Dan Buettner in Okinawa

Exploring Purpose with Dan Buettner
Story 73

By Kirsten Cutler
Blue Zones
Blue Zones Challenge

Blue Zones founder and National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner released his new book, “The Blue Zones Challenge,” on December 7, 2021. We recently spoke with Buettner about purpose, one of the Blue Zones Power 9, or lifestyle habits of the world’s healthiest, longest-lived people. 

How did you identify purpose as one of the Blue Zones Power 9?

I knew the term “ikigai” and I knew how central it is to Okinawa, Japan. So that primed me to look for it in other places. In Costa Rica, it’s called “plan de vida.” People don't wake up in the morning like we might in America wondering, "What should I do with my life or what are my responsibilities?" In Ikaria, Greece, they're Ikarian before they're Greek – before they're anything – and they're very proud of it. By extension, they're family. So they don't have that existential angst of, "Why am I working,” or, ”Why am I making an effort today?" It's also true in Sardinia, Italy.

Not so in America. We're so many different religions and political points of view, and work in our country is largely to pay for insurance and put food on your table and to buy stuff, whereas work in blue zones is often extension of their identity. It's palpable, and there's vocabulary for purpose in all blue zones. It's at the tip of their tongue. It's not a question that they have to ponder.

Based on your research, what is purpose?

If you ask 100 people what their sense of purpose is [in America], what their meaning of their life is, 95 out of 100 can't answer you or they can't answer you succinctly. In a lot of the blue zones, that's flipped, so they know why they wake in the morning.

Purpose is the convergence of values, passions, what you like to do, what you're good at. Then the important part, in my opinion, is there's no purpose unless there's an outlet for it. The best outlet I think is your job because you do it every day, but 69% or so of Americans don't find purpose at work. So then it's got to be your family, or volunteering, or a hobby. But it's got to be putting those passions and expertise and gifts to work. Once you identify that, man, it's just like supercharging your engine.

People with a strong sense of purpose [are] more likely to take their medicines, they're more likely to be physically active, their mind is more likely to be engaged, they're more likely to eat the right food, to make the effort to connect socially. It's just so fundamental. I like to say that if you could put purpose in a capsule, it would be a blockbuster drug, because we know people with a strong sense of purpose retrospectively live about eight years longer than people with no sense of purpose.

"Purpose is the convergence of values, passions, what you like to do, what you're good at. Then the important part, in my opinion, is there's no purpose unless there's an outlet for it."

What’s the difference between goals and purpose?

It's like a fruit tree. Goals are the fruit, and purpose are the roots and the trunk. If you make sure the roots are strong and the trunk is sturdy, you're way more likely not only to get fruit, but viable fruit.

The thing is, you could be misdirected on what your goals are. You might say, "My goal is to have $1 million in five years.” If you completely neglect your family, and get fat, and lose your spirituality, and make $1 million, your goals aren't worth much. Making that $1 million might have been a bad goal. Whereas, if you get clear on your purpose, you're more likely to make better goals. So I would say purpose is a precursor to setting good goals.

What’s your purpose statement?

My general purpose is to go out in the world, explore the life of traditional people, distill their wisdom, and put it to work in today's world. That's generally what I wake up in the morning and do.

For the Adventist Health team members who have completed the Blue Zones Challenge, what would you say to encourage them in 2022 and beyond?

If they made a Blue Zones buddy or a moai, do whatever you can to keep that going. That's going to be the most important thing that's going to keep you on the rails.

What’s your favorite of the Power 9?

Finding your tribe. I think the most important one is to find three or four other people whose idea of recreation is something active, who eat plant-based, who care about you on a bad day, and with whom you can have meaningful conversations.

When it comes to longevity, there's no short-term fix. There's nothing you can do today or this week other than not dying that's going to make you live longer at the end of your life. You have to search for things that keep you doing the right things and avoiding the wrong things for decades.

It's building that moai, that circle friends, around yourself, because they're going to have a measurable impact on your health behaviors for as long as that friendship lasts. It's my experience that good friends last decades or a lifetime.