The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life
Life gets busy. Has Ikigai been sitting on your reading list? Learn its 10 rules now.
Disclaimer: This is an unofficial summary and analysis.
Introduction and Ikigai Meaning
Why is Okinawa referred to as the island of (almost) eternal youth? Why is it home to so many centenarians?
Ikigai is at the heart of Okinawan culture and is one key to its health and prosperity. Okinawa is an island to the south of mainland Japan, containing some of the world’s longest-living humans. On average, men live up to 84 years and women until 90. Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, lived among Okinawans and gained a first-hand account of why these people are healthier, happier and live longer than anywhere else in the world.
Researchers have identified that their diet, simple outdoor lifestyles, and subtropical climate are three reasons for their longevity. However, it is Ikigai that shapes their lives.
Iki means “to live,” and gai means “reason.” Therefore, Ikigai is a reason to live. Each individual’s ikigai is personal to them and specific to their lives, values, and beliefs. It reflects the inner self and creates a mental state in which the individual feels at ease.
About Héctor García and Francesc Miralles
Héctor García is a Japanese-Spanish author who has written several books about Japanese culture, including two worldwide bestsellers, A Geek in Japan and Ikigai. A former software engineer, Héctor worked at CERN in Switzerland before moving to Japan. He has now lived in Tokyo for over 16 years.
Francesc Miralles is a Catalan international award-winning author of self-help and inspirational books. His bestselling novel Love in Lowercase has been translated into twenty languages. Miralles too lived in Okinawa, Japan.
It was while living in Okinawa that Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles had the opportunity to interview more than a hundred villagers about their philosophy for a long and happy life.
Here are the 10 rules of Ikigai:
StoryShot #1: Find and Follow Your Ikigai
The Japanese word ikigai is a difficult word to translate. It roughly means “a reason for being” and is often translated as “a reason to live”.
In Okinawa, people view ikigai as the ‘why’ behind their daily life. It is important for them to find their ikigai, and they understand that doing so will bring them happiness and fulfillment.
Ikigai is the philosophy that blissfully gives them purpose until the end of their days.
In contrast, other cultures follow a path that society has created for them. We live by someone else’s standards and set aside our own desires. Because of this, we rarely find our purpose and passions in life.
As we all know, happiness relies on much more than just having a career and getting a paycheck. Likewise, only doing things we love or doing things we are good at is not enough to sustain us financially. Hence, one’s ikigai lies at the center of four interconnecting circles. Each of these elements helps contribute to our happiness; all four are crucial to our “reason for being.”
To help you live more mindfully and find your ikigai, ask yourself these four questions:
- What do I love?
- What am I good at?
- What does the world need from me?
- What can I get paid for?
Finding and embracing your ikigai is one of the first steps to a long, happy life. Without it, you’ll wander through life, holding on to material objects, memories from the past, or other people. You’ll jump from one goal to another, from one daily task to the next.
StoryShot #2: Take it Slow
Okinawa is known for its slow-paced way of life. The people here are passionate about everything they do, however insignificant it might seem. They strive to do their best in anything they do.
This is because they have an ikigai. But while this is the case, they don’t feel pressured by it and enjoy all that they do. They celebrate the time they have, even the little joys in life. Subsequently, music and dance are essential parts of daily living.
Ikigai helps Okinawa residents be more mindful in their daily lives. The concept of ikigai has its roots in Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes the importance of living in the present moment and keeping an open mind.
For most of us, it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life and forget to slow down and be mindful. Technology has helped us save time, but we use our spare time to do other tasks instead of rest.
A slower-paced life means taking time to enjoy your mornings, instead of rushing to work in a frenzy. It means taking time to enjoy whatever you’re doing, to appreciate the outdoors, and to focus on whomever you’re talking to.
Slowing down is a conscious decision and not always an easy one. However, it leads to a greater appreciation for life and greater happiness.
“Being in a hurry is inversely proportional to quality.”— Héctor García and Francesc Miralles
StoryShot #3: Don’t Fill Your Stomach
The Okinawan Diet
Okinawa is home to the largest population of centenarians—people who have lived to the age of 100 or more. Okinawa has the highest concentration of centenarians in the world, with over 14 per 10,000 people.
