Story by Joe Beeney, PhD
Though I routinely work at it, a sense of good well-being has often been elusive for me. I think I’m not alone in that. We struggle to find a career with both purpose and at least a little bit of balance. We work to find a place to belong, find a partner with whom we feel secure, friends who have a similar sense of irreverent humor. We strive to eat healthily, to be at a weight we feel good about, to exercise enough to feel calm. For those of us who have experienced plenty of trauma and adversity early in life, all these life tasks are even more difficult.
There are some places in the world where people have found ways of living that result in more happiness, health, and longevity. They’ve been called Blue Zones. People in those areas usually live ten years or more longer than those in surrounding regions. More people make it to see three digits worth of age than even nearby areas. The Blues Zones project wants to take those ways of living and transport them to communities throughout the world, including Mendocino County.
“Blue Zones Project is a community-led well-being improvement initiative designed to make healthy choices easier through permanent changes to a city’s environment, policy, and social networks,” said Tina Tyler-O’Shea, Executive Director of Blue Zones Project Mendocino County. “Blue Zones Project is based on research by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow…Blue Zones Project incorporates Buettner’s findings and works with cities to implement policies and programs that will move a community toward optimal health and well-being.”
I don’t see any reason why Mendocino County couldn’t be a Blue Zone. I regularly walk my dog on the Fort Bragg headlands as the sunlight shines long in a deep gold. The wind is fresh and lively. The waves hum and crash and wisp, a calming blanket of sound that calms my tendency to startle easily. I buy fresh fish in Noyo Harbor and produce at Harvest Market.
In the Ukiah Valley, when I drive to work, dew evaporates, creating plumes of mist rising from the green hills. The Saturday Farmer’s Market is stuffed with fresh vegetables and friendly people. The Co-Op is always bustling.
My partner and I spend time with friends in the wineries along Highway 128, tasting wine and eating charcuterie adjacent to the grape vines, arranged in parallel.
Near Mendocino, Elk, and Point Arena, the hills are always begging us to go hike. It seems like an insult to the trails to say no. We take the kid and dog and walk along the cliffs trying to find a good photo during the golden hours of the day. Everything in these communities is unhurried, mellow, sweet.
It feels like we live in a special place where we could embrace a bit more movement, add more vegetables to our diets, and find deeper connections in our families and communities. And it would allow us to find a deeper level of contentment.
The original Blue Zones were places like Sardinia, Italy; Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; and Loma Linda, California. After identifying the regions, researchers naturally asked, ‘what’s going on in those places that leads people to live healthier and longer?’ They looked for common threads among each of these Blue Zones and found a number of things we’d all probably expect. People in Blue Zones ate healthier food—more vegetables, legumes, and mainly a plant-based diet. And they tended to eat less, usually leaving the table when they felt 80 percent full.
They also exercised more. It’s not really what you think though. Rather than getting up at five a.m. for a jog or joining a gym and powering through sets of deadlifts, people in these regions get sufficient exercise as they go about their days. They walk everywhere, often on hilly terrain, prepare food with few modern appliances, garden and maintain yards by hand.
Also, these researchers identified another key I consider one of the better-kept secrets of physical and mental health: relationships. People in each of these Blue Zones spent a lot of time with supportive others. They were part of groups that walk together and pray together. They are committed to romantic partners (which increases life expectancy by three years) and put their families first.
They drank a glass or two of wine in the early evening, but the key may be less the wine and more that it’s a moment of relaxation amongst friends. A rich social life at home and in the community is key to health and happiness.
The Blue Zones Projects seeks to bring those principles to communities all over the world. One community is ours.
CREATING NEW BLUE ZONES
So, there are some regions where people live longer, are healthier, and are happier. That’s great. But what about the rest of us?
Research seems to suggest that Blue Zones can be created and that when the principles gleaned from the original Blue Zones are encouraged, people show substantial benefits on physical and mental health. The Blue Zones Project aims to bring the principles that worked in the original Blue Zones communities to new communities.
“Blue Zones Project engages people in activities that change mindsets and habits in lasting ways,” said Tyler-O’Shea
In 2010, three Southern California cities, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Redondo Beach (collectively called Beach Cities, California) began the process of becoming Blue Zones certified. In 2016, Beach Cities earned the certification.
