they don't - if you try to start your own party, you could be shut down.

Well, Singapore's not a good place to express yourself politically, but it's a great place to run a business. There are - 8.5 percent of the people living there are millionaires.

CONAN: Let's go next to Najib(ph), I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, in Claremont, California.

NAJIB: Yes, good morning, gentlemen. I have to say that listening to NPR makes me very happy indeed.


CONAN: Good for you.

NAJIB: We just recently relocated from a politically conservative state to a politically liberal state, and that was part of the reason why we moved. And I think the decision was kind of promise that we would be at least more content. I'm not sure about happy, and I was wondering if your guest would make a distinction between happiness and contentment.

BUETTNER: Yes, when I think of happiness, I think of 90 percent of it is contentment. Then there's 10 percent of having these occasional peaks of joy. And really, I assert you want to focus on that day-to-day, that high plateau of well-being than, you know, going out for the great party or, you know, the real peaks.

CONAN: And interesting, Najib, when you talked about a more liberal state, a more congenial state politically, did you mean particularly tolerant?

NAJIB: Yes, I think in my experience in this country, political liberalism seems to correlate very well with tolerance, diversity and acceptance of foreign cultures, foreign backgrounds, certainly new immigrants to this country, which I did not find to be particularly the case with politically conservative ideology.

CONAN: At least where you lived. Anyway, congratulations, thanks very much for the call.

NAJIB: Thank you very much.

CONAN: This email from Jim(ph) in San Luis Obispo: I moved to San Luis Obispo three years ago and love it, fabulous climate, walkable community, excellent place to bicycle, and it is safe. Lived previously in Wyoming and in Utah, but this is better.

So he endorses your view, your finding of San Luis Obispo. And we can understand that. The other place that we've not yet talked about was Nuevo Leon in Mexico, in Monterrey, and you talked about $75,000 a year, more than that probably may not be worth the happiness quotient, it adds to be, the effort to make more.

In Nuevo Leon, one of your findings is just enough money.

BUETTNER: Yes, so let me back up for a second. Happiness does - money does buy happiness, but only to the point that we have food, shelter, healthcare, some mobility, some education, and to be able to treat ourselves once in a while. After we hit that point, you get these diminishing returns very quickly. That's why in America, $75,000 for a family of four - and this is incidentally Daniel Kahneman's research, not my own. But after $75,000 a year, you do not experience more happiness on a day-to-day basis.

In Nuevo Leon, Mexico, you don't need nearly that much money. With about $5,000 a year, you'll get most of your needs covered, and then they take plenty of time to get that six or seven hours a day of social interaction. And also, that place illustrates something else we see worldwide, that religious people tend to be happier than non-religious people. This is an association, but something you see pretty clearly in northeastern Mexico.

CONAN: And spiritual people and married people.

BUETTNER: Married people are happier. You're three times more likely to be happy after 10 years if you're married than if you're not. It doesn't guarantee you'll be happier, but the decks are stacked in your favor.

CONAN: Let's go next to Andrew(ph), Andrew with us from Charlottesville in Virginia.

ANDREW: Yes, good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

ANDREW: I'm a retired physician. I grew up in the anthracite coal fields of northeast Pennsylvania, which was an extremely depressing area. Economically went down, the mines went down, the railroads went away, high unemployment, many bars and a large degree of depression in my practice. I then ended up at the shore area in Hampton Roads, Virginia, where I love the water and the beach. But it was a thriving metropolis, heavy traffic, congestion. I had a home on the water.

And in retirement, I moved to rural Charlottesville and I've never been happier, with the Blue Ridge Mountains, the valleys, the streams, the quiet, the rectitude. And I mentioned to your screener that I've made several retreats at Trappist monasteries. And they require - to set up a monastery, they require land that consists to be near a river, a mountain and fields. And there is much written about the spirituality of the place. And I can't mention some of the books I've read, but it can be found online. So I bring all those points up, and my health has never been better.

CONAN: Well, Andrew, congratulations. Thanks very much for the call. Spirituality of place, is that something, Dan Buettner, you can measure?

BUETTNER: Well, you can measure religiosity. People who show up to church or temple or mosque at least four times a month live four to 14 years longer and report higher levels of well-being. What I advocate - and I take a fairly clinical numbers-driven point of view on this. You can go online and Google well-being, Gallup-Healthways, how they rank cities, and I would argue if you're unhappy where you are right now, if you don't like the place you live, strongly think about moving. And now, we can find the data-based areas where people are happier, and that should provide some very useful guidance.

CONAN: The book is "Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way." Dan Buettner is the author. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. This email from Joshua in South Bend: I recently moved two towns over. You wouldn't think that would make much difference, but it cut my hour-and-a-half-long commute in half, giving me much more time to spend with my friends and family. Time spent in a commute can never be recovered.

BUETTNER: That is a huge point, by the way. And I'm standing up in the booth here with my arms over my head. When you look at American's day-to-day activity, the thing we hate the most, well, the top two things we hate the most on a day-to-day basis is number one, housework and number two, the daily commute in our cars. In fact, if you can cut an hour-long commute each way out of your life, it's the equivalent of making up an extra of $40,000 a year if you're at the 50 to $60,000 level. Huge.

CONAN: That's huge.

BUETTNER: Yes, we hate the commute. It's a source of stress. It's a source of - people feel they're wasting time - unless, of course, they have NPR on.

CONAN: Of course.

BUETTNER: But it's something - it's an easy way for us get happier. Move closer to your place of work.

CONAN: Some of the other findings: listen to music every day, cut down the time on TV, as we mentioned, make sure you get a lot of sleep. But getting back to the places that are happier than other places, as you look for a place to live, Dan Buettner, where did you pick?

BUETTNER: Well, I live in Minneapolis. I live on the water. I live in a neighborhood that's consummately connected to my neighbors. I bump into them every day. I can bike to work. And, of course, Minneapolis, we think, oh, well, it's cold there, lethally cold. But the reality is you adapt to weather. The humans are consummately adaptable creatures. I've actually been giving this a lot of thought because I've been working with cities and helping them tweak their policies to favor well-being. And I've been in a place called Albert Lea, Minnesota. I'm doing it with Los Angeles and now for the whole state of Iowa. And I just think that when you try to look at changing people's environment in long-term ways with evidence-based policies and built environment tweaks, that you can raise not only the well-being but health of communities.

CONAN: When you talk with hard-headed politicians in places like Iowa and Los Angeles, don't they say, wait a minute? How do you prove this stuff? I mean, how do we know that making these changes is actually going to make people happier?

BUETTNER: Well, I can point to these worldwide correlations. I can point to the examples in "Thrive." The CDC and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have a very deep well of research on what sorts of policies nudge people into more movement, more social interaction, eating less, eating more healthily, having more purpose in their lives. And we just present - we do an audit of the city. We present them with 60 or 70 tweaks. We help them organize on a city level, and then we let them decide. So we're not telling the politicians: you have to do this. We're just saying: here's the evidence. You choose. And we find that, on a whole, people make the right decision.

CONAN: Can't wait for those double-wide bike lanes in L.A.


CONAN: Dan Buettner, thanks very much for the call.

BUETTNER: Oh, you're very welcome. Let's just say you've added to my six hours of quality social interaction today.


CONAN: Up next: It's a match of bullpens and bats at the World Series, first pitch just a few hours away. We'll go to St. Louis and to Texas to hear what fans are looking for in what's expected to be a long, tough series. We'll have to see about that. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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