So, what’s the secret to their longevity? One factor may be their diet.
The “Okinawa diet” includes at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, with small amounts of fish and lean meat. Typical items include tofu, miso, bitter melon, seaweed, soy sprouts, peppers, and green tea. They rarely eat sugar, and, if they do, it’s cane sugar. The average daily intake of an Okinawan is about 1,900 calories. This is significantly less than the average number of calories consumed by a typical American. They also eat almost half as much salt as the rest of Japan: 7 grams per day, compared to an average of 12.
Hara Hachi Bu
Okinawans also practice a Confucian teaching called Hara Hachi Bu. Hara Hachi Bu is a traditional Okinawan saying that means “eat until you are 80 percent full.” The idea is that you should stop eating when you are no longer feeling hungry, rather than continue to eat until you feel stuffed.
This philosophy of eating is based on the belief that it is better to stop eating before you feel too full, as it can lead to indigestion and other health problems. It also supports Okinawans with the highest percentage of centenarians in the world.
Ways to get started include:
- Eat slowly – Eating faster results in eating more. If we slow down, we will be mindful and allow our body to respond to cues, telling us we are no longer hungry.
- Focus on food – If you’re going to eat, just eat. This way, you’ll eat more slowly, consume less, and savor the food more.
- Use small vessels – If you choose to eat on smaller plates and use tall, narrow glasses, your brain believes it’s had more portions. You’re likely to eat significantly less without even thinking about it. Don’t believe me? Look at the size of your plate next time you’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet. You’ll see they’re a lot smaller than the ones in your kitchen cabinet.
“One easy way to start applying the concept of hara hachi bu is to skip dessert. Or to reduce portion size. The idea is to still be a little bit hungry when you finish.”– Héctor García and Francesc Miralles
StoryShot #4: Surround Yourself With Good Friends
Friendship is a close relationship between two people. It’s based on mutual trust and respect. It’s different from other relationships because it’s voluntary, and it’s built on shared experiences and common interests.
In small neighborhoods across Okinawa, the concept of friendship is deep and close. Okinawa is a small island, so people here know each other well. So, there is a strong sense of community and connectedness.
Okinawans believe true friends are those who stick by you through thick and thin. These close relationships provide support and stability during good times and bad.
As a result, Okinawans place a lot of value on maintaining strong relationships with their friends. This is reflected in the way they interact every day. For example, Okinawans often take the time to catch up with their friends over a cup of tea or coffee, and they are always willing to lend a listening ear. They also often go out of their way to help their friends, even if they are not asked to do so. This willingness to help others is one of the many things that make Okinawan culture so special.
And they do this for their community, called Moai. The term originated hundreds of years ago and traditionally meant a social support group for a village.
Originally, Moais were formed to pool the resources of an entire village for projects or public works. Today, the idea has expanded to become more of a social support network, a cultural tradition for built-in companionship. Traditionally, five young children were grouped together and committed to living as a Moai. As their second family, they regularly met with their Moai for work, play, and pool resources. Some Moais have lasted over 90 years.
Research shows that friends can affect your health even more than family. People with the most friends tend to outlive those with the fewest by 22 percent. Keep in mind that this means real friends. The authors point out that Facebook friends and Twitter followers do not count.
The key isn’t to try to have several friends. Superficial and distant relationships will only lead to feelings of insecurity and loneliness. These emotions increase your risk of illness and death, as much as obesity, alcoholism, and smoking. The key is to have three or four good friends that care for you the same way you care for them. The easiest way to develop close friendships is to think about what you can do to help the people closest to you be happier.
StoryShot #5: Smile
Being from Okinawa brings its challenges. The island is small and remote, which can sometimes make it difficult to access essential goods and services. And yet, the people of Okinawa are some of the most cheerful people you’ll ever meet.
Okinawans believe it’s wise to recognize the things that aren’t so great. For them, smiling is a way to stay positive and motivated. It’s also a way to show strength in the face of adversity.
One of the secrets of their long life is smiling and having a good time. This cheerful attitude is not only relaxing, but also helps them make new friends. There are no bars and only a few restaurants in Ogimi, a small village on the northern side of Okinawa. However, those who live in Ogimi enjoy a rich social life that revolves around community centers.