Around the same time, people in Beach Cities were found to be less stressed, smoked less, exercised more, and had lost weight. More citizens reported they were thriving, and healthcare costs dropped by $21 million.
Iowa has fifteen Blue Zone Project communities. In two years, one community saw a 22percent increase in people committed to healthy eating, partly through new ordinances allowing residents to grow vertical gardens, keep bees, and raise chickens.
One of the features of the Blue Zones Project is that it doesn’t simply rely on changeamongst individuals but relies on the power of environmental and social changes to nudgepeople towards healthier behaviors.
These ‘nudges’ can come in the form of taxes on sodas, grocery stores re-arrangingstock so healthy foods are in the most prominent places, or widening sidewalks and narrowing roads to prefer foot traffic over car traffic.
They can come from employers building in healthy breaks to the workdays, encouragingmeditation breaks, walking groups, or yoga.
A nudge can come in setting aside land for parks, nature preserves, and bikeways, ordeveloping downtowns to be attractive and walkable.
The side effect of these types of improvements is they tend to not only increase the healthof the community’s residents, but also attract visitors, supporting local economies.
RELATIONSHIPS AND HEALTH
People in Blue Zones are not only healthy, but also are frequently among the happiestpeople in the world. This is consistent with mountains of research that shows physical andmental health are often difficult to tease apart.
People who have a personality disorder, for instance, tend to have many more healthproblems compared to people who are mentally healthy. Chronic stress leads to chronicinflammation and increased incidence of most diseases. Depression can bring on a temporary dementia by disrupting function of the frontal lobes that resolves once the depressionis treated. Mental health is intricately tied to physical health and vice versa.
Similarly, one way to increase happiness is by improving health. The Blue Zones Projectaims to encourage exercise and a healthy diet, decrease smoking, and add healthy yearsto the life spans of people in communities. Exercise decreases the impact of stress. Eventhough in the short term, smoking might be relaxing, overall, research suggests smoking increases anxiety and tension. Reducing smoking has major health and mental healthbenefits.
Moreover, there are other routes to happiness in addition to promoting health. Humansare social creatures who need to belong. We are born into this world more dependent for alonger period of time than any other species. We need the protection of our caregivers fora longer period.
As a result, we have a primary need to stay close to caregivers, what psychologists call“attachment.” As toddlers, too much distance from caregivers activates our threat system,motivating us to move closer. When we feel secure, we explore more, keeping an eye outfor how far our caregivers are from us. In adulthood, romantic partners often fulfill a similarrole. Throughout our lives, we need to be with people; our brains evolved to be with closeothers. When we have needs, we often reach out to others.
People with caregivers (or later, romantic partners) who are attentive, emotionally attuned, sensitive to the child’s needs and responsive to them, are more likely to grow upsecurely attached. Securely attached people value both intimacy and autonomy, feel confident others will be there when needs arise, and are much less likely to develop mentalhealth problems.
James Coan, a psychologist at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, extended attachment theory using findings from his research studies using brain imaging, to develop SocialBaseline Theory.
This is a theory that the human brain expects to be embedded in a supportive socialcontext, and when in that context, we not only feel more secure, but our brains, particularlythe areas involved in planning and remaining vigilant to threats, don’t have to do as muchprocessing. This is because we expect our social partners are working with us towardsmaintaining safety and overcoming challenges.
In social psychology, there have been several studies documenting the benefits of closesocial relationships. If you place one person at the bottom of a mountain and ask them howchallenging it would be to climb, they’ll report it’s more challenging than if they had a friendwho was going to climb with them. Our brains essentially leave some of the planning andeffort to our social partners and challenging tasks seem less challenging when we knowothers are in it with us.
Coan demonstrated this most compellingly in a study in which he shocked a number ofwomen in an fMRI scanner. He gave them a taste of this unpleasant shock and taught themthat when a light turned on, a shock might be coming afterwards. Typically, this sort ofthreat of pain activates a neural threat network, brain regions including emotional centersof the brain, like the amygdala and insula.
Coan had three conditions however, one in which the woman was in the scanner alone,another in which a stranger held the woman’s hand, and still another in which the woman’sromantic partner held her hand.
The women’s brains registered the highest threat in the condition in which the woman’shand wasn’t held, second highest when held by a stranger, and was least active where her hand was held by her romantic partner. Close, supportive relationships decreased the degree to which women felt threatened by shock and the amount their brains were vigilant for threat.
