The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life
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As the famous saying in Okinawa goes “At 70 you are but children, at 80 you are merely a youth, and at 90 if the ancestors invite you into heaven, ask them to wait until you are 100, and then you might consider it”
Okinawa is an island, South of mainland Japan, containing some of the world’s longest-living humans. On average, men live until 84 and women until 90. There is also a very high concentration of people who are 100 or more. Even the oldest Okinawans are considered healthy and have the emotional, physical, and intellectual capacity to live and function independently.
Those who study why the inhabitants of this island in the south of Japan live longer than people anywhere else in the world believe that one of the keys – in addition to a healthy diet, a simple life in the outdoors, green tea, and the subtropical climate – is the ikigai that shapes their lives. Ikigai. Iki meaning “to live” and gai meaning “reason” or as we would say in English, Ikigai means your reason to live. This is why in this summary we will be learning about Ikigai and other things people of Okinawa do to live a long and happy life from the book of Ikigai.
Each individual’s ikigai is personal to them and specific to their lives, values, and beliefs. It reflects the inner self of an individual and expresses that faithfully, while simultaneously creating a mental state in which the individual feels at ease. Activities that allow one to feel ikigai are never forced on an individual; they are often spontaneous, and always undertaken willingly, giving the individual satisfaction and a sense of meaning to life.
1. Find and Follow Your Ikigai
In the culture of Okinawa, ikigai is thought of as “a reason to get up in the morning”; that is, a reason to enjoy life. Okinawans, especially the old ones, discovered that early on, and can easily describe the ‘why’ behind their daily life. They have a reason for getting up in the morning, which means they have something to live for. Ikigai is the philosophy that blissfully keeps them busy until the end of their days.
Most of us from other cultures are confused. We follow a path that society has created for us, living by someone else’s standards. We do many things all the time and don’t really pay attention to our own deepest desires. We rarely find out our purpose and passions in life. And even if we get close, we are all-too-often afraid to admit to them, and to follow them.
To find this reason or purpose, ask yourself these 4 questions;
- What do I love?
- What am I good at?
- What does the world need from me? and
- What can I get paid for?
As we all know, your personal happiness relies on much more than simply having a career and getting a paycheck. Likewise, only doing things you love or doing things you are good at is not enough to sustain you financially if you don’t know how to turn it into a paying job. Hence your ikigai lies at the center of four interconnecting circles. Each of these elements helps contribute to your happiness; all four are crucial to your “reason for being”.
Finding and embracing your ikigai is one of the first steps to a long, happy life. Without it, you’ll just wander through life, holding onto material things, memories from the past or other people. You’ll jump from one goal to another, from one daily task to the next. And you’ll rarely know why you do all that. According to Psychology Today “Individuals who believe their lives are worth living live longer.”
2. Take it slow
Okinawa is known for its slow paced life. Slow living is a lifestyle emphasizing slower approaches to aspects of everyday life. People here are passionate about everything they do, however insignificant it might seem. They have an important purpose in life. They have an ikigai, but they don’t always take it too seriously. They are relaxed and enjoy all that they do. They celebrate all the time, even little things. Music, song, and dance are essential parts of daily life.
We live in a world in which technology is continually invented that saves us time. We use that time to do more and more things, and so – somewhat counter-intuitively – our lives become more hectic and fast-paced than ever. Life moves at such breakneck-speed that it seems to pass us by before we can really enjoy it.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. A slower-paced life means making time to enjoy your mornings, instead of rushing off to work in a frenzy. It means taking time to enjoy whatever you’re doing, to appreciate the outdoors, to actually focus on whomever you’re talking to or spending time with – instead of always being connected to a smartphone or laptop, instead of always thinking about work tasks and emails.
Slowing down is a conscious choice, and not always an easy one, but it leads to a greater appreciation for life and a greater level of happiness.
3. Don’t fill your stomach
The mortality rate from cardiovascular disease in Okinawa is the lowest in Japan, and diet almost certainly has a lot to do with this.
The “Okinawa diet” includes at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, of at least seven types. 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 only about 1,900 calories, significantly less than the average number of calories consumed by a typical American, especially those who are middle-aged. They also eat practically half as much salt as the rest of Japan: 7 grams per day, compared to an average of 12.
They practice this Confucian teaching called Hara hachi bu which instructs people to eat only until they are 80% full. There is a significant calorie gap between when an American says, ‘I’m full’ and an Okinawan says, ‘I’m no longer hungry.’ This cultural practice of calorie restriction and mindful eating is part of the reason that Okinawa has a higher percentage of centenarians than anywhere else in the world. We too can make changes to our eating patterns or environment, enjoy food, and learn to eat only until we are 80 percent full and put the secret of hara hachi bu into practice for improved health or for weight loss.
Ways to get started include;
- Eating slowly – Eating faster results in eating more. If we slow down, we will be mindful and will be able to allow our body to respond to cues, which tell us we are no longer hungry.
