The most crucial thing you can do to live to be 100 is choose the right friends. This is Dan Buettner’s take, anyway. The National Geographic writer and his team travelled the world to find the planet’s “Blue Zones” – communities whose populations live to be thriving centenarians. He studied these people to find the themes they had in common that evoked their ability to live long, healthy and vibrant lives. What struck a chord with me while watching his Ted Talk was the emphasis each of these cultures has on connection and friendship as vital in living a healthy, long life. This thought is often overlooked in a North American culture of easy, quick fixes that idolizes individuality and making it on your own. According to Dan and his research team, isolation kills.

“When it comes to longevity, there’s no short term fix in a pill or anything else,” says Dan. He also states that if your three best friends are obese, you’re statistically 50% more likely to be overweight. The populations he identifies in his talk are those living in the highlands near Sardinia, Italy; a group living in the Northern part of Okinawa, Japan; and a group of Adventists in Loma Linda, California. He noticed the following lifestyle themes across each culture:

1. None of them exercise (the way we think of exercise). These people structure their lives so that they are moving constantly. Mixing dough with a spoon instead of an electric mixer; gardening outside; walking to work instead of driving. And when they do any intentional physical activity, it’s things they enjoy doing (typically walking and gardening).

2. They have the “right outlook.” These cultures are often faith-based of some sort, and members have a genuine sense of purpose. Residents of Okinawa even have a word – “Ikigai” – for the reason you wake up in the morning, and every resident can answer the question “what is your Ikigai?” without fumbling.

3. They eat wisely. Each of these cultures eat a largely plant-based diet (although they would never go on a “diet” the way a typical Westerner might think of one). They also have ingrained strategies to avoid overeating, such as finishing a meal when your stomach is 80% full.

4. They make time to connect. They take care of their families first above everything else and have a sense of belonging in everyday life. Dan emphasizes that members of each of these cultures make a point to belong to the “right tribe” – they surround themselves with people who build them up and add to their lives positively and stick with them for the long run.

My parents always harped on how important it was to choose the right friends; that the peer group you’re in determines the shape your life takes. I always thought this was a parental ploy to stop underage drinking, but I’m starting to see the truth in this statement. If we can learn something from these thriving cultures Dan and his team got to know, it’s to put our energy into finding the right people to fill our days with: friends who contribute to the lives we want to lead, whose support and connection may lengthen the years we get to spend here.

Jenna Lange