Dan Buettner Q&A

October 14, 2019
Dan Buettner wanted to learn the secrets to longevity so he traveled the world and wrote a best-seller about it.

“I like to write with white noise, so I go to the same Caribou Coffee every morning. They know that I have a small light-roasted coffee in a large cup, topped off with hot water and a little bit of cream. They have that ready for me and I grab that and I sit in the same chair. And sometimes people come up, but most of the time it’s just that nice hum of humanity that overcomes the noise in my head and creates an optimal concentration condition for me.”

How long did you work on the The Blue Zones?

I started in 2002, and the book came out in 2008. And I learned a few things along the way. George Plimpton taught me the importance of keeping a journal. You think you’re going to remember things but you don’t. So when I was in the field doing research, I was trying to synthesize it every night into notes, which were important foundations for the book. And I had a great editor at National Geographic, Peter Miller, who is just an old-school wordsmith. I remember writing the first chapter about Sardinia and thinking that this is Finnegan’s Wake. Brilliant. And I sent it to him, waiting for him to just kind of dot the i’s and cross the t’s and rubber-stamp it, and he very gingerly wrote back and said, “This is a really good first draft. And for your next draft …” And he basically suggested a complete rewrite. Every chapter pretty much went like that.

Were you pleased with where the book ended up?

I hear all the time, “Oh, it was such a fun read” and “Oh, it’s such common sense,” but there’s no common sense in there at all. Every point I make is a distillation of research. A lot of it, when you think about it, is uncommon sense. It’s not a bunch of anecdotes. It is a first, very thorough analysis of what explains longevity in an entire culture. And you get that through anthropology, epidemiology, and research, and then once you get the cake recipe, or the statistically average profile of the behaviors of someone who reaches age 100, then you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the prince that represents the culture. Most journalists find a 100-year-old and ask, “Oh, my god, what do you eat for breakfast?” and “How much exercise did you do?” and “What was your favorite vegetable?” and then they print that, as if that’s the secret to longevity. That’s meaningless. You can’t find an example of one and then extrapolate for the whole population. It’s the combination of doing the research on population and then finding a character who represents that paradigm, that statistical average. And then, as most people quite rightly sense, you need to tell a good story. People get bored in a hurry when you talk about science, figures, and facts. People want a human being. They want emotional content. They want to be taken along a story arc. Now, as you’re taking them, you can also be plying them with science and insight, but a story’s got to drive the narrative.

Did you do all your research before writing, or did you interweave the writing with the field research?

It was more or less a year here and a year there. It was 2003 when I went into the field, and I spent a year going back and forth between Okinawa and Sardinia and Loma Linda, California. In 2005 I wrote a cover story for National Geographic, which did really well. Then I spent 2006 and 2007 writing the book.

How much material do you have that didn’t make it into the book?

I probably have about 2,000 pages of notes that didn’t make it in. You over-research by a factor of ten to one. It’s curating the best.

When do you write?

In the morning. I like to write with white noise, so I go to the same Caribou Coffee every morning. They know that I have a small light-roasted coffee in a large cup, topped off with hot water and a little bit of cream. They have that ready for me, and I grab that and I sit in the same chair. And sometimes people come up, but most of the time it’s just that nice hum of humanity that overcomes the noise in my head and creates an optimal concentration condition for me. So much of writing is applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair. It’s like I force myself to sit there until noon, whether or not the words are coming. You never know when they’re going to come. The rest of my day is usually dictated by how well the morning went. So if it’s a good writing day, I’m usually in good spirits. If not, I’m kind of a grump.

What does writing give you that keeps calling you back to the chair?

It’s a proxy for thinking. It forces you to think clearly about complex ideas and develop them and make them clear in your own head so that you can explain them to others.

Can you tell us more about George Plimpton?

I worked for National Public Radio on a celebrity croquet tournament, and he was the celebrity host. We had to be in New York for two or three days a week and we stayed either near or with George in his Upper East Side apartment for a whole year and got to be friends. Over the years I wrote about him and he wrote about me, and he mentored me. And I would say five or six times a year, I would go stay with him in New York. The last time I saw him, I met John Kerry, who was running for president, at his apartment, and we went out … it was George, Cheryl Tiegs, and Hunter S. Thompson. We all met at the Carlyle. It was almost Forrest Gump-ish. When you hung out with him you ran into a Who’s Who of the twenty-first century.

What’s the best piece of advice George gave you?

Think big. Before I met him, I kind of thought of doing a bike ride—I loved cycling, and I thought, I’m going to bike across America. And after spending a year in association with George, my trans-U.S. ride became a 15,500-mile world-record ride from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. He taught me to take a huge leap.

And has The Blue Zones been bigger than you would have thought?

Way bigger. Yes, not only has the book sold about a million copies, but more importantly, we have cities using the tenets of the book as a citywide public health initiative. It started in New Orleans and now it’s in about three cities in Los Angeles and ten cities in Iowa. We’re starting work in Fort Worth, Texas, and Hawaii. It’s satisfying to see the wisdom of places like Sardinia and Okinawa make a difference in the lives of middle Americans. In Los Angeles, we measured our progress very rigorously—Gallup did, not us—and in two years we brought the obesity rate down by 14 percent in the cities that we work in—there’s 120,000 people—so that equates to 1,600 fewer obese people because of the project. That’s saving hundreds of heart attacks, hundreds of cases of diabetes, thousands of added years of life expectancy and many millions of health care cost savings. And that was just with a population of 120,000. In Iowa, we have 3.2 million people under the Blue Zones project. So that’s very satisfying.

What are you most proud of about The Blue Zones?

That it’s working in communities. You look at the environmental factors that explain better health around the world and apply it to new places. The ingredients are there to see. In the communities we studied, healthy food is accessible, it’s cheap, the kitchen is set up so it’s easy to cook it, the time-honored recipes make things like beans taste good. The social networks are when everybody is eating. People can’t go to a grocery store or to church or to a friend’s house without having to walk. Their houses aren’t filled with electronic conveniences. It’s impossible to be alone. You live in a village where everyone requires you to show up at the local festival. So we start realizing those factors and then say, OK, how do we apply that to America? It’s a very different way to think about wellness.