- Focusing on food – If you’re going to eat, just eat. This way you’ll eat more slowly, consume less and savour 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 and 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 and you’ll see they’re a lot smaller than the ones in your kitchen cabinet!
4. Surround yourself with good friends
In small neighborhoods across Okinawa, friends “meet for a common purpose” sometimes daily and sometimes a couple of days a week to gossip, experience life, and to share advice and even financial assistance when needed. They call these groups their moai. The term originated hundreds of years ago as a means for a village’s financial support system.
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, groups of about five young children were paired together and it’s then that they made a commitment to each other for life. As their second family, they would meet regularly with their moai for both work and play and to pool resources. Some of moais have lasted over 90 years.
Research shows that friends can affect your health even more than family and people with the most friends tend to outlive those with the fewest by 22 percent. Keep in mind that this means real friends. Not Facebook friends or Twitter followers.
The key isn’t to try to have a tons of friends, because superficial, distant, and less than meaningful relationships will only lead to feelings of insecurity and loneliness, which will increase your risk of illness and death just as much as obesity, alcoholism, and smoking.
The key is to have three or four very good friends that care for you the same way you care for them. The easiest way to develop close friendships is by thinking about what you can do that will help the people closest to you be happier, and then do it.
The Okinawans are very cheerful and there is always a smile on their face. They believe that it’s good to recognize the things that aren’t so great, but we should never forget what a privilege it is to be in the here and now in a world so full of possibilities. One of the secrets of their long life is smiling and having a good time. This cheerful attitude is not only relaxing, it also helps them to make new friends. There are no bars and only a few restaurants in Ogimi, but those who live there enjoy a rich social life that revolves around community centers. The truth is it takes 46 muscles to frown and only 17 to smile.
When we smile, we’re happy or we’ve heard something funny. It occurs when we see a person that we love or win a competition.
Smiling does more than just tell other people that you’re happy. Besides the fact that it comes naturally, there are numerous other benefits to smiling. Smiling lowers the heart rate and reduces blood pressure, while relaxing your body. A study from London University College stated that happy, cheerful people are 35% more likely to live longer.
Smiling can help you make more money and move up career ladder. It makes you appear confident, professional and self-assured. Those who smile at their colleagues and customers are more likely to get promoted, be approached with business ideas or get a raise.
People who smile seem more trustworthy, and are rated higher in generosity and extraversion. So don’t forget to take your smile with you everywhere you go!
6. Reconnect with nature
In Okinawa, virtually everyone keeps a vegetable garden, and most of them also have fields of tea, mangoes, shikuwasa, and so on. They say that anybody who wants to grow old healthily needs an ikigai, or reason for living. Gardening gives you that something to get up for every day.”
Getting together at the local market, bringing their produce and sharing their latest creations from the garden is a big social activity. This helps people feel connected and grounded. A sense of connection to other people is important, but so too is the individual connection to nature. One Harvard University study showed that people who were 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 in paintings and videos can have positive impacts on our brains, bodies, feelings, thought processes, and social interactions. In particular, viewing nature seems to be inherently rewarding, producing a cascade of positive emotions and calming our nervous systems. This in turn helps us to cultivate greater openness, creativity, connection, generosity, and resilience.
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. We have midlife crises, travel to ‘find ourselves’, fight depression with pills, change jobs and cars but, but somehow, we cannot fill that void. 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 today we don’t need to hunt for food or collect wood for fire every other day in the winter, there are easy ways to reconnect with nature, like growing a plant in your house, playing with your pet, eating your lunch in the park, watching the sun rise or set or going on a trek, sleeping under the stars, and so on. Even if you can’t or don’t want to leave your comfortable urban life, get out there and be wild every now and then. If you do that regularly, you will start to get drawn towards nature.
7. Give thanks
The people of Okinawa give thanks to the smallest of things. They give thanks to their ancestors, to nature for providing the air and the food, to their family and friends, to everything that brightens their day and makes them feel lucky to be alive. They also have the special Naha tug of war festival to give thanks for a good harvest.
Gratitude has produced such miraculous results for people that scientists have been seriously studying the practice of gratefulness and its physical and psychosocial benefits.
One study conducted by the University of Berkeley, California, divided participants into 3 groups and asked them to maintain a journal for 10 weeks. One group was asked to write a list of 10 things they were grateful for over the past week. The second group was asked to list 10 minor annoyances in the past week and the third group was asked to write about 10 things that impacted their lives in the past week, but with no further direction. At the end of 10 weeks, people from the first group were reported feeling 25% happier than the other groups.
Apart from increasing your happiness levels, gratitude also improves our physical health. It lowers our stress levels. While stress causes heart attacks and other chronic conditions, gratitude leads to a positive outlook and spurs an optimistic approach to life. Optimism in turn increases immunity-boosting cells.
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, family, your material goods, your health, and various other blessings in your lives. When we are truly thankful and we feel it deep inside us, we are grateful.
