There is considerable attention these days to the “blue zones”—locations around the world where an unusually large portion of the population lives active, healthy lives, often beyond one hundred years old. Five such identified locations are Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece.
Here are a few facts about the Island of Ikaria, located in the Aegean Sea, about ten nautical miles southwest of Samos. Ikaria’s inhabitants’ history stems from 7000 B.C. (not 700 B.C.) as the island has been populated since its neo-lithic, pre-Hellenic inhabitants. One out of three make it to their 90’s; they have the highest population in the world of people over 90 years-old, reporting 20% lower cancer, 50% lower heart disease than Americans, and no dementia!
Americans spend billions of dollars each year seeking remedies that assure longevity—from vitamins and curious concoctions to scientifically proven hormone replacements and a potpourri of medical and allopathic interventions, all promising to resurrect the fountain of youth.
While the magic bullet that explains the mystery of blue zones remains elusive, a constant is evident in all blue zones pointing to the significance of balanced healthy physical, emotional, and spiritual living. The ancient Greek maxim of “nothing in excess”—maintaining balance appears at the core of this phenomenon.
Numerous best sellers proclaim that the key for a long life is diet, pointing to the Mediterranean or vegetarian diet as important for good health. Moreover, the key of the blue zones reveals a more holistic truth at the core for longevity. Those in the blue zone do not only live longer because they eat right; they live longer because they live fuller, happier, and more fulfilled lives. While a healthy diet is a constant, there’s much more at stake than calorie counting, vitamins, and avoiding fats (In fact, moderation in alcohol and chocolate are “blessed requirements” for their diet.).
Longevity results from lives that are personally enriched through close family connections, spiritual awareness, and purposeful lives. Their critical connections with self, other, and God mediate forces—both positive and negative. Self-awareness and clarity about personal direction is nurtured through living faith and spiritual practice. Though Americans may boast that they live longer than previous generations through progress in the sciences, prolonged existence does not compare with quality of a meaningful and fulfilling life—especially life that is significantly extended.
The characteristics of those from the blue zones invite us to reconsider our life maps in relationship to our relationships of the Critical Connections to self, other, and God. The connections to self for those in the blue zones find that they are both realistic and optimistic, freely claiming their purpose and enjoying their life. Engagement in work, as well as their varied activities, shows that regular experience joy and fun! They are socially connected, presenting engaging and vibrant relationships. Connection to God means understanding living with spiritual sensibilities, recognizing the need for spiritual nourishment and gaining such fulfillment through caring for others, retaining a positive and constructive disposition and joyful heart.
Modern American life has imposed major blows on the family unit, spiritual life, and the basic values of the richness from simple living. Family life in the blue zones embraces the extended family, not nuclear families shattered or split up. Spiritual life leads us to purpose, direction, and the experience of belonging to a much larger reality than we can create alone. Basic values of simple living means to rest, breathe, see, play, and share with others. If we have shed these basic and central elements of our wisdom traditions, the blue zones prod us to reclaim this loss, not only in the interest of living longer but for living more meaningful and fulfilling lives.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of True Coming of Age: A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability, Spiritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships. For more information please visit www.drchirban.com.