“We’re finding that in some of these cities, you can just put people together who want to change health behaviors and organize them around walking or a plant-based potluck,” he said. “We nudge them into hanging out together for 10 weeks. We have created moais that are now several years old, and they are still exerting a healthy influence on members’ lives.”
The key to building a successful moai is to start with people who have similar interests, passions and values. The Blue Zone team tries to group people based on geography and work and family schedules to start. Then they ask them a series of questions to find common interests. Is your perfect vacation a cruise or a backpacking trip? Do you like rock ‘n’ roll or classical music? Do you subscribe to The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal?
“You stack the deck in favor of a long-term relationship,” said Mr. Buettner.
One of my fellow travelers, Carol Auerbach of New York City, noted that surrounding herself with positive people has helped her cope with the loss of two husbands over the years. Ms. Auerbach was widowed at 30, when her children were just 2 and 5. With the support of her family and friends, and her own tenacity, she was able to support her family, and she eventually remarried. And then in 1992, her second husband died unexpectedly. To cope the second time, she focused on volunteer work and contributing to her community.
Ms. Auerbach said she believes that she learned to have a positive outlook from her mother, a Holocaust survivor who left Germany at the age of 19 and never saw her parents again.
“When I was growing up we were not affluent, and the four of us lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and my parents slept on a pullout sofa,” she said. “My mother never complained. I think she quietly knew that difficult things happen, but you feel very appreciative of the life you do have, and you feel a responsibility to make the most of it.”
Ms. Auerbach eventually found love again and has been married to her third husband for 14 years. “Life is too short to be around negative people,” she said. “I need people around me who care about me and are appreciative, and see the world as a glass half full, not half empty.”
The Blue Zone team has created a quiz to help people assess the positive impact of their own social network. The quiz asks questions about your friends and the state of their health, how much they drink, eat and exercise, as well as their outlook. The goal of the quiz is not to dump your less healthy friends, but to identify the people in your life who score the highest and to spend more time with them.
“I argue that the most powerful thing you can do to add healthy years is to curate your immediate social network,” said Mr. Buettner, who advises people to focus on three to five real-world friends rather than distant Facebook friends. “In general you want friends with whom you can have a meaningful conversation,” he said. “You can call them on a bad day and they will care. Your group of friends are better than any drug or anti-aging supplement, and will do more for you than just about anything.”