What 100 Year-Olds Can Teach Us About Purpose and Living a Good Life

In my previous two posts I shared some of my own insights on purpose and Rick Warren’s insights about purpose. In this post I want to focus on one of the ideas he touched on:

We find personal purpose when we share what we love to do with those around us. We find fulfillment and purpose when we contribute to others. As Rick said, “It is in giving our lives away that we find meaning, we find significance.”

Rick says this from intuition, so I want to share some statistically relevant information to back up his claim.

Where people regularly live to be over 100 years-old

Dan Buettner is a National Geographic writer and explorer who studies communities around the world where disproportionally large numbers of people are living well into their 100s. Most interestingly these people are doing so “with vigor”; many of them are still riding bikes and chopping wood. Dan named the areas where these people live “Blue Zones.” Below is the list of areas that they found and investigated:

  • “Barbagia region of Sardinia – Mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia with the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
  • Ikaria, Greece – Aegean Island with one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – World’s lowest rates of middle age mortality, second highest concentration of male centenarians.
  • Seventh Day Adventists – Highest concentration is around Loma Linda, California. They live 10 years longer than their North American counterparts.
  • Okinawa, Japan – Females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world.”

While observing and investigating these “centurions” (100 year-olds), Dan and his team searched for shared behaviors, eating habits, exercise and many other factors. While genetics do play a role in whether or not you can live to be 100, their research found that changing behaviors to match that of the “Blue Zones” could raise your life expectancy by 10-12 good, vigorous years. Through their research they came to conclude that there were 9 shared behaviors, which are pictured below:

I want to focus on four the shared behaviors: purpose, belong, loved ones first, and right tribe. Here are some notes directly from Dan’s website about these four behaviors:

  • Purpose
    • “The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.”
  • Belong
    • “All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community.  Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.”
  • Loved Ones First
    • Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too.). They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes).”
  • Right Tribe
    • “The world’s longest lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.”

In Dan’s interviews with some of the centurions, he asked them about their life purpose or reason for waking up and this is how some of them answered:

  • For the 102 year-old karate master, he woke up to teach his martial art.
  • For the 100 year-old fisherman, he woke up to catch fish for his family.
  • For the 102 year-old women, she woke up for her great-great-great-granddaughter.

I specifically focused on belonging, loved ones first, and right tribe because I think there is a connection between the social bonds we have and our life’s purpose. For many of these centurions, their purpose is directly connected to their community, family, or their impact on society. They don’t simply live for themselves. They live in order to give and love others and, vice versa, giving and loving other keeps them living longer.

What a 78 year old study from Harvard can tell us about living a good life

Robert Waldinger is a psychiatrist and the 4th Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The study is one of the most detailed longitudinal studies conducted in history; a study that has been ongoing for 78 years. In order to study what actually keeps people happy and healthy over the span of a life time, Harvard professors started in 1938 by studying 724 men from teenage years all the way through the duration of their lives; surveying them yearly. The men came from two groups – Harvard students and boys from one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. The scope of their data collection is truly amazing. They collected blood samples, brain scans, doctor’s records, questionnaires, interview parents, and even video taped conversations between them and their spouses. As of 2015, 60 of the men are still living and the Harvard scientists have since began studying their 2,000 children and their wives. The most apparent solution that comes from all the data is this:

Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.”

Their research also yielded three important lessons about “good relationships”:

  1. “social connections are really good for us, and… loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected
  2. it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health… And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.”
  3. good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer. And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”

Final Thoughts

Humans are inherently social animals. We are at our best when we belong to a community, a team, or a family. For some of us, our most precious relationships can be our primary driver of individual purpose. How we help those around us becomes our purpose and driver in life. For others, who find purpose in other aspects of life like work, art, or science, our purpose comes from the impact the work has on others. We feel purpose when our work helps solve someone’s problem. We feel purpose when our art moves someone. We feel purpose when we impact others.

Remember, it’s not about you. Our social bonds and our contribution to society keep us happy, healthy, and living with purpose. Being a part of society, a community, or a family comes with implications and sacrifices that we can choose to make for those we love. As Stephen Carter put it, Civility is “the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together…” Relationships are a two-way street, but we owe it to ourselves and others to live so that we enable people to come together.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Where do you feel you belong most? Who are the people that make up your community?
  • What do you do on a regular basis to make others feel welcome, loved, and respected?
  • What’s your ikigai? Why do you choose to wake up in the morning?

Thank you for reading! If you liked the post, share it with a friend or subscribe to my blog for updates on when I post. Please share your answers to the questions in the comments section below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

If you’re interested in reading more about “Blue Zones,” here is a link to Dan Buettner’s webpage.

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