A culture that promotes friendship is a culture that sees low rates of loneliness, which can take years off a person's life, he said.
Using research from what they've found in communities such as Okinawa, Buettner and his company have created plans for communities in the United States to improve their residents' health and overall wellness.
Buettner sought out research about communities that were unhealthy and got better. He didn't find a single community in the United States where a public health plan had been put in place that caused successful and long-lasting results.
“As long as the researchers are there paying attention or the cameras are rolling, people will eat their veggies or go on the fun run, but as soon as those researchers leave, people go back to their base,” he said.
He did find two communities in Europe that had been successful in improving health. In 1972, Finland had the highest rate of cardiovascular disease in the world. The program that Finland used did not rely on personal responsibility, telling residents to eat more vegetables or get more exercise.
Instead, the program changed the environment, using evidence-based ways to make long-term environmental change. Buettner applied those same ideas to a community in Minnesota, helping the community improve workplace wellness policies, revising restaurant menus, building community gardens and creating walking clubs, among other things.
The community saw its life expectancy grow about three years and saw residents lose a collective 12,000 pounds. It also saw a 21 percent drop in absenteeism among employers and a 40 percent decrease in health care costs among city employees.
The program implemented in Minnesota was not a “weight loss” program but instead an effort to improve the environment and ecosystem in Albert Lea, Minn.
“Individual responsibility is a good thing, but we just don't live in an environment that makes individual responsibility very easy right now,” he said. “The secret is thinking about an ecosystem, thinking about what holds eating the right way and moving the right way in place, and that's purpose, that's faith, that's feeling like you belong, that's having the right people around you — there's where the answers lie, and we see it over and over in Okinawa.”