Throughout this week, NBC’s “The Today Show” has featured National Geographic author Dan Buettner, and his new cookbook, “The Blue Zones Kitchen.” Buettner spent the last several years in the five different blue zones — the areas around the globe that include the highest percentage of people who are supposedly the happiest, live the longest, and have the lowest rates of chronic disease. Buettner set out to learn their secrets, and found it to be quite simple. The blue zone populations of Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California, enjoy a mostly dense, plant-filled diet, along with a community of people that they interact with daily –– face-to-face. That was it. These people typically eat the same exact three meals every day, and they do it surrounded by what my generation would call, “their people.” They have centered their lives and schedules around the meals they share together.
Buettner’s findings take my mind to another picture of longevity that hits a little bit closer to home –– my 89-year-old Grandad. My grandfather has lived in the small, Alabama town of Bay Minette all of his life. He will be 90 in September of next year, meaning that he will have lived through nine decades since he was born in 1930, a time defined by the Great Depression. Grandad’s eating habits do not exactly line up with those in the blue zones (French fries being a vital part of his diet), but his communal habits do. A widower, he lives alone in a sweet, white house just a couple blocks from the center of town. His sleeping hours are just about the only ones where he finds himself completely alone, however. Like the blue zones’ population, he eats all three meals with friends along with quite a few social encounters in between. He starts each day at the local grocery at a table full of other men from town, drinking coffee and, of course, solving all the world’s problems right then and there. He has known some of the men his entire life, and others have trickled in through the years. Despite their political differences, family dynamics, religious preferences, or coffee preference, they delight in each other’s company and consistency, while also greeting all those out for a quick morning grocery run, of course.
Most of us laugh at the idea of having the time to eat three meals in a day, much less with our friends who are also running in 24 different directions. It would be easy for us to bypass these stories with, “Well, that must be nice,” or “Maybe one day.”
If you feel those words about to slip out, hear me out for just a little bit longer. If no part of your life revolves around a community of people, you will feel the pains of that pace sooner or later. According to Buettner, loneliness shaves eight years off your life in the United States. That is just short of an entire decade. If you feel alone, look around you –– you probably will not have to look too hard to find someone who needs a friend. If you feel alone, look at your community — there is probably a place where your presence and talents are needed. The harsh reality of loneliness is that sometimes we bring it on ourselves. The people who need friends or the ones pursuing friendships with us might not look or act like the people we want to befriend. The parts of community that are inviting us in require humility and vulnerability, and might even be scary.
As one decade closes and another one commences, we have a marker to reevaluate the communal aspect of our lives. Friendship and community quite literally give life. Maybe for you, this past decade has been a prime example of the life that friendship gives, or maybe not. Whatever the past 10 years have held for you, maybe the next 10 can hold even more community, togetherness and friendship. The benefits have proven true.