Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life

Without question, the international superstar of longevity is Japan, which has the highest life expectancy of any country in the world. In addition to a healthy diet... and an integrated health care system in which people go to the doctor for regular checkups to prevent disease, longevity in Japan is closely tied to its culture. The sense of community, and the fact that Japanese people make an effort to stay active until the very end, are key elements of their secret to long life. If you want to stay busy even when there’s no need to work, there has to be an ikigai on your horizon, a purpose that guides you throughout your life and pushes you to make things of beauty and utility for the community and yourself.
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During a browsing session through the digital aisles of the Kindle store, an aesthetically pleasing recommendation popped up. The cover was a soft baby blue, decorated with a delicate cherry blossom branch above the bold, capitalised script of the word ‘ikigai.’ I was interested. This was a term I'd never seen or heard before, and so following my usual routine when encountering unfamiliar words, I turned to a reliable YouTube channel for linguistic guidance and discovered that the accurate pronunciation of the word is ‘eeky’ (rhymes with geeky) followed by ‘guy’. With that out the way, I wondered what the word actually meant, but quickly found out that a direct English translation was non existent. My online search instead steered me towards a Venn diagram, created in 2014 by British entrepreneur Marc Winn — a helpful attempt to explain the philosophy in laymans terms. It consists of four overlapping circles labelled, (1) what you love, (2) what you are good at, (3) what the world needs, and (4) what you can be paid for; and right in the centre at the intersection lies the word ikigai. Essentially, the term embodies the idea of happiness in living, a sense of purpose — the reason why you get up in the morning:

Returning to the Kindle store, I briefly skimmed through the reviews, seeking insights from the perspectives of fellow readers. Supposedly, this was deemed life-changing material, a sentiment bolstered by over fifty thousand reviews averaging 4.5 stars. While I recognise the need for scepticism with such figures, I usually find myself getting swayed more often than not. 

Translated into 63 languages and boasting a global sales figure exceeding 3 million copies, I, true to form, stumbled upon this seemingly enlightening work rather late. This small book, I noted, had not one, but two authors — both Spanish writers who have evidently excelled in propelling the concept of ikigai into the Western consciousness. 

The image I’ve long held of the Japanese being more attuned to nature than the average Westerner seemed to be reaffirmed by the publishers promotional claims of this ancient philosophy. After all, I thought, practices like ‘forest bathing’ originated in Japan. 

All this groundwork eventually led to a purchase and an expectation that I would soon uncover several Japanese gems in one sitting. The title boldly promised to unveil the secrets behind the Japanese approach to a long and joyful life. 

The authors sought to reassure me from the outset that I had made the right decision; that the text I was about to read was more or less a definitive guide. Garcia, one of the authors, declares: “While researching this concept, we discovered that not a single book in the fields of psychology or personal development is dedicated to bringing this philosophy to the West.” 

The first chapter, ‘The art of staying young while growing old,’ examines the Japanese attitude towards retirement. Just like there is no English word for ikigai, there is no Japanese word that means retire in the sense of “leaving the workforce for good” as in English. The cultural subtleties that tend to slip away in translation stirred my curiosity, and I found myself making a mental note to delve deeper into the subject through additional reading.

Having a purpose through work is a significant part of the ikigai philosophy it seems. Retirement is simply an alien concept for the Japanese, and the Western inclination to countdown the days until one can escape the daily grind, serves as a stark contrast. It becomes clear that a pervasive lack of profound satisfaction characterises the routine existence of many individuals in Western nations. Ultimately, we have fashioned and latched onto the idea that a utopian haven awaits us on the other side of decades of hard toil.

Ikigai recognises that even upon reaching this pivotal juncture in life, an inherent need for engagement with work persists for a sense of fulfilment. Our conventional understanding of work often intertwines with notions of drudgery, coercion, and a necessity for survival. However, this need not be an inescapable paradigm. Work, when reframed, emerges as the deliberate exercise of mind and body, whilst also contributing something valuable to society as a whole.  

Given that a substantial portion of our lives is dedicated to work, a transformative potential arises when one finds joy and satisfaction in their chosen vocation. The dismal idea of slaving away in the ‘rat race’ gives way to a more gratifying and enriching endeavour. We are told that many Japanese keep doing what they love for as long as their health allows.

The focus then shifts to exploring communities around the world where the inhabits tend to lead long and healthy lives. Here, we enter the Blue Zone, and as we make our way through this section, a few interesting facts are imparted, such as the blood tests of people who live in these Blue Zones “reveal fewer free radicals (which are responsible for cellular aging), as a result of drinking tea and eating until their stomachs are only 80 percent full.” Not particularly ground-breaking stuff, but it’s an interesting snippet of information nonetheless.

