Ikigai - The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life

Japan has the highest life expectancy of any country - 90 for women and for men, 84. Compare this to America where the average life expectancy for women is 81 years old, and 76 for men or to my own home country of South Africa where the life expectancy of men is 51 and women 50; one quickly wonders what the secret is to the longevity of the Japanese.

A long life, a sense of purpose, deep happiness; we all want it. What if all three of these fundamental notions came from the same place! It would be beneficial to study the secret of these residents.

Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles took a journey to Okinawa to uncover some of these secrets which they revealed in their book; Ikigai - The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.

Okinawa; a province island of Japan and more specifically the region of Ogimi has more centenarians per 100,000 people than anywhere else in the world.

Ikigai is a Japanese concept which encompasses your reason for living, your life goal and your source of longevity. This book explains why the Japanese live the longest and are generally regarded as having a more full and happy life.

The three most powerful points I took from the book were;

  1. Those with a reason for living, live a longer life.

  2. Your plate needs to contain all colours of the rainbow

  3. There is beauty in imperfection. The Okinawans call this Wabi Sabi

Your ‘why’ in life is your secret to longevity.

I have set myself a goal to live to a 100 in this system of things. The secret to doing so, according to Hector Garcia in Ikigai – The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, just may be found on the island of Okinawa, in southern Japan, home to the highest concentration of centenarians in the world.

Their secret to longevity may boil down to just one word: Ikigai, which roughly translates to your reason for living – or your inner motivation for a specific professional activity. It can also be described as an intersection between four different elements: what you’re passionate about, where your skills lie, how you can earn a living and what the world needs. Many Japanese believe that everyone has an Ikigai, or destiny, that they were born to fulfil.

However, says Garcia; while some people find their Ikigai quickly, others must seek it out over time. If you fall into this latter category, like me, it’s important to persist; after all, Ikigai will ultimately be what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning.

That’s why Okinawans often attain a high degree of specialization and attention to detail in their daily work. For instance, in an Okinawan paintbrush factory, Garcia met a skilled craftswoman who had spent her entire life perfecting the art of attaching individual hairs to a brush. At this stage in her career, she was able to do her job with stunning accuracy and skill.

What’s more, Ikigai is also the key to longevity, according to Garcia. So, if your Ikigai is your job, you should never retire. And if your Ikigai is a hobby that brings you meaning and joy, don’t ever give it up. Okinawan's abide by these rules and, as a result, remain active late into their 90’s. If they’re forced into retirement, they still find ways to remain active, such as by doing gardening or other work in their communities.

The benefits of this commitment are clear. Medical studies conducted on Okinawan centenarians have found extremely low rates of both heart disease and dementia.

Train your brain

Any doctor can tell you that a healthy mind and body are essential to ageing with grace. In practice, however, the former is often ignored. Such common neglect of the mind is a shame, says Garcia, as it’s just as important to a long life as your physical health. In fact, in the same way that a sedentary lifestyle negatively impacts your body and emotions, a lack of mental work weakens your neural connections, which is why it’s important to exercise your brain in different ways. Garcia notes that neuroscientist Shlomo Breznitz even argues that elderly people lose brain flexibility because they get trapped in patterns and routines, refusing to try out new activities.

Getting out of the house, meeting other people and experiencing social interactions are about the best exercise your brain can get, says Garcia. Another secret to longevity is avoiding stress. In fact, premature aging has been linked to stress in a number of scientific studies, since stressors produce undue wear and tear on the body and the mind.

Garcia gives an example of a case study done at Heidelberg University where a series of strenuous job interviews were administered to an aspiring young doctor, during which he was asked to solve complex mathematical equations. When his blood was then sampled, it indicated that the stress of the interview had caused the release of antibodies, as if he had been infected by a virus or bacteria. If such a threat had existed, this immune response would be essential to wiping it out – but antibodies also attack healthy cells, leading the body to age faster than it should.

Therefore, reducing stress is key to living a long life and you can do it in a number of pleasant ways, says Garcia. Just try practising mindfulness, doing yoga or taking time to exercise, all of which give you a chance to calm down and observe your body and mind more closely.

What is Morita Therapy

We all know that anxiety, burn-out, and stress conditions are becoming more and more common in modern life, and few people can escape them. Japan is no exception according to Garcia. It’s well known that the country’s working culture is quite intense. That being said, Japan has a tool that other countries lack. It’s called Morita therapy, and it can help you cope with stress.