Feeling grateful forces our minds to adopt an abundance mindset as opposed to a scarcity-based one, where you feel you are lacking something. An abundant mindset is key to our growth and well-being.
In Okinawa, people over eighty and ninety years old are still highly active. They don’t stay at home looking out the window or waste time reading the newspaper. They walk a lot, do karaoke with their neighbors, get up early in the morning, and, as soon as they’ve had breakfast – or even before – head outside to weed their gardens. They don’t go to the gym or exercise intensely, but they almost never stop moving in the course of their daily routines. With regular access to sunshine and exercise, they are healthier, with stronger bones, higher vitamin levels, and in a brighter mood.
The real reason we don’t exercise is our desire to avoid any experience of discomfort. The truth is in order to stay healthy, you don’t need to go to the gym for an hour every day or run marathons. As Japanese centenarians show us, all you need is to add movement to our day. Practicing any of these Eastern disciplines like Yoga, Qigong and Tai chi is a great way to seek harmony between your body and mind so that you can face the world with strength, joy, and serenity. These gentle exercises offer extraordinary health benefits, and are particularly appropriate for anyone who has a harder time staying fit.
9. Live in the moment
Japanese professionals are renowned for their perseverance and absorption in their tasks, with a thorough attention to detail. We see this in all kinds of contexts, from the old people of Okinawa working on their garden, to the college students working the weekend shift in convenience stores. 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. The experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.
Imagine yourself climbing a great mountain. High above the ground, you move very deliberately, 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; nothing exists but you and this mountain. Time seems to slow down and your mind shifts into a new space. A sense of vibrancy of being ‘alive’, connectedness and peace infuse your being. You’re in the zone. This is the moment. There is no past, no future, just now. You are in your flow.
You don’t need a mountain each time to enter into the flow. If you often find yourself losing focus while working on something you consider important, there are several strategies you can employ to increase your chances of achieving flow like focusing all of your attention in the present moment, avoiding multitasking or unplugging from social media.
The most effective way of achieving this flow is by choosing a task that’s difficult, but not too difficult. Every task, sport, or job has a set of rules, and we need a set of skills to follow them. If the rules for completing a task or achieving a purpose are too basic relative to our skillset, we will likely get bored. Activities that are too easy lead to apathy. If, on the other hand, we assign ourselves a task that is too difficult, we won’t have the skills to complete it and will almost certainly give up – and feel frustrated. The ideal is to find a middle path, something aligned with our abilities but just enough of a bit of a stretch, so we experience it as a challenge. We want to see challenges through to the end because we enjoy the feeling of accomplishment pushing ourselves.
If you’re a graphic designer, learn a new software program for your next project. Add a little something extra, something that takes you out of your comfort zone. This will create a win-win situation for you and your work.
We can also use this strategy in achieving flow in doing the most mundane tasks like laundry, for example, washing dishes or paperwork. Bill Gates washes the dishes every night. He says he enjoys it – that it helps him relax and clear his mind, and that he tries to do it a little better each day, following an established order or set of rules he’s made for himself: plates first, forks second, and so on. It’s one of his daily moments of microflow. We too can get done with these mundane tasks by trying to do them better than we did it the last time.
Flow is mysterious. It is like a muscle: the more you train it, the more you will flow, and the closer you will be to your Ikigai.
10. Never retire
It’s interesting to note that in the Okinawan language there isn’t a word for retirement. Older Okinawans can readily articulate the reason why they get up in the morning. They live intentional, purposeful lives. They feel needed, they matter, they contribute and as a result they live longer than most.
There, retirement is not looked upon favourably since it implies that once you retire you will cease to do anything at all, become a burden on society and stop following your passions.
The idea is to keep mind and body active in order to fill yourself with purpose and ikigai on a daily basis. We think of retirement as an ultimate destination of well-earned rest from the battlefield of a career. We think of retirement as a golden age of holidays, golf, coffees and, well, mostly one form of recreation or another.
Retirement kills your ikigai. We need to stop spending so much time worrying about making more money and our eventual retirement and instead we should be focusing our efforts on making a great life while we still have the time. So never retire. Keep learning, keep changing and keep growing.
We hope you find your Ikigai and live a very long and happy life.
In Review: Ikigai Book Summary
The key message in this book:
Living a long, happy, healthy life depends on eating well and getting plenty of exercise, but longevity extends beyond such simple daily practices. By finding a purpose that drives you each and every day, you can focus your energy and extend your years on earth.
Bask in the beauty of imperfection.
In Japanese culture, there’s a belief that only imperfect objects, like a cracked teacup, can be truly beautiful. This concept is known as wabi-sabi, and it can help you find more enjoyment in your day-to-day life. So, try to let go of the quest for perfection that’s so common in life, and instead accept the beauty that lies in all of life’s imperfections. The result will be extra energy, less stress, and a longer life.
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New to StoryShots? Get the audiobook and animated summaries of Ikigai and hundreds of other bestsellers in our free top-ranking app. It’s been featured #1 by Apple, The UN, and The Guardian.