A formula for a life well lived
This week we celebrated a wonderful Graduation Dinner for the Class of 2023. I would like to share with you an extract from the speech that I delivered to them at the event:
As is traditional at Graduation Dinner, it is my privilege to try to convey some wisdom to our graduates as they reach this important juncture in their lives.
This year I thought I would go big.
Probably about as big as it gets. Graduates, imagine that you had a genie that granted you a wish. Some of you might wish for wealth, unique skills or power.
But the cleverest would ask for a long, happy and satisfying life. So tonight I will grant this to you.
I will offer you a formula for living a life of purpose and meaning that stretches beyond a hundred years.
I am blessed to still have a living grandmother who is nearly 99 years old. She was born in Poland in 1925 and in that year the average life expectancy was 47.35 years. I like to tell her that for every day she has lived, she has already gained at least one bonus one.
A traditional Yiddish blessing is to say to someone Biz hundert un tzvantsik. May you live to 120. As we have seen our lives lengthen we have not always seen the quality of our lives grow in equal proportion. It’s important that each bonus day counts.
And so what I want to offer you is the variation of the Yiddish blessing – Biz hundert azoi ve tsvantsik. May you live until you are a hundred as if you were a twenty year old.
I want to raise this with you all today because as you head out into post school life and start making critical and independent decisions, I hope that they will be good ones that will contribute to a joyous and good life.
Some of you may have come across Dan Buettner’s research into longevity which has been popularised in the Netflix documentary series The Blue Zones. Buettner identified the five areas of the world with populations that lived the longest lives and analysed any distinct lifestyle factors that may have contributed to this phenomenon.
Buettner focused on Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, Loma Linda in the USA, Ikaria in Greece and Nicoya in Costa Rica. Apparently these are the areas with the highest concentration of centurions on the planet. Over more than twenty years of exploring the phenomenon, Buettner consolidated his findings and then applied them to various areas in the USA.
He found that there were a range of factors which were distinctive to each location that seemed to contribute to the enhanced longevity.
To oversimplify his vast research, one could group the main factors as relating to diet, exercise, relationships, purpose and outlook.
For example, Buettner found that there were important lifestyle factors that allowed for incidental strengthening and cardiovascular health. He identified that in Okinawa the lack of furniture other than Tatami mats on the floor in the typical household contributed to far more squatting which built and maintained core strength throughout life. This was reinforced by the prevalence of maintaining a household garden and undertaking manual chores.
It should be fairly self-evident that eating well and keeping active will contribute to healthier lifestyles.
What interested me far more in Buettner’s research was that the things that we have taught you to value in your time at this school can also contribute to your living a longer and more vibrant life.
So what are the surprising features that Dan Buettner found in addition to diet and exercise that are likely to enhance both the length and quality of your lives?
It’s not money. While studies have found a correlation between wealth and longevity, Buettner found that many of the Blue Zones had no particular economic advantage over nearby areas which had far reduced longevity and health.
One aspect that was evident in each of these zones was a strong sense of community. Remember our school tagline – ‘it’s where I belong’. As you move out into the world, maintain your relationships and develop new ones. Find places that you connect. This could be in your youth movement, university, a sports club or your shule. The point is that being connected is good for you.
This was evident in each of the Blue Zones where lives were less isolated and people came together to socialise frequently.
Another aspect is maintaining a sense of positivity about life. This was evident in 101 year old Okinawan, Ometo’s response to Buettner’s question about why she thought she had lived so long. She said: “Always have fun. Don’t get angry… Make everyone happy.” She added that “laughter brings longevity.”
A vital aspect of positive life experience that is believed to have contributed to Okinawa’s extraordinary longevity statistics related to the concept of Ikigai. This roughly translates to living a life of purpose. Buettner explains: “They could sum up their life meaning, the reason for which they wake up in the morning. They’re told constantly that ‘you count. We need you’. People imbued with this constant sense of purpose, they know their values, and it makes those day-to-day decisions very easy because you know your core.”
As Pablo Picasso said: “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
Let’s add to this the concept of tikkun olam. The residents of Loma Linda commit to volunteering, giving to others and supporting those who are vulnerable. Resident, Marijke Sawyer describes what she characterises as their “nugget” being “to lead a productive life and to serve humanity in all aspects. We feed people. We reach out. We visit the sick. There is so much to give.”
Finally the Blue Zones are full of people with thriving interpersonal relationships. Residents valued their families, friends and life partners and spent quality time together.
Much of this research confirms the findings of the Harvard Study of Adult Development which is considered to be the lengthiest longitudinal study of human behaviour ever conducted. It found a strong correlation between reported levels of satisfaction, physical and mental health among those who also reported maintaining positive relationships with partners, family and friends. Conversely it found that poor relationships and loneliness were among the primary indicators of a shorter and less fulfilled life. The study’s author Robert Waldinger stated that “over these 75 years, [the] study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships, with family, with friends, with community.”
So both the Harvard model and Buettner’s research show that thriving relationships are vital to our long term health and wellbeing.
So I promised you a formula and here it is:
Keep moving. Eat well, but not too much. Stay positive by avoiding anger and seeking the beauty in life. Find your community and maintain a sense of belonging. Find your passion and commit to it. Make sure that you are giving to others. Find those you love and laugh with them.