Further, those women who rated their relationships as higher quality reported being less distressed and their brain activation reflected this with diminished activation in regions supporting threat processing. In other words, quality relationships make our lives easier and less stressful.
Other research shows people with highly supportive relationships benefit in pretty much every other way as well. They have less disease, greater sense of well-being, they heal faster, have greater sense of purpose, and longer lives.
On the other hand, loneliness is corrosive to mental health. The relationship between loneliness and depression and anxiety probably goes in both directions. Loneliness is a risk for depression and anxiety, which lead to further isolation. Lack of social connections impacts physical health, too though. Researchers have frequently compared the effect of loneliness on health as equivalent to smoking almost a pack of cigarettes a day.
Blue Zones Project aims to increase social connectedness in a number of ways. One is encouraging the formation of moais, a Japanese term meaning “gathering for a purpose,” where small groups of people get together and commit to activities and providing mutual
support. In other communities, the Blue Zones Project has promoted walking moais or potluck moais, each of which have led to increases in social connectedness and health improvements.
“Our connections to friends, family, and those around us have the ability to shape our lives and impact our health, happiness, and behaviors,” said Tyler-O’Shea. “So Blue Zones Project helps people cultivate positive social networks based on interests.”
Another way to decrease isolation is to promote volunteerism, which can be particularly impactful for older adults. In addition to the social benefits of volunteerism, people who volunteer tend to feel a greater sense of purpose and feel they have a valuable role in society. People who are happiest often have a goal to contribute to society that gets them out of bed.
THE TWIN PANDEMIC
There seems to be a twin pandemic that is festering right alongside COVID-19. It’s a pernicious disease or disorder that was growing before the pandemic, found new strength with the isolation the coronavirus promoted, and will likely continue far beyond the pandemic.
It’s a difficult disorder to pin down, but we see it in kids not wanting to go to school in person, resisting going out of their houses, increased hours logged on YouTube, and in a lack of enthusiasm for much of anything that isn’t on a screen. Some have identified this as a condition called languishing—not quite depression, but a similarly dulled sense of purpose.
The first part of this century has so far been defined by a pandemic affecting physical health, one we’re still winding our way through. However, there’s a case to make that the entire century will be defined as much by problems of mental and behavioral health as by problems of physical health.
As a clinical psychologist who has researched the intersection between mental health and close relationships, I expect that the greatest difficulties of this century will show up in physical health problems, but will be due to problems like loneliness, isolation, and something like agoraphobia, the fear of situations and places that might cause panic.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has already named obesity as a national epidemic, with rates increasing sharply, especially for youth. Kids are getting heavier at younger ages, a risk for obesity in adulthood, and with it, an increased incidence for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
At the same time, depression, and anxiety are increasing. Thoughts of death and suicide, particularly among youth, are rising. Why is this all happening? One reason may be that, taking the logic that it is important toconsider the situational factors impacting health, we have structured out lives to promoteobesity, depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
The smartphone is a technology that has probably had the most revolutionary influenceon our lives. Apps like YouTube, Instagram, and Reddit, allow us to endlessly scroll for content and to receive a hit of dopamine, the neural chemical involved in feelings of pleasure,when we find a particularly funny meme. What we find in that three-by-six-inch world can be addictive. In addition, that world istypically solitary and sedentary.
In order to return to a richer life filled with human connection, movement, and healthyeating requires us to think carefully about how we promote those lifestyles. We need tonudge ourselves in directions away from isolation and inactivity and towards connection,healthy challenge, and activity.
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH DISPARITIES
Earning a PhD has put me into a comfortable tax bracket, but it wasn’t how I grewup. I was raised in Pekin, Illinois; Garberville, California; Saratoga, Wyoming, andfinally Fort Bragg, California. Organic produce was not part of my childhood. There werea couple summers we lived in a campground and survived mainly on food my mom madefrom corn meal: muffins, bread, mush.
In almost every way researchers have looked at the data, people with lower incomes, people of color, sexual minorities, and people living in rural regions of the US fare more poorly in terms of physical and mental health. People in poverty are more depressed. African Americans have more anxiety. Native Americans have poorer outcomes from heart disease and cancer. Transgendered people have a greater incidence of most mental health disorders.
