For several years, I have been interested in learning about the “real” purpose of life, specifically, what makes us happy. In my quest to find some answers, I have forayed into the realms of philosophy, psychology, and spirituality. I have been especially interested in how different cultures around the world view the purpose of life.
Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles’ highly informative, insightful and inspirational book, Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life tells readers how the people living on the island of Okinawa in Japan have found the secret to a long and happy life. Garcia and Miralles’ research reveals several interesting findings, one of which is that, for every 100,000 Okinawans, there are at least 24 people over the age of 100.
This is a much higher life expectancy than the average around the world. More importantly, Okinawans not only live longer than others but they also happen to be the one of the happiest people in our world. What is the Okinawan secret to living such a long and happy life? Based on the research by Garcia and Miralles, the locals of Okinawa have mastered Ikigai, which in Japanese translates to purpose of life.
For Okinawans in particular, Ikigai translates roughly as “the happiness of always being busy.” Although the inhabitants of Okinawa are strong advocates for working hard, they also believe that we need to engage in work that gives us joy and contentment. In this kind of work, one nourishes both our body and mind, and that can help us to stay young. We can have an active mind in different ways, such as by interacting with different kinds of people, learning a new language or a game or some new activity, which offers new stimuli to the brain to help reduce depression that is often associated with aging and loneliness.
In order to have a long and happy life, the people of Okinawa believe that we should learn how to go with the flow when we are engaged in work. When we are in this mode, we lose a sense of time. We are completely immersed in the experience and there is no distraction or worry. In essence, we become an integral part of what we are doing. Undoubtedly, this is easier said than done but Okinawans who live an extra-long life, which is marked by great health and abundant happiness, have found their flow.
World-renowned psychologist, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, who has done extensive research on the human experience of being completely immersed in what we are doing, also calls this “flow.” He has described it as pleasure, delight, creativity, and the process we experience when we are completely immersed in life. While it’s important to engage in work that gives us both joy and satisfaction, we also need to spend time in nature.
It is this close relationship with nature that provides the people of Okinawa happiness and harmony in their lives. The unity that Okinawans enjoy with nature takes on a special meaning where, according to Shintoism, forests, trees and objects have a kami (spirit or god) within them. For Okinawans, it is also important to become a recluse sometimes in order to protect the time that brings us happiness, because if we choose to spend all our leisure time around other people, it will distract us from engaging in serious work that is both meaningful and is a source of joy.
An example of an Okinawan reclusive life is practised by the Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami. He spends most of his time in solitude and sees only a close circle of friends a couple of times every few years. He says that a life of solitude has not only brought him endless joy but also the creative afflatus that is necessary for him to write. The people of Okinawa realize that one simply can’t live on purposeful work that brings joy and contentment.
One also has to perform several mundane jobs such as laundry, cooking, paying bills and so on. It is absolutely essential that we find joy even when performing such mundane tasks. We all experience boredom and monotony when we engage in these tasks but our goal must be to turn these boring activities into something that we actually enjoy doing. For Okinawans, this is integral to being happy, because there is no way to avoid such mundane activities. Rituals also play a vital role in the life of Okinawans.
The main religions in Japan, whether Shintoism, Buddhism, or Confucianism, all provide rituals with clear rules and objectives, which help the Japanese get into the flow of things. More importantly, rituals in Japan provide the steps to achieving a goal. Rituals also teach them not to focus on the outcome but the process of completing the task at hand. Okinawans believe that happiness is in the doing, not in the result. A vast majority of people living in Okinawa are happy because they do not obsess themselves about how to achieve the most.
Instead, they spend more time than others on the process itself, in a state of flow. Although nearly two hundred thousand lives were lost in Okinawa at the end of World War II, the local people do not harbour any animosity toward outsiders. They live by the motto of treating everyone like a brother even if you have never met them before. It’s not surprising that the inhabitants of Okinawa have a strong sense of community. From an early age they are taught to value teamwork and this is why it becomes second nature for them to help one another. Establishing and maintaining strong bonds of friendship is one of the secrets to happiness for Okinawa’s residents.
They believe that good friends are like good medicine. They are there to listen to your problems and help in times of need. A good chat, laughter, sharing stories and meals are all very important to having a happy and healthy life. In addition to engaging in work that provides joy and contentment, Okinawans are very particular about their diet. In fact, the Okinawa diet is talked about all over the world because the Okinawans mortality rate from cardiovascular disease is the lowest in Japan, where overall mortality rate is very low compared to the rest of the world.
The diet is actually very simple. Okinawans eat 18 different foods each day, which consist of at least seven servings of fruit and vegetables daily. Among the vegetables, red pepper, carrots, spinach, cauliflower, brinjals, potatoes, and soy products such as tofu are very popular among the locals. White rice forms the foundation of an Okinawan daily diet. Everybody in Okinawa reported that they never eat sugar and use salt very sparingly.
When asked what the special element is that leads to long a life in the Okinawan diet, the Okinawans were unanimous in mentioning the Japanese concept of Hara hachi bu, which means “fill your belly to 80 per cent.” Ancient Japanese wisdom advises against eating until our stomachs are full, which many of us tend to do. Additionally, most people drink green tea, which is highly popular among the locals because of its medicinal properties. In addition to a healthy and balanced diet, Okinawans don’t have a sedentary life.
Although they do not go to the gym or engage in vigorous exercises, they never stop moving in the course of their daily routines. Walking is also very popular among the locals, which they do every day. In order to be healthy and happy, the locals of Okinawa practise 10 rules of Ikigai. They are: 1. Engage in work that is source of joy and satisfaction; 2. Take it slow; 3. Don’t fill your stomach; 4. Surround yourself with good friends; 5. Stay in shape for your next birthday; 6. Have a cheerful attitude and smile more; 7. Reconnect with nature; 8. Be grateful for the things you have; 9. Live in the present moment; 10. Follow your ikigai.
Although our ikigai, or purpose in life, may be different for all of us, we have one thing in common: most of us are searching for some kind of meaning in life. The locals of Okinawa teach us that life doesn’t have to be treated as a problem. On the contrary, it can be a joyous and fulfilling one if we remain busy doing what we love, take care of our bodies and surround ourselves with people who love us.
(The writer is Professor of Communication Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles)