Collaborative Happiness: Lessons in Community Life from the Blue Zones

The strangest aspect of human life is that you can live it any way you want.

For people living in blue zones, their lifestyles lead to long, fulfilling lives. Researchers have investigated these blue zones extensively, looking for the hidden features that unlock our full potential for happiness and longevity. The idea is simple. Maybe we can learn from these people and recreate our own ways to live happier, longer lives.

Of all their commonalities, one feature of blue zones stands out: community.

The Secrets of the Blue Zones

Okinawa, Japan is a tapestry of interconnected community. That tradition is best illustrated in the moai — a Japanese word that means meeting with a common purpose.

Elderly people who walk miles each day. Cooperative families that stay together. Healthy meals al pastor. These are the daily experiences of people living in blue zones, areas that are recognized for their extremely high life expectancies.

Originating in research by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, the concept of blue zones has expanded by collaboration and independent contributions from longevity and social scientists around the world.

Blue zones exist in many different cultures — including varied groups from the Seventh Day Adventists of Lima Linda, California to the mountain villages of Sardinia, Italy — but they all have some things in common.

To no one’s surprise, these communities have low rates of smoking tobacco and high rates of moderate physical activity throughout the day. They also typically have plant-based diets. And, most strikingly, they have community.

Living in the Moai

Okinawa, Japan is a tapestry of interconnected community. That tradition is best illustrated in the moai — a Japanese word that means meeting with a common purpose. These moai groups began centuries ago as a way to pool resources for community members in small neighborhoods.

If someone needed to make a large purchase, the community could pitch in and pay for it. This was essential in cases of emergency or the need for public works. While no single person had enough to overcome these challenges, the community as a whole could afford to spare the money.

It’s a financial form of the commons, a shared resource that is maintained for all members of a community.

These groups are strong social units that share in the triumphs and tragedies of life, as well as the simple pleasures of conversation, humor, gossip and a shared meal.

The commons appear throughout world history, but have become vanishingly rare, especially in the West. For instance, England had common lands for grazing livestock and gathering firewood. These common lands were often owned by local lords, but the citizens in the area maintained the collective right to use the land. That came with the responsibility to steward as well. The practice was ended by the Inclosure [sic] Acts, in which the land was cut off from the public and set aside solely for private use.

But in Okinawa, the moai continue to this day, albeit in a different form. While modern innovations in the state and other forms of risk sharing have mostly eliminated the financial reliance on these groups, the social purpose has continued.

These groups are strong social units that share in the triumphs and tragedies of life, as well as the simple pleasures of conversation, humor, gossip and a shared meal. In times of need, the moai rallies to support its members. In less dramatic times, the moai creates a stable, friendly social network.

Today’s moais are formed among groups of four or five children. They make a commitment to each other to act as a community for one another. This has led to moais lasting for over 90 years.

It’s a social formation that might seem strange to those unaccustomed to it, but researchers have found that the positive effects are transformative to the lives of its members.

Why Building Community Matters

Members of moais experience many benefits. It is considered a major contributor to the long average lifespan in Okinawa, likely because having such a strong sense of community alleviates stress and creates meaningful connections.

When troubles come to a single individual, as they are wont to do, they have to face it alone. The death of a loved one, the loss of a job or the onset of a disease are tremendous burdens on a human being. These are struggles that can create hardship on many levels: emotional, mental, spiritual, financial and physical.

But when you have a community to rely on, you are not alone in your struggle. You aren’t forced to face your challenges by yourself. And that not only makes for smoother sailing in life, but it also makes for deeper living.

It’s important to note that the benefits aren’t all one direction. There is a benefit also in helping members of a community. When we help others through their struggles, we lose ourselves in the act of selfless service. This brings richer meaning to our actions and helps us escape the atomizing banality of living only for yourself.

A community makes the most of the good times and provides comfort in the bad. It helps to remind you who you are and why you are doing what you do. It generates meaning while at the same time taking care of practical issues.

AIP and the Floating Moai

AIP’s mission focuses on creating community through art and design workshops in some of the most spectacular places on earth. It’s that focus on community building that sets us apart from similar travel services.

We create meaningful, shared experiences that act as touchstones for our members long after the trip is over. While the members of our community don’t live in any single place, they are part of a floating moai, a roving band of creative people who come into contact with the transformative power and life giving force of community through shared activity.

Like life in the blue zones, we try to create a holistic approach to our art tours. Healthy food shared with others, physical activity and creative self expression. These all come together to provide something that grows beyond the length of your trip.

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