There’s a statistic that should cause each of us to take pause: life expectancy for people who have experienced significant trauma and adversity in childhood is nineteen years lower than those who have not. This is a statistic that haunts me. Kids living in poverty or belonging to marginalized groups are more likely to experience the trauma and adversity that predicts shorter life expectancy. Rather than a life expectancy around seventy-eight years, people who have experienced trauma are only expected to live to around sixty.
One important question facing our society is how do we decrease the disparities betweenwhite, more affluent groups, and everyone else? Importantly, Blue Zones Projects have alsohad success in places with racial diversity and high rates of poverty.
In Naples, Florida, 64 percent of children qualified for free lunches, and half of kids entering kindergarten spoke only Spanish. After becoming a Blue Zones community in 2014, Naples has scored among the highest in the nation in community wellbeing and has been named one the “Great Places to Retire for Your Good Health.” More data is needed, but it’s possible Blue Zones Projects could expound upon the existing strengths of communities to reduce health care disparities.
When asked about how Blue Zones Project might help with these disparities, TylerO’Shea said, “We care about our community and the people in it…[We’re] committed to ensuring that all people have a fair and just opportunity to live a long and happy life.”
In addition, Blue Zones Project has partnered with multiple community organizations supporting those from diverse cultures and those in poverty, such as Project Homekey, Ukiah Vecinos en Accion, and Tribal Nations.
Other efforts that could be key to reducing the disadvantage of those who experience health care disparities is to invest in mental health. According to the World Health Organization, every one dollar spent on mental health care recoups five dollars in better health and productivity. Decreasing human suffering while making four dollars at the same time seems like a good deal. At the same time, social stigmas often keep people from seeking help or engaging in therapy. In some Blue Zone Communities, campaigns to destigmatize depression have yielded major gains in overall happiness of the community.
FINDING MY PERSONAL BLUE ZONE
Prior to the end of 2020, I was a researcher at University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Psychiatry. Part of what caused me to leave the world of academia and return to my hometown of Fort Bragg, California was how elusive it is to find balance and a sense of good well-being in academia.
Pittsburgh is a wonderful city. I recommend it to anyone. At the same time, I noticed my stress level increased when I moved there. I walked everywhere, but drivers would barely miss running me over. I would trip over uneven sidewalks while jogging.
With drivers constantly rushed, running red lights was commonplace. Walking back home one night, a car flew through the intersection against a red light and plowed into the side of an SUV. The next day, I saw a driver apparently fall asleep, jump the curb and ram into a telephone pole.
It was stressful, too, to live on the edge of neighborhoods with high crime rates and eventually I bought a house in a different neighborhood with a fancy organic market, several great restaurants, and a cute theatre showing indie films. Still, less than a half a mile from my house, two men interrupted a barbecue and killed five people. I passed the Tree of Life Synagogue every day on my way into the office. This is the Synagogue where a gunman drove in from out of town and killed eleven people on a Saturday morning. And all the while, I was keeping up with the rigorous norms of ‘publish or perish’ and ‘secure multi-milliondollar grants or have no job.’ It felt like this sort of stuff was taking years off my life.
Returning to the Mendocino Coast after almost fifteen years away, the differences are striking: my personal Blue Zone found. From my own perspective, I can see why the Blue Zones Project chose our county. Surrounded by nature and rural calm, my sense of wellbeing has increased. The communities in this area are rich with good food, concern for the planet, and deep social ties. People stop for me when I attempt to cross the street. I don’t know if I’ll make it to triple digits, but I do think living here will add years to my life.
Sit tight! The Blue Zones Project Mendocino County is in its final stages of Planning and Community Assessments. The organization has hosted focus groups, interviewed individuals, and conducted site visits to determine Mendocino County’s strengths and needs as well as efforts that other agencies have already started. This work has culminated in a finalized strategic plan, which is currently in draft form and is set for final approval. Once started, committees will move forward with implementation of the plan for a project period of five years. Blue Zones Project will host a kick-off event and ribbon cutting/open house March 18-19 in Ukiah and later in North County and Coastal communities (dates to be determined). The community well-being improvement initiative, Blue Zones Project, is designed to make healthy choices easier through permanent changes to environment, policy, and social networks. Find information at https://mec.bluezonesproject.com