Smiling does more than tell other people you’re happy. Smiling lowers your heart rate and reduces blood pressure, while relaxing your body. A study from University College London found that cheerful people are 35 percent more likely to live longer.
“A happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell on the future.”― Héctor García and Francesc Miralles
StoryShot #6: Reconnect With Nature
Gardening in Okinawa
They say anyone who wants to grow old needs an ikigai, or a reason for living. Gardening gives you something to get up for every day. In Okinawa, virtually everyone keeps a vegetable garden, and most of them also have fields of tea, mangoes, and shikuwasa.
Getting together at the local market and sharing the produce from their garden is an important social activity for Okinawans. This activity helps people feel connected and grounded. A sense of connection to other people is essential, and so is their connection with nature.
A Harvard University study showed that people surrounded by lush greenery lived longer, with a lower chance of developing cancer or respiratory illnesses. Over 100 studies have shown that being in nature, living near nature, or even viewing nature can positively impact our lives. Spending time in nature, in particular, appears inherently rewarding, producing a cascade of positive emotions and calming our nervous systems. This, in turn, helps us cultivate greater openness, creativity, connection, generosity, and resilience.
Nature and Cities
With more than half of the world’s population living in cities, we have lost touch with nature. The rat race sucks up our time and energy, leaving us feeling stressed, anxious, or like we have lost meaning. Our lives revolve around paying bills, buying things we don’t actually need, drinking to feel something, and staring at a computer screen.
Even though we don’t need to hunt for food anymore, there are easy ways to reconnect with nature. For example, grow a plant in your house, play with your pet, watch the sunrise, go on a trek, or sleep under the stars. Even if you can’t or don’t want to leave your comfortable urban life, you can go on vacation. Get out there and enjoy the wilderness. If you do that regularly, you will start to get drawn toward nature.
When we take the time to slow down and appreciate the beauty of the natural world, we can remember what is truly important in life.
StoryShot #7: Give Thanks
The people of Okinawa give thanks for the smallest of things. They thank their ancestors, nature for providing the air and food, and their family and friends. They even have a special Naha (tug of war) festival to thank for a good harvest.
Gratitude has consistently been associated with positive outcomes. One study conducted by the University of Berkeley, California, divided participants into three groups and asked them to maintain a journal for ten weeks. One group was asked to write a list of ten circumstances they were grateful for over the past week. The second group was asked to list ten minor annoyances in the past week. The third group was asked to write about ten factors that impacted their lives in the past week, but with no further direction. At the end of the ten weeks, people from the first group reported feeling 25 percent happier than the other groups.
Apart from increasing your happiness levels, gratitude also improves your physical health. It lowers stress levels. Stress is associated with heart attacks and other chronic conditions, but can be reduced by adopting gratitude and encouraging optimism. Optimism increases immune-boosting cells. People who express gratitude are more likely to report higher levels of well-being and satisfaction with their lives. They are also more likely to experience less stress and anxiety and be more resilient in the face of adversity.
You can start being grateful by keeping a gratitude journal. Every day, pick three to five things that you’re thankful for and write them down. You could be grateful for your friends, your family, your material goods, or your health. When we are genuinely thankful, and we feel it deep inside us, we are grateful.
StoryShot #8: Exercise
In Okinawa, people over 80 and 90 years old are still highly active. They don’t stay at home, sitting and watching TV. They walk a lot, do karaoke with their neighbors, and get up early in the morning. Okinawans don’t go to the gym or exercise intensely, but they rarely stop moving during their daily routines. With regular access to sunshine and exercise, they are healthier, with stronger bones, higher vitamin levels, and brighter moods.
In addition to their healthy diet and active social lives, Okinawans still talk or bike to work or run errands. Many also participate in traditional dance or martial arts. They stay busy with gardening, walking, and other activities. This lifestyle helps keep their bodies strong and their minds sharp.
