Where life is beautiful

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 December, 2010, 12:00am

Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way
by Dan Buettner
National Geographic, HK$195

Dan Buettner believes he has found the secrets to living a happy life. He did it by travelling to four of the world's happiest places and searching for commonalities among the seemingly disparate societies. Then he wrote a book about it. Published by National Geographic, who also bankrolled Buettner's research and travel, Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way is a self-proclaimed 'manual on how to set up your life so you can thrive'.

Throughout the book, Buettner fetishises the word 'thrive', holding it up as the ultimate state of human existence - one in which people enjoy satisfaction and contentment, living harmoniously with society and the environment, living healthily, and with vigour, into old age. The 'blue zones' of the title, meanwhile, refers to Buettner's earlier work for National Geographic and his 2008 best-selling book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest, in which the American author and explorer unlocks the keys to living beyond 100.

Drawing on data from Gallup, the World Values Survey, and the World Database of Happiness, Buettner picks four 'blue zones' that report exceptional happiness ratings: Denmark, Monterrey in Mexico, a town in California called San Luis Obispo, and Singapore.

Yes, according to a couple of independent studies conducted between 2000 and 2009, Hong Kong's great rival is the happiest place in Asia. The World Values Survey found 95 per cent of people in Singapore said they were 'very happy' or 'quite happy', while Gallup reported Singaporeans ranked themselves a 6.9 on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the 'best possible life'. In the same poll, Hong Kong and mainland China didn't even rank in the top 10 happiest countries in Asia, even beaten out by the likes of junta-led Myanmar and poverty-stricken Bangladesh.

So what makes these places so chipper?

Well, it's not a short list - and it varies from country to country - but distilled down to its essence, it reads something like this: a strong social environment, social and economic equality, access to the arts, conditions that facilitate exercise and encourage a healthy diet, financial security (though not riches) and safety.

You can already guess where Hong Kong falls down (excessive noise, it turns out, is also a happiness repellent).

Buettner, meanwhile, holds up Singapore for praise. While it's true its people give up certain freedoms - the ability to buy chewing gum, for one - the city state in turn provides greater safety and opportunity than many places in the world. As if to confirm that the US brand of freedom isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be, Buettner quotes Jennie Chua, the former chief executive officer of Raffles Holdings: 'The idea that American democracy is the only path to freedom is arrogant,' she says. 'I'd rather live in a place where it's safe for my kids to play today than one where I can read Playboy tomorrow.'

The city state also ensures people's basic needs are covered by providing housing for the poor, and puts emphasis on education, health care, and support for seniors.

Buettner, by way of an oddly fawning interview with founding father and long-time prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, also trumpets Singapore's lack of an upper class - a contestable claim when you consider that it has the highest number of millionaire households per capita of anywhere in the world.

During the chat with Lee, now Minister Mentor, the writer allows Lee to claim credit for a society of apparent equals in which there are no handouts and 'workfare' instead of welfare. Buettner leaves unmentioned the fact that not everyone in Singapore is happy - Chee Soon Juan, the sole opposition member in the parliament led by Lee's son Lee Hsien Loong, for instance, keeps getting arrested.

Buettner has critical words for Singapore's Chinese citizens, whom he compares unfavourably to the Malay population when it comes to the happiness stakes. He celebrates the Malays' 'kampong spirit', in which the highly social Malays band together in times of adversity and celebration. During the Muslim festival of Shawwal, Buettner points out, Malays go house to house visiting relatives and patching up differences with family and friends.

Consequently, middle-aged Malay wives - who are family-oriented and rank religion as an important source of satisfaction - rate as the happiest Singaporeans.

In contrast, Buettner suggests - perhaps unfairly - that the Chinese celebrate the Lunar New Year by merely burning effigies and praying for good luck, and fails to mention the vital role family plays in this festival. Still, he does have a point when he says 'one group [the Malays] seems to focus on increasing social equity, while the other [the Chinese] seems to emphasise increasing material equity'. Material goods and economic status, Buettner argues, offer only fleeting contributions to happiness, while a healthy social and family life lead to long-lasting life satisfaction.

Of course, Singapore is not the sole focus of the book. We also learn why the Danes are the happiest people on the planet despite high taxes and cold weather. Denmark uses those taxes to ensure a level economic playing field for its citizens in which the government also provides excellent public services, such as health and education. Danish society is also tolerant and full of interaction - the majority of the population belongs to some sort of club or social group - and Danes seldom work more than 37 hours a week.

In Mexico, the drug trade-related conflict near the northern city of Monterrey apparently wasn't enough - at least at the time of the happiness surveys - to severely dent its citizens' life satisfaction. By nurturing a strong sense of humour in the face of bleak political realities, by gaining more sense of personal freedom, and by being a party-friendly society, the residents of Monterrey enjoy great contentment. Their supercharged Catholic faith helps them deal with hard times, too, while the steady supply of vitamin D from the ever-present sun gives them a mood push on the chemical level.

For San Luis Obispo in California, Buettner points to anti-smoking policies, anti-sign ordinances, a strong arts community, a pedestrian-friendly city layout, and abundant exercise options as the keys to maximum chill-outedness. SLO-politans, as Buettner calls them, also derive immense satisfaction from doing volunteer work, successfully displacing the focus on problems in their own lives.

Thrive: Finding Happinese the Blue Zones Way is the latest in a line of studies on happiness - a reflection, perhaps, that we are beginning to realise the limits of consumer culture and are searching for meaning beyond the prescribed gods of religion and the free market. But unlike his happiness-fixated contemporaries - Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project and Dan Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, for instance - Buettner has focused not so much on the psychology of happiness, but on the effect environment has on our state of being. Where we live - not wealth, education or marital status - is the most significant factor affecting our life satisfaction, he says.

The book, loaded with interviews with everyday folks and exceptional citizens of each country interspersed with scientific findings on the nature of happiness and its many manifestations, is an easy read, charging from one locale to another and eschewing deep psychological introspection.

After a rewarding jaunt through the vastly different cultures of Singapore, Mexico, Denmark and the US, the concluding third of the book is a bit of a snoozer as it lurches and lolls into the 'generic advice to improve your life' category and gets heavy with repetition. But that ultimately does little to detract from Buettner's over-arching message.

Thrive is, as it confesses from the outset, very much a 'how to' guide rather than a thoughtful dissertation. But in that sense, it is successful and important.

As far as self-help books go, at least Thrive re-frames the parameters of 'success' - here, the goal is not to get rich, or get fit, or rediscover an elusive sense of self, it is merely to recognise small graces, to live healthily and sensibly, and to be content with the good that surrounds us instead of pursuing endlessly the very elements that ultimately conspire against us: status and money.