Ikigai: 4 Lessons on the Japanese Philosophy of Long and Happy Life

Deep in the Northern reaches of Okinawa Island lies a town called Ogimi, where many agree lies the secret to a prosperous life. The recognised Blue Zone (one of five regions with the highest average age in the world) boasts 77% more residents over 100 years old than the global average. Although Western scientists have various genetic explanations for this, to locals the prevalence of a Japanese concept known as ikigai (生き甲斐), roughly ‘the happiness of always being busy”, is key to these outstanding empirical figures.

Unique to Okinawa is a resistance to keep up with the rest of the world. Once the location where over 200,000 lives were lost in the Second World War, the surviving inhabitants were forced to farm resource-scarce land and resort to communal partnerships to survive. As a result, the practice of collecting monthly contributions from local groups to finance expenses and a rolling lottery for surplus allocations developed the island into a sharing economy. The security and selflessness of knowing that your expenses will always be taken care of by your neighbour has tremendously boosted the quality of life amongst the people and ensured a commitment to this continued tradition.

Whilst many never leave the frontiers of their individual provinces, Okinawans still find comfort in moai (small groups of life-long friends) and in the daily responsibilities of farming. Yuimaaru or ‘teamwork’, from the ancient Ryukyuan dialect, is one of the first words taught to children on the island. Another phrase inchariba chode: “treat everyone like a brother, even if you’ve never met them before” is common to adults; as is their reputation for warm interactions with the thousands of visitors to the celebritized ‘Village of Longevity’ each year. The answer to many a curious traveller’s questions on long life, purposefulness and happiness is simple and unchanging: ikigai.

“At 80, you are merely a youth. At 90, if your ancestors invite you into heaven, ask them to wait until you are 100—then, you might consider it.”

Dan Beuttner, National Geographic explorer reading from a stone inscription in Ogimi, Okinawa in 2005.

Lesson 1: Deep Purpose

One of the many negative health effects of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has been the growth in the diagnosis of a type of depression termed ‘Sunday neurosis’. Essentially, when the confines of a regimented work-week are removed and the fatigue of sleep-debt is settled, the various anxieties and fears that were being kept at bay by this industriousness finally enter the forefront of our minds. First coined by Dr Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian psychologist who was a concentration camp inmate during the Holocaust, the disease causes a “sudden and overwhelming realisation of internal emptiness”. 

By contrast, a key aspect of discovering your purpose, indicative of ikigai, is echoed in the Japanese Zen Buddhist practice of ‘Morita Therapy’. The primary tenet of founder Shoma Morita’s philosophy is creating new emotions based on the experience and repetition of action. The only way to cultivate this, he said, is to be ‘wealthy and generous’ in all feelings by accepting their existence. Morita therapy can be broken down into a 4-stage process. First, similar to increasingly popular ‘silent retreats’ in the West, participants would live in isolation for up to a week; reserved only to communicate with a visiting therapist. Second, in ‘light occupational therapy’, silent repetition of tasks is encouraged such as daily journaling to build positive, foundational habits to routines. This is a common strategy employed in drug and rehabilitation centres, especially in Europe. Third, physical exertion is added to the tasks along with a significant mental commitment to learning new skills. Examples of this are poetry, painting or playing an instrument; qualities revered in Japanese culture for their personality-defining characteristics. Finally, after a month of absence, you are reintroduced into society.

The purpose behind this treatment approach, according to Israeli neuroscientist Shlomo Breznitz, is rationalising the “tension between what is good for someone and what they want to do.” With over 89% of UK 16 to 29-year-olds in 2019 claiming their lives ‘lack purpose or meaning’, the reflective practice of understanding why instead of what you are feeling is an important lesson that can be gathered from Japanese culture.

Lesson 2: Total Immersion

Okinawans, beyond global Japanese stereotypes, are infamous for their precise time management. The commonality amongst maoi to eat, farm and sleep at the same time every day is linked to their subsistence farmer culture: rising with the sun to tend to crops in order to maximise harvest yields. By maintaining a stable circadian rhythm (our biological sleep-wake regulator), they promote high levels of average melatonin production. Although the hormone naturally declines after 30 years old, Okinawans are predisposed to its equal parts neurological and physiological benefits including: strengthening the immune system, promoting insulin production, preventing osteoporosis and protecting against heart disease and cancer. 

This stands in stark contrast to the ‘blue-light epidemic’ in the rest of the world, where humans’ relationship with technology is distorting natural melatonin production. One study by the University of California in 2012 has scientifically linked prolonged blue-light exposure past sunset to cellular aging via the weakening of cell structures known as ‘telomeres’. So it is both ironic yet unsurprising that synthetic melatonin tablets are now commonplace in 24-hour drug stores and pharmacies in most major cities. 