This technique was invented by Shoma Morita, a psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner. Originally, it was developed to deal with chronic anxiety, obsessions and compulsions. However, it also works great for stress and burnout.

Garcia explains that unlike some Western therapies, which tend to focus on using thoughts to influence feelings and actions, say through positive thinking, Morita therapy takes the opposite approach. In Morita therapy, patients are asked to pay attention to and accept their feelings, without attempting to change them. From there, they take particular actions to create new emotions, which gradually replace the old ones.

There are four stages of the therapy, beginning with a phase of complete rest. For around a week, the patient lies in bed, free of all distractions. He/she isn’t allowed to consume media, receive visitors or even speak, and the only human contact is a small amount of supervision by a psychotherapist. During this stage, the patient simply observes her emotions as they come and go.

In the second phase, the patient begins to integrate repetitive activities into her daily routine. These include writing in a diary, taking walks and doing a number of breathing exercises.

In the third stage, these activities become more physical and creative, incorporating tasks like wood cutting and painting. This series of activities produces a new set of emotions in the patient; he/she begins to feel joy and engagement.

And finally, after completing these three stages, the patient is ready for stage four: re-entering the world with a newfound sense of calm and purpose.

Getting plenty of rest and space from distractions in this way is great for your health, but at a certain point, you’ll need to find something upon which to focus your attention. This is where Ikigai comes back into the picture.

Find your Flow

Garcia goes on to say that imagine you’re skiing down a beautiful powdery slope. Skiing is your absolute favourite thing in the world, and you’re in a state of complete, blissful, focused engagement. You feel as if you could do this for ages.

The good news is that engaging in such an activity could, in fact, increase your lifespan. Achieving such a state of flow regularly can help keep you young. Garcia explains that flow in this sense is a technical term coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s. It describes a state of enjoyment and concentration so deep it blocks out all other concerns – even time itself.

Seeking out activities that produce such a state will increase your enjoyment of life and, therefore, your longevity, says Garcia. That’s why such experiences should be prioritized over hedonistic ones like overeating, substance abuse or media entertainment, which people often indulge in out of boredom.

Flow is healthy for the mind, since it focuses you on a single object for a sustained period. Ideally, your Ikigai – that is, your main life occupation – will regularly produce a state of flow, but if it doesn’t, be sure your hobbies do.

When setting out to experience a state of flow, calibrating the level of difficulty is essential, says Garcia. After all, if you choose a task that’s too easy, you’ll get bored and distracted, hindering you from attaining flow. On the other hand, if your activity is too hard, you’ll struggle, get stressed out and eventually give up.

By engaging your interests in a new, exciting way, you can find flow once again.

The Okinawan diet.

The Japanese diet has been in the spotlight for years, ever since Japan made a name for itself as the country with the longest life expectancy. That being said, people live even longer in Okinawa province. To find out why, Makoto Suzuki, a heart specialist from Ryukus University in Okinawa, did several studies on the Okinawan diet, beginning in the 1970s. Here’s what he found out:

First, the Okinawan diet contains an incredible variety of foods. In fact, locals of this island eat up to 206 different foods on a regular basis, including a number of herbs and spices. For instance, every day, they eat five separate portions of fruits and vegetables. They like to determine that they’re getting enough variety by ensuring their plates contain all the colours of the rainbow.

It could be thanks to this variety that the Okinawan diet is otherwise quite plain. The base of the diet is grains, like rice or noodles, while seasonings like salt and sugar are used sparingly. Okinawans eat 60 percent less sugar and 50 percent less salt than other Japanese natives, who already eat a diet that’s relatively healthy by global standards.

So, variety is important, but so is small portion size. To abide by this second aspect, Okinawans say that you should stop eating when you’re around 80 percent full; in other words, you should remain a little bit hungry – It’s called hara hachu bu.

To practice hara hachu bu, Okinawans typically serve their food on small plates, with portions of rice, vegetables, miso soup and a small snack, such as edamame beans.

They instinctively know that eating less is good for you, and modern science has actually confirmed the benefits of calorie reduction. By eating fewer calories, you can limit the level of a protein known as insulin-like growth factor 1. When too much of this protein exists in the body, cells age faster. As a result, eating less; not starving yourself; directly correlates to a longer life.

