In 2019, I took a break from my busy life in New York in search of happiness secrets from around the world.
I traveled to six different places, including Norway, Hawaii and Japan. I knew that health, happiness and longevity isn’t something you can actually buy, so I interviewed more than 100 locals and experts about their take.
What did I find? True well-being is much deeper than green juice or expensive supplements when you look at it through a global lens. It’s more about nourishing your soul with the timeless cures that have always mattered most, like your community, fresh air and a change in perspective.
Here are three fascinating health and happiness secrets from some of the world’s longest-living people:
A friend of mine who grew up in Norway originally introduced me to a philosophy called friluftsliv (which translates to “the free air life”). Devotees of friluftsliv describe it as a feeling — a fundamental longing to spend as much time outside as possible.
Never mind the fact that Norway gets tons of rain every year, or that the sun doesn’t even rise for three months in certain parts of the country — Norwegians, who rank among the highest in life expectancy, are still dedicated to the cause of getting outside. And that’s largely because they know it will improve their mood, mental health and emotional well-being.
People in the U.S. don’t spend enough time outside. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans, on average, spend approximately 90% of their time indoors, where the concentrations of some pollutants are often two to five times higher than typical outdoor concentrations.
That’s not exactly good for our health.
To get the healing effects of friluftsliv, you don’t need to go on an epic camping or hiking trip. Walking to get your groceries instead of driving is friluftsliv. Having a picnic in the park instead of eating indoors is friluftsliv. Going for a run in the park instead of hitting the gym is friluftsliv. Learning in outdoor kindergartens instead of a closed classroom (yes, this is a thing in Norway) is friluftsliv.
Many locals even leave their babies outside in strollers during naptime so that they can get used to the outdoor lifestyle from an early age!
Americans are all about quick and easy meals. Who has time to make something with so many steps?
But one way to strengthen your focus and practice being present is to forget yourself by occasionally engaging in an intricate activity — not so much for the outcome, but for the process.
In Japan, where the average life expectancy of 85 years old, tea masters do this with tea ceremonies, a choreographic ritual of preparing and serving tea. During the process, their focus is so deep that they aren’t thinking about anything else.
It’s about embracing the Buddhist concept of time, explains Shigenori Nagatomo, a professor of philosophy at Temple University.
“Many people often daydream, thinking that there is something better someplace else other than where they are,” he points out. “But there’s an ultimate reality is unfolding right before your eyes, all the time — so you want to fully engage yourself in that.”
It makes sense: If everything is impermanent and time is fleeting, shouldn’t we all be chasing moments that are so wonderful, so unique, that they make us forget ourselves and get us out of our own heads?
In the U.S., Hawaii takes the top spot for the state with the highest average life expectancy.
“To live a healthy life in this world, you have to know your story,” Greg Solatario, a native Hawaiian who lives on the same land where he grew up, told me one muggy afternoon.
“I come from this land. My family comes from this land,” he emphasized as he gestured to the surrounding tropical rainforest. “And I believe in a deep, deep way that knowing where I come from helps me stay grounded and connected every day.”
As a 50th-generation Solatario, Greg is part of the last ancient family still living in Halawa Valley, a historic piece of land in Molokai, where Hawaiians settled as early as 650 AD.
“There’s a Hawaiian phrase, nana i ke kumu, which means ‘look to the source,’ or ‘look to the teacher,'” he said. “The idea is that your ancestors are your guides. When you know where you come from, you’re better able to know yourself. And knowing yourself, knowing your story, is one of the best ways to be well.”
So ask your parents or grandparents or older neighbors about their lives before you were born. What are some traditions or tips they think should be passed down to future generations?
It’s not about understanding your technical ancestral lineage through genetic testing — it’s about knowing your story by making the time to connect to the elders who helped shape your path. The process of listening to and passing along stories gives meaning to our lives.
Annie Daly is a New York-based journalist and author of “Destination Wellness: Global Secrets for Better Living Wherever You Are.” She has written for several publications, including SELF, AFAR, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure and Cosmopolitan. Follow her on Twitter @anniemdaly.