Author Dan Buettner in his book Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, identifies and analyses the top five Blue Zones worldwide: 

  1. Okinawa, Japan 
  2. Sardinia, Italy 
  3. Loma Linda, California 
  4. The Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
  5. Ikaria, Greece

I was quite surprised to see a US region on the list but that mystery was soon solved as the author specifically refers to the group of Seventh-day Adventists — a group that doesn’t partake in the multiple excesses of modern-day America. A significant number of Seventh-Day Adventists adhere to a vegetarian or plant-based diet, abstain from alcohol and tobacco, and tend to enjoy a lifespan that surpasses the average by around 10 years when compared to the broader American population. 

Scientists who have devoted time to studying the five Blue Zones conclude that the “keys to longevity are diet, exercise, finding a purpose in life (an ikigai), and forming strong social ties — that is, having a broad circle of friends and good family relations.” The brevity of this statement does not diminish its inherent truth but a much more granular analysis would have been welcomed.

A principle I found interesting was the 80 percent rule, essentially advising to satiate oneself only to the extent of 80 percent fullness. This ancient wisdom is deceptively simple yet remarkably effective. Adhering to this rule steers individuals away from the pitfalls of overindulgence and the ensuing protracted digestive processes that hasten cellular oxidation. The idea that overeating imposes stress on the body isn't a revelation, but it’s a reminder that perhaps its gravity has eluded us.

The customary presentation of Japanese meals on an array of small plates, a sight not unfamiliar, might be misconstrued as parsimonious. Yet, in the Japanese lifestyle philosophy, this is a deliberate choice aimed at moderation — by dishing out meals in smaller portions, the Japanese naturally consume less. Moreover, one could argue that there’s the added bonus of enjoying many different meals in one sitting without overeating.  

The second chapter delves into a subject where the Western world especially, has spent considerable time and resources in trying to counteract the inevitability of aging. The relentless pursuit to defy the natural order has so far led to biologists being able to partially reprogram old cells (allowing them to regain youthful function) and to create genome editing tools where we can, in principle, comprehensively understand and manage up to 89 percent of diseases that affect humans.

We are given brief pause for thought in this insatiable desire to transcend natural constraints in the section entitled ‘Antiaging Secrets: Little Things That Add Up to a Long and Happy Life.’ Here, we are given ways to naturally enhance our biology. For example, we are encouraged to revitalise our brains by forging new neural connections. The importance of training our brains in this way has gained considerable recognition amongst the general population in recent years thanks to scientists such as Dr Andrew Huberman, who have imparted valuable tips on achieving optimal brain health.

A cautionary note is sounded against stress — an admonition that hardly veers into the realm of revelation. As an extensively discussed topic in health, stress is widely acknowledged as a chief malefactor, orchestrating the gradual erosion of the body and precipitating the inescapable onset of aging:

The American Institute of Stress investigated this degenerative process and concluded that most health problems are caused by stress… everything from our digestive system to our skin is affected.

A crucial counteractive measure against stress and all it entails is sleep, branded as an indispensable antiaging tool amongst a long list of various other benefits. With unparalleled dedication, Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has conveyed essential knowledge to the public in this field, emphasising the paramount importance of achieving high-quality sleep.

It is at this point in the book where I found myself pondering the nature of the ‘secrets’ that were promised to me. Everything I had encountered so far appeared to be common knowledge, widely accepted and not particularly specific to the Japanese way of life. Whether one leans towards health consciousness or not, a substantial portion of the information so far could have been easily accessed via a half-hearted search online. I felt that the authors were just grazing along with no intention of examining the deeper levels of the Japanese philosophy. I couldn’t help but question whether I had fallen prey to astute marketing artfully propping up lacklustre writing. So far, I was uninspired and underwhelmed.  

The idea of ‘flow,’ presented in chapter four, was yet another concept that had made the social media rounds in recent times. The author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, explains that 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 even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Various productivity systems such as the Pomodoro Technique have generated significant attention. This methodology, often championed by productivity experts and influencers alike, is hailed as a potent means to attain the elusive 'flow state.' 

I then recalled that at the outset the author claimed that “not a single book in the fields of psychology or personal development is dedicated to bringing this philosophy to the West.” This statement now strikes me as somewhat misleading. While the author may not have identified a ‘single book’ exclusively focused on the philosophy of ikigai, there undeniably exists a wealth of dispersed information touching upon the essence of ikigai. It appears that I may have been acquainted with the principles of ikigai all along, albeit in disparate forms. From what I'd read so far, the authors couldn't legitimately claim this to be the ‘single book’ on the subject.

Perhaps the redeeming quality would be to read words of wisdom directly from supercentenarians — people who live to 110 years of age or more. But, alas, this also turned out to be a disappointment. The so-called wisdom dispensed consisted of trite aphorisms such as “Eat and sleep, and you’ll live a long time. You have to learn to relax” and resounding declarations such as, “I’ve never eaten meat in my life.” Unfortunately, these snippets of conventional wisdom did nothing to construct any novel insights. I found one single interesting quote in the entire chapter and that was from the author T.H White, from his fantasy novel, The Once and Future King:  

You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then— to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.

