The National:

This is from a newsletter from Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp, called Reinventing Scotland. It explores the wellbeing economy. Sign up here to receive it every Tuesday at 7pm. 

This week's column is going to be a bit different: It's more of a TV documentary review and recommendation than the usual opinion piece.  

Most of my recent research has been into the system dynamics of economics – not just how the economic system functions but identifying the drivers of change within the system. If those changes lead to negative outcomes, I ask: How do we change the system through policies and initiatives?  

With that lens, I watched the Netflix documentary Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones. The documentary demonstrates that the areas of the world where people live extraordinarily long and healthy lives are areas that are least affected by modern consumer capitalism. 

A caveat or two

The documentary also makes some basic correlation and causation leaps and one of the conclusions doesn't match the science. That said, Dan Buettner, whose research is showcased, is a National Geographic Fellow, world-record-holding cyclist and Emmy winner. So, it's credible, very enjoyable, enlightening and compliments last week's column. However, better, not longer, should be the key goal. 

What's the big idea?

Communities which are isolated from consumerism, which value family over work, hold a sense of community, and have a diet rich in natural unprocessed foods and a communal approach to cooking tend to live longer, happier, healthier and significantly more active lives.

Key to this is the effort it takes to lead such a life. Buettner observes that the steepness of the village you live in extends your life as it requires more effort to live. The hundreds with healthy lives up to and past 100 years in the study work hard. However, they work to live and do not live to work.

In the western world we have a series of plagues: Loneliness, obesity, declining life expectancy, depression, (often prescription) drug addiction and massively unhealthy alcohol consumption. Why? Because our society and our economy just don’t work unless we behave in ways that generate those negative outcomes as a societal norm.  

What can we do?

How do we stop this negative cycle? More on national social construct change in future columns, but how about we start with ourselves? If we make a few small changes in our own lives, we can see if that rubs off on anyone.

Let's look at an ultra-condensed summary of Buettner's advice:

Move – If you are not moving you are dying. Natural movement, gardening, dancing, playing, going for long walks (bagging a Munro), cycling, etc. will increase your wellbeing. 

The National:

You are on a mission – Have a purpose in your life – not just a job – even hobbies count!

Don’t stress – Understand that most of the things that cause you to worry are forgettable nonsense. Cut your social media usage to less than 30 mins a day. Spend time with family and friends, do things you love every day and switch off from society in whatever way works for you.

Eat consciously – If you eat on the move or as you work you miss the mental benefits of eating. Think about your food and maybe eat less but eat better and you won't feel hungry in an hour. 

Eat less meat – It's hard but we know this. Eating beans, lentils, salad and legumes instead of meat also contributes to environmental wellbeing. By doing this, I can get rid of that tasteless low-fat spread and eat real butter, real chocolate and drink better wine, increasing my enjoyment, whilst saving money and losing weight.

The National: Andy Newman says selecting the right wine can only be done through tasting

Wine – To my great disappointment Buettner’s recommendations don’t match the science. The Mediterranean glass or two of wine a night he recommends seems to be a bit of a myth. The local wines people in Greek mountain villages drink aren't on our supermarket shelves. A better conclusion to draw might be that organic wine with family and friends on warm nights in rural settings has other wellbeing elements that overcome the negatives of alcohol.

Be part of a community – Volunteer and invest in others' wellbeing. Being American, Buettner recommends faith communities but that's not crucial.

The nuclear family doesn’t work – Baby boomers couldn't wait to leave home, get on the property ladder and largely ignore family. Longer-lived people with greater wellbeing tend to live close to or even communally with their wider family. Older folk don't get so out of touch or anxious and worried about the future.

Nurture a large group of friends – Real life social networks are positively reinforcing.

Okay, so you might add a dozen years to your life expectancy if you ace all of those things. I certainly struggle to do so – despite concerted effort – but I have noticed significant improvements in stress management and health benefits just from trying.

Unlike in those blue zones, you and I live in a cultural system that bombards us with signals to behave in ways that are not conducive to our personal wellbeing. If we are going to change the economic system, we are also going to have to change ourselves. 

Why? Because the current neoliberal economic system is killing us and the planet and we have to just stop accepting that.