Despite our state-of-the-art medical care, the United States does not have the longest nor the healthiest life spans of first world cultures.  (Quite the contrary: we’re at the bottom of the list.)  What can we learn, then, from some of the cultures around the world with the highest centenarian rates, such as Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan, Loma Linda, California, and the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica?  Here’s a few key factors that researchers have identified contribute to healthful longevity – and some of them might surprise you, although afterwards you’ll probably feel as if you ought to have been able to guess them yourself.

  1. They engage in low intensity physical activity. We Americans tend to assume that “harder is better.”  We think we have to spend an hour at the gym daily or run a marathon in order to get in shape.  But remember that historically, gyms didn’t exist.  What would our ancestors think of the idea of running in place for thirty minutes with no particular destination, or lifting weights without having anything tangible to show for it afterwards?  Exercise for its own sake is a relatively new phenomenon (albeit one that is very important, given the otherwise sedentary nature of our society).  Historically exercise was just a part of daily living.  The take home message here: just get out and move.  Do something – it doesn’t have to be spectacularly hard.
  2. They eat breakfast. You know how they say breakfast is the most important meal of the day?  Turns out that those who eat a substantial breakfast tend to consume fewer calories the rest of the day, tend to weigh less and have a healthier overall lifestyle.  The caveat here: make sure your breakfast is NOT all white processed carbohydrates and/or sugar, as these will spike your blood sugar, leading to a subsequent crash in blood sugar, leading to increased carb cravings later on.  Instead, choose whole grains, and always include some form of healthy protein with every meal.
  3. They look up to their elders. In contrast to our society, which values youth and beauty above all else, centenarians in these cultures are respected and valued for their wisdom (which probably also contributes to the sense of purpose, see #5.)  There are a number of reasons why this is good for the rest of society, too.  Elders are the ones who remember family history and traditions, which give younger generations a sense of grounding and continuity.  We have a better understanding of who we are if we know where we’ve come from.  Elders’ greater life experience also leads to greater wisdom.  How many life lessons could we learn vicariously, rather than through the “school of hard knocks,” if we were willing to humble ourselves and ask someone who’s already been there?  Perhaps most importantly, those who have lived longest tend to be those with the best perspective on what really matters in life.  We could all do with a healthy dose of perspective.
  4. They tend to be likable. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that (as research has indicated) happiness is contagious.  We like to be around people who are happy because they make us happy too.  As a result, these happy, likable centenarians, who are genuinely compassionate and interested in other people, tend to get better care from their caregivers.  They also have a greater social support system, the importance of which cannot be overestimated.  In his book, “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell talks about the surprising Italian immigrant community of Roseta, Pennsylvania, which had zero heart disease and much greater longevity than the surrounding community, despite the fact that the community did not exercise much at all, ate poorly, and had an obesity problem.  Nor did they have especially great genetics: their Italian ancestors did get heart disease and didn’t live nearly as long as they did.  Researchers were finally forced to admit, to their stunned amazement, that this community owed their remarkable longevity to the fact that they knew, loved and cared for one another.  (In other words, it was a lot like a good church is supposed to be.  Even if you’re not otherwise religious or spiritual, this alone is a good reason to get involved in a church.)
  5. They have a sense of purpose. Most of the time when we talk about such elusive concepts as “self-esteem,” this is what we’re really discussing.  The word self-esteem can be misleading, though, because purpose usually resides outside of ourselves.  It has to do with how we can contribute to the well-being of others, how we can make the world a better place, or how we can help to support and care for those we love.  In Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” this Jewish psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps writes, “This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’”  According to Frankl, the pursuit of happiness is the wrong focus; happiness results from having and fulfilling one’s purpose.  If you don’t know what yours is, it’s a question well worth considering.

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