Chapter 7 pledged to reveal ‘The Ikigai Diet: What the world’s longest-living people eat and drink.’ Undoubtedly, the mere utterance of the word ‘diet’ once had an inspiring effect on the ears of the health-conscious. The word used to resonate with the potential for positive transformation. Now, however, this jaded term elicits little more than the disdainful roll of eyes and a profound sigh. I read on without much enthusiasm, to find out about ‘Okinawa’s miracle diet’: 

  • Locals eat a wide variety of foods, especially vegetables. Variety seems to be key 
  • They eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day 
  • Grains are the foundation of their diet 
  • They rarely eat sugar 

Is that it?

Well, to be honest, we already know what should and shouldn’t be consumed — of what yields results and what doesn’t. But despite this we’re perpetually in search of a miraculous blueprint to effortlessly usher us onto the path of weight loss and the like. What was I expecting really? A fantastical, magical seaweed from an exclusive Japanese coastline? Perhaps my expectations were too high. Still, there’s not even a Japanese delicacy on the list.  

This revelation is then followed by the insight “that the people who live longest are not the ones who do the most exercise but rather the ones who move the most.” In a 2015 conversation with Brigid Schulte for the Washington Post, Gavin Bradley, a foremost authority on the subject, underscores this perspective:  

Metabolism slows down 90 percent after 30 minutes of sitting. The enzymes that move the bad fat from your arteries to your muscles, where it can get burned off, slow down. And after two hours, good cholesterol drops 20 percent. Just getting up for five minutes is going to get things going again. These things are so simple they’re almost stupid. 

Hailing from India, yoga is introduced as a discipline aimed at “bringing body, mind, and soul into balance.” Meanwhile, Tai Chi, with its roots in China, has earned acclaim for an array of merits — such as slowing the development of osteoporosis and Parkinson’s disease, to increasing circulation, and improving muscle tone and flexibility. Beyond its physical advantages, Tai Chi emerges as a formidable safeguard against stress and depression, with emotional well-being standing on equal footing. 

Though already familiar with the supreme benefits of practising yoga, Tai Chi invited a certain intrigue. Online videos showcased unhurried, deliberate movements within a meditative and serene ambiance. Despite the variations in practice, the overarching objectives remain harmoniously aligned:  

  • To control movement through stillness 
  • To overcome force through finesse 
  • To move second and arrive first 
  • To know yourself and your opponent 

The Japanese have their own version of fluid movement — a morning warm-up routine known as Radio Taiso, although it lacks the captivating appeal of the previously mentioned practices. Performed by approximately 30 percent of the population, these exercises are centred around dynamic stretching and the enhancement of joint mobility. 

As I reached the conclusion of the book, once more I found myself questioning its overarching intent. I wondered whether the Japanese would consider this superficial European attempt in explaining the concept of ikigai as acceptable — somehow, I didn’t think so. The exploration into Japanese philosophy felt somewhat perfunctory, revealing that most of the supposed secrets were, in reality, nothing beyond conventional, universally acknowledged wisdom. The book exhibited a tedious and repetitive quality, bordering on the edge of being patronising. In terms of grasping the concept of ikigai, it didn’t contribute much, if anything, to my understanding. I was left with the impression that there is a more profound and significant aspect to this Eastern philosophy that the authors failed to fully convey. The authors’ perspective appears to be quite limited — multiple references are made about the island of Okinawa, but what about the other regions of Japan?

Karoshi is another Japanese term that many may be familiar with, having been highlighted in various mainstream news outlets. This word translates to ‘death from overwork’ and reveals the pressures and expectations for many Japanese people to put work above all other aspects of life. The book stresses the importance of finding a purpose in life through work, yet karoshi emerges as the ‘dark side’ — a distortion of the ikigai rationale. This perversion reaches a point where employees relinquish as much as half of their entitled paid annual leave due to an overwhelming sense of guilt.

This, among numerous other lines of inquiry, ought to have been examined. The depth of detailed investigation is notably deficient. Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life is a thin and disjointed presentation, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the word ‘ikigai’ was used solely as a strategic placement.

The epilogue provides a list of the 10 rules of ikigai to which I remain wary of. It felt right at this point, to quietly disassociate ikigai from the text, as I sensed an injustice due to the likely misuse of the term. However, I can say that had I encountered this list first, it would have spared me a considerable amount of time, as it essentially encapsulates the entirety of the book’s content.

It is my contention that a native Japanese individual might not readily identify with this particular interpretation of ikigai. I perceive it to be a term with many nuances, extending beyond a mere investigation into the longevity of Okinawan centenarians. I later found an insightful definition of ikigai by Noriyuki Nakanishi of Osaka University Medical School, written in a 1999 British Geriatrics Society article, which reads:

Ikigai is personal; it reflects the inner self of an individual and expresses that faithfully.
It establishes a unique mental world in which the individual can feel at ease.

Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life presents many useful prompts on the pursuit and sustenance of optimal well-being. However, the search goes on to understand and faithfully integrate the core tenets of the ikigai philosophy into the fabric of daily existence.

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