Early Japanese education is coloured with positive verbs like ganburu – “to stand firm by doing one’s best.” In the international bestselling book on ikigai by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles, the authors recalled a woman in Ogimi who was on the verge of becoming a centenarian and recorded her singing “the secret is not to get distracted by how old the fingers are; from the fingers to the head and back once again. If you keep your fingers working, 100 years will come to you.” This represents the second lesson of ikigai: to lose one’s ego and be led by the task. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ‘Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high’) is a Professor of Psychology and Management who pioneered the similar concept of ‘Flow’. Csikszentmihalyi’s research found that a state of Flow is felt similarly across all ages, cultures, locations and professions. The universal quality is to concentrate on a task, without distraction, to the point where time flies by and productivity sky-rockets.

“[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.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’.

Lesson 3: Hara haci bu – the 80% rule

The most studied aspect of Okinawans’ incidence of longevity is their diet. Hara hachi bu is a common Japanese saying meaning ‘fill your belly to 80%’ that perhaps explains why Japanese cuisine features multiple, small plates of food at any given meal. The origins of this proverb can be traced to the principle from a 12th Century book written by Zazan Youjinki, where consuming only two-thirds of the desired portion was conducive to well-being. Modern evidence corroborates this, with studies attributing full stomachs to increased digestion time, a key factor in cellular oxidation that promotes ageing. 

Generally, in modern Japan the greater the number of colours, temperatures and textures, the finer the dining experience. Naturally, this also creates the illusion of a highly caloric meal. While the benefits of limiting calorie intake are readily available in modern scientific literature, a relevant factor is decreases in IGF-1, an insulin growth factor that correlates high blood protein levels to advanced ageing in patients. 

‘The Okinawa Program’, a 25-year study led by brothers Dr. Bradley J. Wilcox and Dr. D. Craig Wilcox, sought to further this understanding of dietary effect by studying Okinawan centenarians. They found that locals eat approximately 18 different foods a day, with at least 7 different types of fruits and vegetables and about a third and a half of the Japanese average consumption of sugar and salt, respectively. Alongside this was the absence of meat and processed foods, fish being consumed three times a week and the foundation of their diets being sweet potato (introduced onto the island through Dutch traders) and tofu rather than the traditional Japanese rice grain. It is no wonder that Okinawans boast a 40% edge on their Japanese countrymen in the chance of reaching 100 years old. 

Common to most of the food groups consumed by subjects in The Okinawa Program were antioxidant-rich ingredients. A unique example to Okinawa is the native shikuwasa fruit, considered a cross between a lime and a mandarin orange in flavour.  The fruit does have a dark side, however, with the juice being so acidic that drinking it is semi-toxic unless diluted first with water. Importantly, though it contains extraordinarily high levels of ‘nobiletin’, a flavonoid that makes shikuwasa 40 times as rich in antioxidants as oranges. In fact, it is so valued for these medicinal properties that it’s also a common tradition to serve shikuwasa-flavour birthday cakes for those above the age of 70.

“Only staying active will make you want to live a hundred years.”

Japanese proverb

Lesson 4: Simple, Regular Exercise

Keeping yourself fit and healthy seems like a self-evident concept to lead a better life. Far from the globally popularised HIIT training and macro-counting techniques, Okinawans simply advocate exercise little and often. As the only province in Japan without a functioning railway system, inhabitants walk everywhere and engage in constant low-intensity movements like gardening or sowing crops. If you ask an Okinawan about the immediate benefits of strenuous exercise, they would probably agree that it’s extremely beneficial at maintaining physical health and losing weight but would list its impracticality at old age. Instead, they prefer anything that doesn’t restrict them to a sedentary lifestyle.

Recent health studies have linked less physical activities with progressive deterioration of telomeres in the immune system. This causes premature cellular aging and makes organisms more prone to hypertension and obesity later in life. Supporting this is metabolic studies on early sedentary lifestyles that have reached similar conclusions. ‘Sitting Is the New Smoking’, by Gavin Bradley in The Washington Post, found that the metabolism slows down by 90% after just 30 minutes of sitting, with good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein) levels falling by 20% after 2 hours.

Invariably due to their lifestyle and geographic isolation, Okinawans have evolved a unique genetic profile. Firstly, they display a reduced APOE4 gene variant, responsible for increasing the likelihood of heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Secondly, they are more likely on average to exhibit the protective FOXO3, a gene variant that regulates the metabolic function and moderates cell growth. 

In both Japanese and Ryukyuan, there is no word corresponding to ‘retire’, a vocation is considered for life and health is the only determinant of stopping this pursuit. The secret to unlocking the Okinawan meaning of life seems to be found in these lessons: practice total immersion in your tasks, develop mobility at a young age and be moderate with diet but generous with feeling. The Japanese believe ikigai is an intrinsic component of everyone’s lives; think to yourself, have you discovered yours?

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