Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life

By

Héctor García and Francesc Miralles

Read in
December, 2020
My rating:
4
/10

Summary

An underwhelming survey of a book that could probably just have been a meaty article or a light Netflix documentary. While it was an easy read, it skipped like a stone across umpteen difficult topics—and seldom in an order that made sense. The concept of Ikigai itself can actually just be found in a succinct diagram on the back of the hardback, mostly voiding the point of the inside of the book anyway.

Notes

Fundamental Principles

Ikigai is the reason we get up in the morning. Of course, you've got to have Ikigai in the first place. It's a combination of four distinct areas of your life:

  • Doing what you love
  • Doing what you are good at
  • Doing what the world needs
  • Doing what you can be paid for

Doing something that only meets one or two of these is fine, but all four is where the benefits supposedly lie.

If you're going to follow your Ikigai, you don't ever really retire—you are always at work. The western concept of 'retirement' is, allegedly, not common in Japan.

Blue Zones

There are five so-called 'Blue Zones' in the world, places where people seem to exhibit unusually long life expectancy. They are as follows:

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

All of these places apparently have some unique combination of diet, exercise, purpose and strong social ties that combine to give greater longevity.

Anti-Aging Secrets

The old saying says 'healthy body, healthy mind' but the core of Ikigai also suggest that it is equally as important the other way around. Keep your mind active, and you will remain in good health for longer.

A local song: 'To keep healthy and have a long life, / eat just a little of everything with relish, / go to bed early, get up early, and then go out for a walk. / We live each day with serenity and we enjoy the journey. / To keep healthy and have a long life, / we get on well with all of our friends. / Spring, summer, fall, winter, / we happily enjoy all the seasons. / The secret is to not get distracted by how old the fingers are; / from the fingers to the head and back once again. / If you keep moving with your fingers working, 100 years / will come to you.'

Stress

Keeping your mind active requires some level of challenge, or stress. Too much stress, all the time? You'll crack under the strain. Not enough stress, ever? You'll turn into an amorphous blob.

A goldilocks amount of *just enough* stress? You're onto a winner.

Movement

Being sedentary leads to a huge number of problems and illnesses. At the very least, aim to walk 20+ minutes a day and do things in an active way wherever you can. Walk there, take the stairs, avoid transport if you can.

Good Sleep

Get your 7-9 every day without fail - melatonin is supposed to be a dealbreaker.

Cut out alcohol, caffeine, drugs, smoking.

Lower room temperature, make sure it's entirely dark and remove electronic devices.

Attitude

Positivity, stoicism and emotional awareness are all beneficial.

Finding Your Purpose

The authors provide a summary of Logotherapy (you can read more on my notes about this here).

We must actively search for our meaning and discover for it ourselves. It will not be shown to us automatically, it's something that we have to work for.

They also provide a summary of 'Morita' therapy, which essentially sounds like a very nice 3 week Zen holiday:

  • A week of solitude
  • A week of light activity
  • A week of activity

Mostly conducted in silence.

Flow

'Flow' is a state in which we achieve immersion in a task, creative or otherwise. We can lose hours at a time because it is an intoxicating mix of something that is enjoyable, satisfying, challenging and interesting.

Strategies for achieving flow:

  1. Pick a task that is challenging, but not too much (on the comfort zone horizon)
  2. Have a clear objective in what you are doing (Compass Versus Map)
  3. Focus on a single task at a time (no multitasking)

Key questions to ask yourself to find a good activity to get flowing in:

  • What do the activities that drive you to flow have in common?
  • Why do those activities drive you to flow?
  • For example, are all the activities you most like doing ones that you practice alone or with other people?
  • Do you flow more when doing things that require you to move your body or just to think?

Words of Wisdom from Okinawan Residents

Don't Worry

'The best way to avoid anxiety is to go out in the street and say hello to people. I do it every day. I go out there and say, 'Hello!" and 'See you later!' Then I go home and care for my vegetable garden. In the afternoon, I spend time with friends.'

Build Good Habits

'The key to staying sharp in old age is in your fingers. From your fingers to your brain, and back again. If you keep your fingers busy, you'll live to see one hundred.'

'To live a long time you need to do three things: exercise to stay healthy, eat well, and spend time with people.'

Nurture Friendships

'I wake up at five every morning, leave the house, and walk to the sea. Then I go to a friend's house and we have tea together. That's the secret to long life: getting together with people, and going from place to place.'

Live an Unhurried Life

'The secret to long life is going to bed early, waking up early, and going for a walk. Living peacefully and enjoying the little things. Getting along with your friends. Spring, summer, fall, winter... enjoying each season, happily.'

Be Optimistic

'Every day I say to myself, "Today will be full of health and energy. Live it to the fullest."'

Diet

Our authors collated the main differences in diet that the residents of Okinawa seem to have:

  • <10g salt per day
  • Eat a lot of veggies of many colours
  • Diet based on grains—base carb is rice, with noodles occasionally
  • Low sugar, if at all
  • Usually under 2kcals/day
  • Eat fish three times a week

They also eat with the phrase 'hara hachi bu' in mind; that is, to only eat until you are 80% full. It helps to have smaller plates, smaller portions.

They also drink a lot of 'sanpin cha', a sort of jasmine green tea.

Exercise

Exercise probably isn't the right word for it, but rather movement is the most important thing. Not sitting still or remaining sedentary doesn't require a gym membership or a Peloton, it just needs us to walk and move throughout our days.

There's no train system on Okinawa and most people walk where they need to go. In addition, about 30% of the population in Japan do something every day called 'Radio Taiso'. Radio Taiso is something of an institution in Japan—it's a form of daily communal calisthenics to encourage flexibility and good circulation. (I tried it out, too, and it's certainly invigorating.)

Other popular forms of exercise are Tai Chi, Yoga and Qi Gong.

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