Most of us know that we should exercise more, but there always seems to be something more pressing that demands our attention. Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that most of us could benefit from exercising more. As Japanese centenarians show, all you need is light, regular movement in your day. Practicing any Eastern discipline, like Yoga, Qigong, and Tai Chi, is an excellent way to seek harmony between your body and mind. In doing so, you can face the world with strength, joy, and serenity. These gentle exercises offer extraordinary health benefits and are suitable for anyone who struggles to stay fit.
StoryShot #9: Live in the Moment
Flow State in Okinawa
Japanese professionals are renowned for their perseverance and absorption in their tasks, with thorough attention to detail. We see this in several contexts, from the old people of Okinawa working on their gardens to college students studying diligently in libraries. They are always in their flow.
Flow is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. It is characterized by a sense of focus and effortless concentration. It is often associated with positive experiences, such as peak performance, and the experience itself becomes highly enjoyable.
“Concentrating on one thing at a time may be the single most important factor in achieving flow”– Héctor García and Francesc Miralles
Imagine yourself climbing a tall mountain. You are aware of every placement of your foot. There is no room for error; one lapse in attention can cost you your life. You focus intensely, and each move is deliberate; nothing exists but you and this mountain. Time seems to slow down, and your mind shifts into a new space.
Your flow state is the sense of vibrancy of being ‘alive,’ connectedness, and peace that permeates your being. You’re in the zone. This is the moment. There is no past, no future, just now.
It takes a lot of practice and focus to get into a flow state, but once you’ve experienced it, you’ll understand why it’s so important.
“The happiest people are not the ones who achieve the most. They are the ones who spend more time than others in a state of flow.”— Héctor García and Francesc Miralles
Flow State During Mundane Tasks
Not everyone can climb a mountain, so let’s bring the flow state closer to ourselves. Let’s say you’re doing an urgent work task, and you find yourself losing focus. There are many things you can do to help reel yourself in, such as unplugging from social media, taking a break, or refocusing all your attention on the present moment.
The most effective way to achieve flow is by starting with a task you know how to do well, then moving on to more challenging ones. Choosing a task that’s difficult will only frustrate you and cause you to stop and, thus, interrupt your flow. If you go for one that is too easy, you will be bored and, again, stop at that point. However, if you make a list of tasks for yourself and consider the energy you will need to accomplish them, you will be more likely to achieve a flow state.
We can also use this strategy to achieve flow in doing the most mundane tasks, like washing dishes or doing paperwork. Bill Gates washes the dishes every night. He says he enjoys it, as it helps him relax and clear his mind. Crucially, he tries to do it a little better each day. Bill follows an established order or set of rules he’s made for himself: plates first, forks second, etc. It’s one of his daily moments of microflow. We can also enjoy these mundane tasks by attempting to do them better than we did the last time.
Flow is like a muscle: the more you train it, the more you will flow. Hence, the closer you will be to your Ikigai.
StoryShot #10: Never Retire
In Okinawa, there is no word for retirement. Older Okinawans can readily articulate the reason they get up in the morning. They live intentional, purposeful lives. They feel needed, they matter, and they contribute. Subsequently, they live longer than most.
The idea is to keep your mind and body active to fill yourself with purpose and ikigai daily.
We consider retirement to be the ultimate destination of a well-earned rest from the battlefield of a career. We see retirement as a golden age of holidays and gold. However, retirement kills your ikigai. We need to stop spending so much time worrying about making more money and our eventual retirement. Instead, we should focus our efforts on building a fantastic life while still having the time.
So, never retire. Keep learning, keep changing, and keep growing.
“Presented with new information, the brain creates new connections and is revitalized. This is why it is so important to expose yourself to change, even if stepping outside your comfort zone means feeling a bit of anxiety.”– Héctor García and Francesc Miralles
Final Summary and Review of Ikigai
Here are the key insights and the 10 rules of Ikigai in review:
- Find and follow your Ikigai
- Take it slow
- Don’t fill your stomach
- Surround yourself with good friends
- Reconnect with nature
- Give thanks
- Live in the moment
- Never retire
“Life is not a problem to be solved. Just remember to have something that keeps you busy doing what you love while you are surrounded by the people who you love.”— Héctor García and Francesc Miralles
We rate this book 4.5/5.
This article was first published in 2020. It was updated in July 2022.
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Disclaimer: This is an unofficial summary and analysis.
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