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Why We Should All Embrace The Japanese Philosophy Of Ikigai

Is finding a ‘reason for being’ the secret to a long and healthy life?
Ronnie Kaufman/Larry Hirshowitz via Getty Images

By many measures, the Japanese are the longest living people on earth, with an average life expectancy of nearly 84 years. Centenarians are common throughout the country, but in Okinawa, a remote southern island, there is a particularly high concentration. The area has been called the “land of the immortals”.

So what is Okinawa’s secret, and is it something we can all tap into? In many ways, there’s no mystery. The Okinawa Centenarian Study, which collects data on the the island’s elderly population, points to diet and exercise as key components. Genes also play a part, because longevity tends to run in families.

The study states: “Elderly Okinawans were found to have impressively young, clean arteries, low cholesterol, and low homocysteine levels when compared to Westerners… Compared to North Americans, they have 80% less breast cancer and prostate cancer, and less than half the ovarian and colon cancers.”

Okinawans eat a diet based heavily on fruit and vegetables, and remain active - often working in fields or vegetable patches - well into old age.

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A reason to get up

Exercise and eating well are clearly part of Okinawa’s secret, but is it that simple? Many experts think something else is at work, something less tangible. It can be summarised by the concept of ikigai.

Ikigai is a Japanese word that roughly translates as ‘reason for being’, and it may be the psychological push Okinawans need to keep working in their gardens, and cooking nutritious meals, up to the age of 100 and beyond.

It can be a difficult concept to grasp, but Dan Buettner, author of Blue Zones: Lessons On Living Longer From The People Who’ve Lived The Longest, puts it like this:

“Older Okinawans can readily articulate the reason they get up in the morning. Their purpose-imbued lives gives them clear roles of responsibility and feelings of being needed well into their 100s.”

In other words, Okinawans regard their elderly population as more treasure than burden. Older people continue to contribute to society and feel a responsibility to pass down their experience and knowledge to younger generations. They work, meet up and participate. They remain active, physically and mentally. Buettner adds that in the Okinawan language there isn’t even a word for retirement.

So Okinawans have a reason for being, a purpose in life, which encourages them to take advantage of beneficial environmental factors, like simple, healthy food and a life spent actively outdoors. Which begs the question, can we all find our ikigai?

A sum of small joys

It’s worth noting that the Japanese don’t just find their ikigai when they retire. It’s something many strive for all their lives. Taking fulfillment from work, being useful to others (and appreciated for it), and playing an active part in a close knit group of supportive friends are all important facets of Japanese life, and can all contribute to ikigai.

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As far as work is concerned, one common interpretation of ikigai consists of a Venn diagram with four overlapping elements: what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for doing. The intersection of those four elements is said to be your ikigai.

Finding a useful job that you enjoy can certainly contribute to ikigai, but the Japanese tend to use the term more broadly. They can find meaning in work, or it could be in family, community involvement, a friendship group, or something else.

Or it might be in all of them. According to one Japanese expert, the sum of small everyday joys can lead to a more meaningful life overall. A stressed and overworked Tokyo office worker may still find joy in being helpful to colleagues, and a sense of real meaning when returning home to a loving family and an active role in the local community. If these things together make them feel useful and valued, that can translate as ikigai.

For many of us, ikigai means finding things that we like doing and are good at, and that also chime with our values. That can mean work, volunteering, family, hobbies or anything else, as long as it connects us to our communities, or society more widely, and makes us feel needed. The secret as far as longevity is concerned is that finding this meaning in life ensures we will continue being involved, active and interested well into retirement age and beyond. We will always have a reason to live.