Do you want to live a happy life? How about a long one? And what if you could magically have both?
That’s exactly what the concept of Ikigai offers.
The concept draws on Japanese philosophy practiced in the Blue Zones of Japan, areas containing the highest concentration of centenarians in the world.
Main takeaway: Ikigai is your reason for living.
It’s a way of life that offers:
- A long life
- A sense of purpose
- Deep happiness
If this sounds appealing, the Ikigai summary, based on the book by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, is compulsory reading.
Ikigai boils down to our inner motivation for a specific professional activity.
It falls at the intersection of four essential elements:
- What you’re passionate about
- Where your skills lie
- How you earn a living
- What the world needs
Some people find their meaning quickly, while others must search for longer.
But search you must, for ultimately, meaning is what gets us out of bed in the morning.
This is why Okinawans are often specialists in their craft and masters of attention – even to the extent that one practitioner had perfected the art of attaching individual hairs to a paintbrush.
Whether your ikigai stems from your job or hobby, you should never retire or give up.
If Okinawans are forced to retire, they engage in other active pursuits, such as gardening and community work, a philosophy which research has shown to improve health outcomes and longevity.
A healthy mind and body are key to longevity, even though the former is often ignored.
- A sedentary lifestyle affects our physical wellbeing
- Lack of mental stimulation affects our psychological wellbeing (by weakening neural connections – it is thought that elderly individuals suffer from becoming trapped in their patterns and routines)
Therefore, it’s essential we exercise our brains. How?
- Games like chess are cards are fine. But for better results:
- Get out of the house
- Meet people
- Socialise (counter loneliness)
Another important secret to cultivating longevity is the avoidance of stress, which has been shown to stimulate an immune response in the absence of infection, leading to faster ageing.
To reduce stress:
- Use mindfulness
- Practice yoga
Stress and burnout of common components of modern life, especially in a work-fueled Japanese society.
Luckily, they have Morita therapy, originally developed to treat OCD and anxiety, but also effective in combating stress.
Whereas Western therapies tend to focus on changing thoughts that influence our feelings and actions, Morita Therapy takes the opposite approach by asking patients to simply pay attention to their feelings without trying to change them.
From there, they engage in new actions to simulate new emotions, which gradually replace the old ones.
There are four stages to the process:
- Complete rest – bed rest for one week, with no distractions or visitors
- Repetitive activities – incorporate activities into daily routine – diary writing, walking, breathing exercises
- Physical and creative pursuits – wood cutting and painting, for example, promoting tranquillity and joy
- Re-integration – having been rebalanced, the patient is ready to re-enter the world and start the Ikigai process of discovering where to focus their attention
Flow is a concept coined by psychologist Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970’s and it occurs when we’re so engaged in an activity that we lose all concept of time, such is our level of immersion and joy.
Perhaps you experience such feelings with your favourite hobby, to the point that you forget to eat or go to sleep on time.
Not only can such activities increase our enjoyment of life, but also increase our longetivity.
As such we should pursue such experiences over short-term hedonistic pleasures like overeating and media consumption, which are often just a hedge against boredom.
Ideally, our Ikigai activity will produce such feelings, but failing that, our hobbies should.
Pro tip: Your flow activity must be difficult enough to keep you engaged but not so hard as to be offputting.
Therefore, as a beginner to a new activity/hobby, start gently. As a pro, push your boundaries.
Here’s some time-tested advice from Okinawan centenarians:
- Make of habit of greeting others, including strangers, with a smile and open heart. This will maintain friendships, please the grandchildren and provide constant stimulation.
- Don’t worry about what you can’t change, such as whether you’re good/successful enough (career etc.), as it drains energy and causes unnecessary stress.
- Rather, enjoy what you have. You have more than you think.
- Focus on good habits, like waking up early, to provide more quiet time to drink tea, clean the house and tend the garden.
- Grow your own vegetables and cook your own food, for a healthy diet.
- Maintain your friendships. Okinawans speak to their neighbours daily.
Research shows that the Okinawan diet contains incredible variety, comprising over 206 different foods, including numerous herbs and spices.
Every day they eat five separate portions of fruits and vegetables and ensure variety with plates of food containing the colours of the rainbow.
- Thanks to it’s variety, it’s relatively simply fare
- Has a base of grains – rice or noodles
- Their diet contains 60% less sugar and 50% less salt than the rest of Japan
Variety is essential, but so is portion size.
Okinawans recommend a concept called ‘hara hachi bu’, which means we stop eating when we’re 80% full and remain slightly hungry. To achieve it either:
- Avoid desert
- Reduce portion size – using small plates
Research supports this approach. Fewer calories limit insulin-like growth factor 1, a protein which ages cells faster.
Therefore, smaller portions is correlated with longer life.
Green tea (particularly popular in Okinawa) is packed with antioxidants, and is shown to:
- Reduce bad cholesterol
- Stabilise blood sugar
- Improve circulation
- Prevent infection
Locals even add Jasmine to the tea, which improves cardiovascular health and immune function.
Alternatively, try white tea, which is even more antioxidant-rich.
Another superfood consumed by Okinawans is the antioxidant-loaded citrus fruit ‘Shikuwasa’.
If you can’t get your hands on that, try the following:
- Other citrus fruits – lemons/oranges
Physical activity, including simple, regular movement is essential for a long and happy life.
For Okinawans, it’s not the intensity of the activity but the constancy of movement.
- Walking around their neighborhoods
- Working in their gardens
- Singing karaoke
This approach is supported by science, with prolonged sitting linked to detrimental health effects.
Even though moving for five minutes every half and hour has been shown to mitigate the impact, most office workers neglect this practice.
Also Okinawans, like the rest of Japan, engage in ‘Radio Taiso’, a simple society-wide exercise routine practised in schools, businesses and other groups.
- For a long happy and life, find your Ikigai, or ‘reason for living’. In the West, we might consider this our life purpose.
- It’s found at the intersect of your passion, skills, potential for making a living and what the world needs
- It’s why Okinawans are masters in their craft and the art of paying attention
- When you’ve discovered your Ikigai, never give up or retire
- Longevity can be cultivated with a healthy mind and body.
- In Japan, Morita therapy is often used to combat stress through mindful awareness. Additionally, physical and mental stimulation are essential.
- Ideally, our Ikigai will produce feelings of flow, where we become completely absorbed by our chosen pursuit.
- Reduce stress, focus on friendships, maintain good habits, eat a healthy diet and keeping moving regularly for a long and happy life.
- In Japan, the concept of ‘wabi-sabi’, emphasises that beauty can only be found in imperfection (like a cracked teacup). This approach can help us cease the quest for perfection and find more enjoyment in the day-to-day, however imperfect it may be.