Recent studies have found that green tea, one of the most popular teas in Okinawa, is a powerful promoter of longevity. Unlike a number of other teas, green tea is air-dried and left unfermented. Because of this, it retains its active elements, including antioxidants, and has been found to lower bad cholesterol, manage blood sugar levels (good to know), improve circulation and even ward off infection.

To make this miracle drink even more potent, Okinawans add jasmine to their green tea. This herb improves cardiovascular health and boosts immune function. But green tea isn’t for everyone. If you prefer, says Garcia, as an alternative, give white tea a try – it actually has even higher antioxidant levels than green tea.

But is there an Okinawan superfood that you can actually bite into, asks Garcia. You need look no further than Shikuwasa, a citrus fruit that’s another antioxidant-loaded Okinawan favourite. This traditional Japanese fruit is so acidic that its juice needs to be diluted before you can even consider consuming it. It has a high concentration of nobiletin, a plant substance that’s particularly rich in antioxidants. While other types of citrus, like lemons and oranges, contain some nobiletin, Shikuwasa contains 40 times more than your average orange’ says Garcia. As a result, the fruit is highly popular in Okinawa, where it’s used as an ingredient in a number of typical dishes and even baked into cakes.

That being said, you might have a hard time getting your hands on this obscure Japanese citrus. If so, don’t sweat it. Just try other citrus fruits, or opt for broccoli, salmon, strawberries or apricots, all of which are high in antioxidants, says Garcia.

Get moving

Have you ever met older people who seemed full of energy despite their age? I recently met my wife’s uncle in Tuscany, Italy – a region just behind Okinawa in terms of longevity of its residents. My first view of him was free cycling down this hill on his mountain bike with one arm on the handle bars and the other clutching a bread just bought. Not bad for 92, I thought.

Chances are that these energised oldies live that long because they’ve been physically active throughout their lives. In fact, says Garcia, movement in general is important to living a long and happy life, and it doesn’t have to be too intense either. Observing the residents of Okinawa, Garcia suggests that sports and fitness are much less important than simple, regular movement.

Elderly Okinawans walk around their neighbourhoods, work in their gardens and even get on stage at karaoke bars. The key to their activity isn’t its intensity, but the fact that it never stops.

According to a study conducted by medical researcher Brigid Schulte in 2014, sitting adversely impacts your health. She found that after just a half hour sitting in a chair, the metabolism slows down, the healthy digestion of fat is disrupted and good cholesterol levels drop.

The good news according to the study is that getting up for a mere five minutes every half hour is sufficient to offset these effects. Okinawans also partake in a more concerted form of exercise. It’s called Radio Taiso, and it’s a basic warm-up common for Okinawans and Japanese natives in general.

It’s practised in the morning or throughout the day, often in large groups. It’s very common, and certain Okinawan schools, businesses and old folks’ homes gather as a community to do these exercises every morning.

The exercises themselves are simple and straightforward. The aim is just to gently warm up the joints and muscles of the arms and shoulders.


What I took from it.

The key message in this book for me is that to live 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; your Ikigai, that drives you each and every day, you can focus your energy and extend your years on earth.

Okinawan’s bask in the beauty of imperfection according to the author. 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.

You already know some habits to increase your longevity, but in the end, nobody knows how to live a long life better than those who are actually living one. Below are a few simple recommendations from centenarian Okinawan’s that can help you live longer;

  1. Make a habit of greeting others, even strangers, with a smile and an open heart. By doing so, they say you’ll maintain plenty of friendships throughout your years and make your grandchildren want to visit you all the time. Such constant stimulation will help keep you young.

  2. They caution that excessive worrying about things you can’t change only causes unnecessary stress. Instead, the centenarians wisely advise you to enjoy what you have. If you do, they say, you’ll likely realise you have much more than you thought.

  3. Cultivation of good habits. Rising at an early hour will give you extra hours of quiet in the morning to drink your tea and tend to your garden.

  4. Grow your own vegetables and cook your own food. This makes perfect sense, as a garden-to-table diet is very healthy.

  5. Perhaps the most important habit of all for a long life is to enjoy and maintain your friendships. Okinawan's spend time chatting with their neighbours every single day.

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