Finding Your Own Blue Zone

I had been living in Glenview, IL, for more than a decade when I began noticing a group of about 6-8 men, likely retirees, gathering together outside my local Starbucks every morning. Even during the pandemic, when almost all group activities had either ground to a halt or shifted to zoom, these guys were sitting outside and clearly enjoying each other’s company. They were always chatting, laughing and greeting many fellow patrons by name. So I started to think of them as the ‘Starbucks Crew.’

Seeing these men gathering regularly made me think of a presentation on Blue Zones that I attended several years ago.  Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and Bestselling Author, researched and wrote about Blue Zones, clusters of longevity marked by lifestyle choices contributing to a lower incidence of cancers, heart disease, dementia and depression. My neighborhood Starbucks group reminded me of the women in Okinawa, Japan, and their “moia” or strong circle of friendships that Buettner chronicled in his book.

The connection between friendships and longevity is undeniable. An October 2022 scholarly article in the Journal of Nature reviews the effects of social isolation on the brain in the pandemic era. More than 20 years after ‘Blue Zone’ research began, scientific research cited in the article confirms one very important dimension of Blue Zones: “In humans, the single best predictor of physical health and well-being, as well as future longevity, is the number and quality of close friendships, with the more conventional suspects (such as diet, obesity, alcohol consumption and air quality) ranking a distant second.”

A stranger is a friend I haven’t met yet.

Dan Buettner

So how did this group of local men create their own version of a Blue Zone? When I finally worked up the courage to approach them recently, they weren’t sure why or how these daily gatherings started, but it quickly became, as one described, ‘sacred time.’ When the meetups had first started, many of the men were still working full time, but they found ways to regularly carve out an hour window to connect with the group. One said, “I’d come here on Saturdays, or on a workday, I’d leave at 9 and just start work later.”

As we age, the spontaneous moments we shared with our friends – hanging out after school as teens or at happy hours in our 20s – are so often derailed by the structure of our adult lives. Like many women, I try to counter that by scheduling friendship time into my busy life. Monthly book clubs, church activities, early morning Saturday walks… But for the Starbucks Crew, it’s the lack of structure, or obligation that perhaps makes this meetup work so well. As one shared, “I get home, and the missus has the whole day planned.” Instead, this is time when there is no agenda, with a few even comparing it to Seinfeld, with the joy being found in being ‘about nothing.’

They had never heard about the concept of ‘Blue Zones,’ but readily admitted their gatherings could likely help them live longer, more fulfilling lives. “We’re all here, we’re growing, not shrinking,” one of the tenured members of the group pointed out. During our first conversation, they quickly introduced me to Georgio, the senior member of the group who at 91 practically jumped from his chair to shake my hand. I was a little concerned when on a recent Saturday I did not see Georgio with the group, so I asked if all was ok with him. His absence was explained with a smile, “Nah, he’s fine, just out in Vegas with his son enjoying the slots.”

In the years since Dan Buettner published his first book on Blue Zones, an entire cottage industry has arisen to encourage the creation of Blue Zone communities around the country. You can find books and projects promoting the diet, exercise and community elements that support healthy aging. In August, Tufts Medicine’s Lowell General Hospital near Boston announced its collaboration with a community organization to help residents of this formerly industrial exurb make the lifestyle choices designed to help them thrive as they move through life.  

While the investment and intentionality of projects like the one near Boston is admirable, I think the Starbucks Crew is more like the communities Mr. Buettner highlighted in the conference I attended. These gatherings have been ingrained into the daily lives of these men, bringing energy and purpose to each day—not to mention inspiring all who encounter them to reflect on ways we can create our own better friendship habits.

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