We knew it. The moment Panchita would swing the axe to split wood, our students would burst into an uproarious laughter. The video never failed to make them laugh. Although there is seemingly nothing unusual about women chopping wood, especially if they live in a rural area with a wood stove and no central heating, there is something quite special and surprising about a 100 year-old doing so. This is what our students found both humorous and endearing.
It may not seem unusual either for Panchita’s son, Tommy, to ride his bike to visit his mother every day; except that Tommy is 80 years-old and he rides with the stamina of a 20 year-old. Our students loved watching Panchita and Tommy engage in vigorous physical activity. It was both startling and charming. Panchita, who lives in the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, is featured in the Blue Zones Project. The Blue Zones are parts of the world with a significant proportion of centenarians. Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in California, and the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica are some of them.
At 100, Panchita is a fountain of joy and vitality. Although she lives in very modest quarters and lacks many amenities we may take for granted, she is healthy and happy. She gets up at 4 am every morning, sweeps the floors, cooks, chops wood, and collects eggs, fruits and vegetables from her garden. But perhaps most importantly, she receives many visitors every day. By 8 am Tommy is there. Later on family and friends come to help her with various chores around the house. Even though Panchita lives by herself, she is surrounded by a community of caring people. She is valued by folks in her family and village. Despite her old age she still has a role to play. She must look after herself and she must attend to her visitors. She is senior adviser and cheerleader to neighbors and relatives alike. With little food for herself, she shares what she has among friends and strangers. She has just about enough to get by, but no money for extras. Yet, she has a generous spirit and a contagious laughter. Her warmth is engulfing and her optimistic nature uplifting.
In distilling the features that make centenarians unique, Dan Buettner emphasizes a sense of belonging, close relationships with family and friends, and a caring community. In addition to a healthy diet and physical activity, feeling like they matter to family and friends is crucial for their longevity. Feeling valued in the community is essential for health and happiness. Panchita and her co-centenarians live mostly in “We Cultures.” These are communities where young and old care about self and others, about feeling valued and adding value, about rights and responsibilities, and about wellness and fairness. In contrast, in “Me Cultures” people focus mostly on the self and on their right to feel valued and experience wellness.
Members of “We Cultures,” like Panchita, are happier, healthier, and live longer and better lives. In these communities, mattering is not just about the self, but about everyone. Respect is not just a right, but also a responsibility; and the ultimate goal of a good life is not just wellness, but also fairness. Those of us who live “Me Cultures” pay a hefty price. In the Age of COVID-19, we need one another more than ever, but we also need community structures, informed by science, to protect our lives and inform social policy.
Isaac Prilleltensky is an award-winning academic and humor writer. His latest books, The Laughing Guide to Change, and The Laughing Guide to a Better Life, co-authored with Ora Prilleltensky, combine humor with science.