Living to one hundred years old in great health sounds like a scam. Why do some struggle through their years in poor health with little enjoyment, while others enjoy the adventure of life? Even more befuddling, certain people manage only a few days of marriage, while my parents, Frank and Judi Niver, are celebrating fifty years of wedded bliss. They married in 1963 when they were both twenty-one years old. Taking ideas from Dan Buettner’s book, “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest,” here are tips for creating a longer, healthier, happier life in a remarkable relationship.
National Geographic Explorer Dan Buettner visited “the world’s healthiest, longest-lived people” and discovered nine secrets for success from the centenarians. Each person or relationship must build their own recipe from the ingredients, which combine “community, lifestyle, and spirituality.”
Buettner states you can impact the quality of your life as only “25 percent of how long we live is dictated by genes.” The other 75 percent is “determined by our lifestyles and the everyday choices we make.” As one centenarian told him, “Eat your vegetables, have a positive outlook, be kind to people, and smile.” Can it be that simple to enthusiastically skip through your days?
Lesson #1 is to “be active” automatically. Add subtle exercise seamlessly into your day. If you park your car far away from the mall, you will walk more. Natural movement, not being a weekend warrior, is essential. My parents are active all the time. They both work out several times a week with Pilates, and both weight and cardio machines. Even their vacations are active, as most of my dad’s periodontal patients know that if he is not in the office, he is with his second love, downhill skiing. I joked growing up that my dad would rather ski than breathe. He has won many NASTAR medals, enjoyed heli-skiing and one season accomplished a five mountain interconnect hike and ski in Utah that men half his age barely finished. To celebrate their sixtieth birthdays a decade ago, they and their college friends went to see the big five on an African safari. For their fiftieth anniversary, they are exploring Iceland and Norway. Keeping the adventure alive in your vacations, activities and relationships is crucial to thriving.
In 1971, after serving in the United States army in Georgia, my parents moved their young family to Los Angeles and bought the only house they ever owned, the same year my dad joined his dental practice. Along with their commitment to each other, they carefully chose their house, professional contacts, and many friends years ago. Fellow dentist, Dr. Bob Drosman, has had a professional and personal relationship with my family for decades and claims Frank and Judi Niver’s marriage success is that “they are so understanding and appreciate each other; it is a joy to be anywhere near them.” They are not kind to each other because it is Valentine’s Day or a birthday; it is a daily habit to be aware of your partner’s needs. Exercising your body and appreciating others needs to happen daily and as routinely as breathing.
Lessons #2-4 are about nourishment. The recommendations include eating less overall, while avoid meat and processed foods as much as possible and drinking red wine in moderation. Eating less is known as “Hara Hachi Bu” by the Okinawans. Healthy choices include enjoying your meal with family and friends.
Growing up my family ate together at home every night except Sundays when we went out to eat. Often we ate at a restaurant like the Good Earth, which served brown rice instead of white and was a place where the waiters did not look at us strangely for choosing water to drink instead of soda. Many people thought my parents choices for meals of hearty vegetables, small portions of chicken or fish and no desserts were odd, but many of them are not here to comment any more. For school lunch, I always had healthy choices like apple juice, fresh fruit and vegetables and my mom’s homemade crunchola, like a granola bar. Feasting at a fast food restaurant, standing at your desk or dining alone watching television does not help your digestive system or your relationship. Our bodies and our lives require the sustenance of connections as much or more than calories as the next several secrets share.
Whether you call it “ikigai” (Okinawans), “plan de vida” (Nicoyans) or “why I wake up in the morning,” a sense of purpose (Lesson #5) can keep you feeling alive. It could be your job, hobby or children, but the meaning that keeps you focused supports your overall success.
During my school years, we skied during every vacation for Thanksgiving Holiday, Winter Break and Spring break. Literally every day that was possible, we were outside in the mountains skiing. My parents purchased a condo in Park City, Utah with another family, the Wachtells, who had daughters similar in age to my sister and me. The four of us girls shared a room, secrets and the love of two sets of parents committed to each other and their families.
My “cousins,” Lisa and Karyn Wachtell, followed me not only to Westlake School for Girls but all four of us daughters graduated from the University of Pennsylvania where my dad did his periodontal training. Karyn Wachtell Huberman learned the secrets to a happy marriage from incredible role models in her family and mine and told me, “It is not just about loving a person. It is about choosing to be with that person and if you choose to be with that person, all the other things and all the other differences don’t matter because you have made that choice and everything else pales in comparison to that choice.” She is using choice as Buettner discusses sense of purpose. Her commitment to her marriage and her family is her filter for all other decisions.
While it is crucial to pledge to your partner and your ideals, it is essential to regularly relax. Many centenarians practice their faith with a day off for church. Lesson #6 is about “Take time to relieve stress” with the power of faith (Lesson #7 Belong to a Spiritual Community.) When you participate in the Sabbath, “you have that as a pattern in your life 52 times a year. Some call it a sanctuary in time.” My entire family is active in the synagogue and my mom now serves on the Temple Board of Directors. As noted in the Blue Zone book, being part of a community with a regular schedule was one of the key factors for long life and health.
Norman Cousins, author of Anatomy of an Illness, discovered having a sense of humor can keep you feeling younger and restore good health. He was an adjunct professor at UCLA School of Medicine and battled heart disease with laughter and Vitamin C. Buettner recounts in his book when: “The Okinawan seniors stood in a circle each morning and laughed.” They explained their choice to him: “It’s vitamin S. You smile in the morning and it fortifies you all day long.” My dad is the COH (Chief of Humor) in our family and can find something funny in every situation. He can often lighten the mood and provide perspective in most moments.
After forty-two years in the same house, my parents know all the neighbors. With some of the families they have watched both the children and the grandchildren grow up. I taught at the same elementary school where I was a student, and the children of many of my friends from the neighborhood were in my classroom. On Parent’s Night at school, my parents would chat with the grandparents of my students who were their long-time friends from around the corner. At one event where I was speaking on science and education, a man sitting next to my dad said, “What grade is your child in?” He said, “The teacher speaking is my daughter!” They enjoyed chatting about their children and how one’s child loved being in the classroom of the other. My parents have always been very proud of my choices and visited my school often for events just as they did when I was a student.
Lesson #8 is to make family a priority and #9 surround yourself with those who share the Blue Zone values. According to Buettner, a key to a long happy successful life is “strong connections with their family and friends.” My sister and her husband celebrated twenty years of marriage earlier this month on June 5, 2013 and in our family we work hard to live every day to its fullest. We have always focused on each other whether it was me flying home from college in Philadelphia as a surprise for my sister’s sweet sixteen in Los Angeles, or my parents flying to Thailand, to visit me at my job on a cruise ship. Take every chance to celebrate and enjoy the people in your life. Even with all these lessons, you never know which day will be your last.
At the end of our days, we want to be remembered for our accomplishments. For most in the Western world, that means the status and material wealth of our professions. Yet none of the nine secrets are about these things. I have learned from my parents that real wealth and success is investing in yourself and your relationships. My parents have embraced their son-in-laws, raised two daughters, and would do anything for my nephews, their grandsons. Recently at the funeral for our rabbi’s wife, I said to my dad, “Can you imagine being married for seventy years?” He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “I am on track for that!” I hope the lessons from the Blue Zone and my family’s health and long life success inspire you to create a winning combination for yourself.
Lisa Niver Rajna is a writer, teacher, and traveler who has been to over one hundred countries and six continents. She and her husband, George, are spending a sabbatical year in Asia. Follow their travels at We Said Go Travel, on Twitter and on Facebook.