Dan Buettner is happy with the way his new book, Thrive, came out — which is only fitting, since it's a study of the ways people can achieve happiness.
It's the Minneapolis author's follow-up to Blue Zones, his 2008 bestseller about the places in the world where people live the longest. Using basically the same research methods, he set out to find the places in the world where people are the happiest and to figure out what makes them that way. The last step was to see whether their techniques could be applied to everyone's life.
The advice is offered with a codicil: To a certain degree, happiness is genetic, he said during an interview at his home.
But still, using scientific surveys of happiness, he identified the four happiest places. The trip took him to Denmark, Singapore, Mexico and San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Some of the factors that he discovered are cultural.
"While Americans stress freedom, Asians get a great deal of satisfaction from working together as a team," he said. "It's also very important to them to please their mothers."
Most of the happiness-inducing elements are universal, however, including:
Sleep: Tired people feel stress more acutely. "If you want to be happier tomorrow, get a good night's sleep tonight," he said.
Money: "We say 'you can't buy happiness,' but to a certain extent you can," Buettner said. "But it's only to a certain extent." We need enough money to provide security: shelter, food and medical care. After that, more money doesn't directly correlate to more happiness: "In the United States, it's $75,000 a year for a family of four. Beyond that, happiness levels plateau."
Physical activity: "Walking is one of the best activities, especially if you do it with a friend, which also makes it a social activity."
Social activity: "Humans need social contact," he said. One of the reasons Mexico ended up on the list of happiest places is that Mexicans have a special sense of extended family and the support that offers.
"They don't define family the way we do, as a spouse and children," he said. "They include cousins, second cousins, aunts and uncles. And they're always doing things together socially. There are birthday parties and anniversary parties."
Work at it: Buettner interviewed Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the former head of the University of Chicago's psychology department. He has spent 40 years studying happy people and generally is considered the world's expert on the topic.
"I asked him: If you could distill everything you've learned about happiness into one sentence, what would it be?" Buettner said. "He said, 'You have to work at it.' "