Thursday, August 15, 2019

“Hope, Health, and Happiness”: A Review of 100 Secrets From the World’s Happiest Centenarians, by Dr. Elizabeth Lopez

 (Leader’s Press, 2019). ISBN (ebook) 978-1-943386-54-3
Longevity is a topic under much discussion in the twenty-first century, although humans have always been fascinated by those who live to the triple digits. But it is not just a matter of quantity—at least not to me—but of quality, and that is the draw and value of this important book by Dr. Elizabeth Lopez.
A trained psychologist, Lopez focuses on the Nicoya region of Costa Rica, known for a high percentage of centenarians, despite the economic struggles and lack of adequate food and water that have also led to a high infant mortality rate. Through face to face interviews with numerous centenarians, Lopez teases out the overlapping elements that create the physical and psychological conditions conducive to a long life.
Some are not surprising, while others truly do make you stop and assess the way you live your life.
Lopez’s research extends from a “Blue Zone” (places where the percentage of centenarians is unusually high) expedition to the region in 2007, funded by National Geographic and CNN. Second only to Sardinia in its proportion of centenarians, Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula is a statistical anomaly worth studying, and Lopez does a tremendous job of bringing the humanity and energy of her interview subjects to life through extensive quotations and photographs that could easily have come from the pages of National Geographic. The vitality and spirit of the people in those photographs is proof enough that what is revealed in the text works.
It should come as no surprise, after reading this book, that Costa Rica is also often voted one of the happiest places on Earth. Happiness cannot be underestimated when it comes to longevity. The Harvard Grant and Glueck Study took place over 75 years and showed that strong relationships make people happy and keep them healthy. I had watched a TED talk a few years ago by the director of the study, Robert Waldinger, who is quoted in this book. The talk is available on YouTube.
Lopez’s mother is from Guanacaste, the region where the study area is situated and it was a place she visited as a child. That history gives an underlying connective energy to the narrative that would not have been possible were she an outsider.
Some of the most striking common features of centenarians in the region are that their culture and society are collective. With resources scarce and material comforts not a priority, the people of Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula rely on each other. Out of this comes a respect for the elders of the community—a practice sadly lacking in the United States, where we now talk about Ageism and the Sandwich Generation and the gaps between youth and their elders are not so much learning opportunities as a source of mutual disrespect.
Another feature is a deep faith in God in an area where the Catholic Church’s influence is strong. As America becomes increasingly secular, it will be important to see if a common spirituality emerges or if Atheism and its danger of leading to Nihilism and despondency will prevail.
Community cannot be emphasized enough. The centenarians interviewed are “optimistic and easy-going” and exhibit “low neuroticism.” They love music (especially marimba) and dancing and gathering together with members of all generations. They also take great pride in their ability to care for themselves. The centenarians in Costa Rica began work at a young age and continued working until they were in their eighties or, in some cases, their nineties. And the work was hard—in the fields from dawn to dusk—but fulfilling. They were all walkers as well, sometimes covering miles in a day.
A similar case study can be found in the Introduction to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, where he discusses the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, which has an Italian immigrant community with many of the same dynamics as in the Nicoya Peninsula. Not surprisingly, the people are atypically happy, healthy, and living long lives free of disease and addiction.
100 Secrets is gorgeous, with a colorful and inviting graphical layout that allows Lopez to present the core data in numerous, easily digestible and memorable formats. A table in the back charts the centarians’ names, key characteristics, and related quotes.  
The Recipes section highlights the diet of the centenarians, which is a crucial component of their longevity and, more important—their vitality. I intend to try them all.
In one of the review blurbs that open the book, author Doug Smith reports that “someone born today has a 50/50 chance of living to 100.” It is important to keep in mind that quantity is nothing without quality. I have seen evidence of this over and over with members of my family. So if it is your goal to be a centenarian, apply the characteristics, mindsets, habits, and try the recipes shared by Lopez—they will make the difference.  

It should be noted in closing that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book will go toward supporting Costa Rica’s centenarians. Just one more reason to buy this book and start applying its lessons without delay.