Following up on posts written here on best practices in behavior change from the schools of psychology and consumer branding, Buettner’s research suggests that lasting behavior modification is most effective when achieved through a whole community, rather than wrought by any single individual. His work distills the common sense principle that communities work through social pressure, convenience and fun - reinforcing behaviors which, in this case, make a material difference in life and death.
How to Live Long and Well
The story’s protagonist is Stamatis Moraitis, a man diagnosed in 1976 in the US with lung cancer and given six months to live. Rather than wage a costly war on the illness, he and his wife returned home to Ikaria to see his childhood home and save money on the funeral. But after weeks of sleeping till he woke naturally, spending sunny hours surrounded by family and friends, sharing local food and wine, he began to feel better. He planted a spring garden, not expecting to harvest it. But harvest he did, living so long that when he returned to the United States to see whether his doctors could explain the recovery, he could not. All of them had long since died.
Astonishingly, Moraitis' outcome is more norm than exception on his island. How does this happen? The list includes many of the now-familiar Mediterranean prescriptions, and a few new ideas:
- plant based diet with fresh local ingredients, whole grains, goat’s milk, honey
- wine, tea and coffee, with regularity but in moderation
- regular naps
- strong social ties
- regular sex, with “good duration and...achievement”
- lots of sleep, waking without an alarm
- regular physical activity, though not necessarily for exercise
- minimal consumption meat, refined flours, sugars and processed foods
However, many of the exact same diet and lifestyle elements were available in neighboring islands, but did not correspond with similar life duration or quality with age. The difference? Ubiquity of the life-extending behaviors above, throughout the entire Ikaria community.
Your Friends Can Help You Live to be 100... or Kill You Early
Buettner’s big takeaways: “For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle, I have become convinced, they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible...The power of such an environment lies in the mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices. There’s no silver bullet to keep death and the diseases of old age at bay. If there’s anything close to a secret, it’s silver buckshot.”
Buettner notes the challenges of going at it alone. “The problem is, it’s difficult to change individual behaviors when community behaviors stay the same.” Citing ubiquitous temptations of sugar and processed food in the United States, Buettner suggests that it may be impossible to achieve the kind of health outcomes seen in Ikaria when choosing healthy options relies on discipline rather than default.
His conclusions relate directly to research made famous by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, detailed in their book Connected and summarized in a 2009 NYT article that went viral with the title “Are Your Friends Making You Fat”. Christakis and Fowler’s research maps relationships and behaviors such as smoking, obesity and drinking, as well as emotional states of happiness, loneliness and depression, and suggests that the scope of direct influence for individuals includes not just immediate contacts, but three levels out - to the friends of your friends’ friends.
Research agrees, suggesting that willpower is a limited resource and eventually runs out. When it does, each individual is likely to act more like her peers. In Ikaria this means convergence on a series of behaviors which, when combined, associate with extraordinary longevity. In the US, this may mean tendencies towards obesity and heart disease. This makes logical sense and aligns with a common adage from statistical analysis and investment theory: despite anomalies and periods of exceptionalism, things eventually revert to the mean.
Buettner’s research now begs the question - to the extent you have the power to choose, to which mean do you want to revert?
1) For individuals: Choose friends, colleagues and mates recognizing the impact they may have on you - their behaviors and actions drive your own default choices.
2) For organizations: Those seeking to influence behavior in public health, advertising, tech, investment or any other market domain would do well to consider the power of community. Establishing a desired behavior as a default by making it convenient and re-enforced by a relevant peer group will improve the likelihood of success over the long run.
3) For all: from Christakis and Fowler - “Even as we are being influenced by others, we can influence others...And therefore the importance of taking actions that are beneficial to others is heightened. So this network thing can cut both ways, subverting our ability to have free will, but increasing, if you will, the importance of us having free will.”
If you want to improve the world with your good behavior, math is on your side. For most, within three degrees we are connected to more than 1,000 people - all of whom we can theoretically help make healthier, fitter and happier by contagious example. “If someone tells you that you can influence 1,000 people, it changes your way of seeing the world.”