The Secrets to Living a Happier and Healthier Life
A new docu-series explores the intersection of culture, health, and happiness.
Posted Apr 11, 2019
What are the secrets to living a happy and healthy life?
This is the crux of Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s new CNN series Chasing Life, premiering April 13. Gupta traveled the globe in search of the people living the longest and happiest lives and chronicled what he found along the way. He discovered that there’s a lot we can learn about health and happiness by looking at what people in other cultures are doing differently from us.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Gupta recently and discuss why he developed this series and some of the key things he learned along the way. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation appears below.
Justin Lehmiller: What inspired you to develop this series? To travel around the world and look at how other people are living?
Sanjay Gupta: I think I've always been sort of a global-minded person, especially when it comes to healthcare. I think there was no doubt in my mind, and I think most people's minds who work in healthcare, that there are important lessons to be learned from other places around the world. There are places where people are living longer, healthier, happier lives and doing it, frankly, with a lot less in terms of resources and dollars spent.
There are things that are happening around the world that can benefit you right now. You may not know what they are, but we are going to go out there and find those things, ensure their veracity, and bring them back. That was it, and I think it was really important to go there and see it firsthand because there were a lot of non-intuitive lessons.
Justin Lehmiller: What were some of those lessons? Specifically, what are some of the most important things you've learned about leading healthier lives?
Sanjay Gupta: One of the first countries we visited was Bolivia. Now, a little bit of context—Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. It's not a country that I think people will hold up and say, "Here's an example of a country that's going to have a healthcare system that should be modeled in some way." And yet there were these small publications I had read suggesting there was a group of people living in Bolivia—in the rainforest, specifically—who basically had no evidence of heart disease, which was an extraordinary statement.
Heart disease is the biggest killer of men and women alike in the United States. We spend a billion dollars a day on heart disease. How could it be that a group of people who essentially doesn't even have a healthcare system could have no heart disease? It was an interesting mystery. I talked to a lot of my medical colleagues—cardiologists, cardiac surgeons, people in the heart world—and asked, “What is it about this?” Nobody really knew for sure. We covered the big three: diet, exercise, and rest. But what we found was that there had to be something else.
We found that just about everyone who was living in this particular indigenous tribe in Bolivia had some degree of parasitic infection. Why is that important? It's still a very nascent field, but we are learning more and more about how our own immune system either ignites or worsens so many chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and even dementia. Could these parasites be helping our immune systems not overreact to things and not worsen these diseases that I'm mentioning?
It's a pretty audacious philosophy and no one is suggesting that people are going to go out and get parasitic infections willfully. But there’s an important lesson in here. We live in these self-imposed hygienic bubbles in the developed world in the pursuit of good health. That's understandable—and I'm not maligning that. I'm just saying that in that pursuit we may have, perhaps, been harming ourselves in ways that we did not fully understand because here's an example of an indigenous tribe that spends nothing on healthcare and they don't have the disease that plagues most of the developed world.
Justin Lehmiller: That's incredibly fascinating. I mean, I could just talk about that the whole time!
Sanjay Gupta: I learned a lot on that one, for sure. Another thing we saw was that when it came to the activity for the same indigenous tribe—called the Tsimane—when they're awake, they're standing or walking for the most part. They typically don't run. So they're moving, but it's not intense moving. It's not intense exercise. Even when they hunt, they're not outrunning their prey—they outlast their prey, they track their prey.
This is interesting if you think about the adage in the public health world that “sitting is the new smoking.” Within this Tsimane indigenous tribe, you didn't see people sitting, except for people who are old.
I started to really look into this and spent a lot of time with professors and reading through scientific texts. One of the things that came out was that, evolutionarily, people didn't really sit until they got old. From a teleological standpoint, what seems to be happening when you sit a lot is that you tend to release these proteins into the blood that actually stop your body's own natural defense mechanisms against chronic disease. It's kind of like saying, when you sit a lot, your body is turning off the defense systems and saying, "Okay, you're sitting a lot. It must be time to go. We're going to let the disease that we have been fighting your whole life slowly start to take over.” It's like an auto-destruct button, which is incredibly frightening, but also compelling. When you sit, are you somehow triggering a signal to the rest of the body that you're letting go of many of the body's defense mechanisms?
I just found that sound interesting. Sitting is the new smoking. We didn't see sitting among this indigenous tribe, so what does that really mean? What’s the scientific underpinning of it? And is there a lesson in there for all of us?
Justin Lehmiller: That's really fascinating as well. Now tell me a little about some of the things you learned or observed about leading a happier or more meaningful life.
Sanjay Gupta: I think you’d really be hard-pressed to disentangle healthy lives and happy lives. We think of healthcare as a necessary evil in the United States—something that's just done to ward off disease. But health is a thing that brings people joy and makes them more productive. We’re better partners, better coworkers, and better community members when we’re healthier.
For example, look at Norway. Part of the reason we went to Norway was because it is considered to be the happiest country in the world. Here's a country that, for a good portion of the year, is basically in total darkness. It's cold. It’s a more austere environment. So what brings people happiness in a place like Norway? Is it because of the environment, or despite the environment?
What you find, in many ways, is that it's because of the environment. When you have to overcome something and you have challenges on a regular basis that you've identified, confronted, and overcome, that tends to bring people more happiness, objectively than simply living in an environment where things are always good but there are no specific challenges.
We, sort of, evolved to be challenged and to overcome those challenges. That was one of the things that I thought was a bit surprised about how the happiness experts in Norway in particular thought about this.
I also think what we saw was that the impact of socialization was not only good at safeguarding and insulating against chronic diseases, but it was very important for having a more joyous life as well. Again, you can't disentangle these things, but why would living in a more social environment—even if you're not necessarily engaging in the most healthy lifestyle practices, such as drinking alcohol or eating red meat—why would just being social somehow act as a buffer? Again, it gets to this notion of the happy, healthy ecosystem that is all part of the same thing.
So socialization and the idea of overcoming challenges on a regular basis were a couple of examples of the less intuitive things we saw with regard to happiness.
Follow my Psychology Today blog for more highlights from my conversation with Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Check out his new CNN series Chasing Life.