Thomas Harpole

IKIGAI (Francesc Miralles / Hector Garcia)

by Francesc Miralles and Hector Garcia

To live long, it’s simple: Diet, Outdoors, Green Tea, Subtropical, and find your Ikigai.

Those who study why the inhabitants of this island in the south of Japan live longer than people anywhere else in the world believe that one of the keys—in addition to a healthful diet, a simple life in the outdoors, green tea, and the subtropical climate (its average temperature is like that of Hawaii)—is the ikigai that shapes their lives

If you feel part of a community, you will live long. Teamwork and service to others promotes longer life. Okinawans live by the principle of ichariba chode, a local expression that means “treat everyone like a brother, even if you’ve never met them before.” It turns out that one of the secrets to happiness of Ogimi’s residents is feeling like part of a community. From an early age they practice yuimaaru, or teamwork, and so are used to helping one another. Nurturing friendships, eating light, getting enough rest, and doing regular, moderate exercise are all part of the equation of good health, but at the heart of the joie de vivre that inspires these centenarians to keep celebrating birthdays and cherishing each new day is their ikigai.

There is no word in Japanese that means retire. In the sense of “leaving the workforce for good” as in English. According to Dan Buettner, a National Geographic reporter who knows the country well, having a purpose in life is so important in Japanese culture that our idea of retirement simply doesn’t exist there.

You must stay active even after 90. Wake up early and move. In another region, the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, locals remain remarkably active after ninety; many of the region’s older residents have no problem getting up at five thirty in the morning to work in the fields.

Gardening can extend your life. Low-intensity movement like Gardening, which involves daily low-intensity movement, is a practice almost all hundreds of centenarians have in common.

Don’t eat past 80% full. One of the most common sayings in Japan is “Hara hachi bu,” which is repeated before or after eating and means something like “Fill your belly to 80 percent.”

Build and maintain a Moai to stay connected to people. Have a common interest, get together regularly, contribute financially and track giving, and help each other through hard times.

Moai: Connected for life It is customary in Okinawa to form close bonds within local communities. A moai is an informal group of people with common interests who look out for one another. For many, serving the community becomes part of their ikigai. The moai has its origins in hard times, when farmers would get together to share best practices and help one another cope with meager harvests. Members of a moai make a set monthly contribution to the group. This payment allows them to participate in meetings, dinners, games of go and shogi (Japanese chess), or whatever hobby they have in common. The funds collected by the group are used for activities, but if there is money left over, one member (decided on a rotating basis) receives a set amount from the surplus. In this way, being part of a moai helps maintain emotional and financial stability. If a member of a moai is in financial trouble, he or she can get an advance from the group’s savings. While the details of each moai’s accounting practices vary according to the group and its economic means, the feeling of belonging and support gives the individual a sense of security and helps increase life expectancy

A curious mind and games with others slow the aging of neurons.

This description of a “mental workout” might sound a bit formal, but simply interacting with others—playing a game, for example—offers new stimuli and helps prevent the depression that can come with solitude. Our neurons start to age while we are still in our twenties. This process is slowed, however, by intellectual activity, curiosity, and a desire to learn. Dealing with new situations, learning something new every day, playing games, and interacting with other people seem to be essential antiaging strategies for the mind. Furthermore, a more positive outlook in this regard will yield greater mental benefits.

It’s better to face challenges and healthy obstacles instead of keeping a relaxing lifestyle and retiring early – you’ll actually live longer.

Dr. Howard S. Friedman, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, discovered that people who maintained a low level of stress, who faced challenges and put their heart and soul into their work in order to succeed, lived longer than those who chose a more relaxed lifestyle and retired earlier. From this, he concluded that a small dose of stress is a positive thing, as those who live with low levels of stress tend to develop healthier habits, smoke less, and drink less alcohol.2

Stop sitting during the day – it will break down your body over time and age you faster. Spending too much time seated at work or at home not only reduces muscular and respiratory fitness but also increases appetite and curbs the desire to participate in activities. Being sedentary can lead to hypertension, imbalanced eating, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and even certain kinds of cancer. Recent studies have shown a connection between a lack of physical activity and the progressive distortion of telomeres in the immune system, which ages those cells and, in turn, the organism as a whole.

Quotes from People who live to 100-110:

Keep it simple: eat just a little of everything with relish, go to bed early, get up early, and then go out for a walk.

“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.”

“I feel joy every morning waking up at six and opening the curtains to look out at my garden, where I grow my own vegetables. I go right outside to check on my tomatoes, my mandarin oranges . . . I love the sight of them—it relaxes me. After an hour in the garden I go back inside and make breakfast.”

Getting together with my friends is my most important ikigai. We all get together here and talk—it’s very important. I always know I’ll see them all here tomorrow, and that’s one of my favorite things in life.”

“My main hobby is getting together with friends and neighbors.” “Talking each day with the people you love, that’s the secret to a long life.”

“Chatting and drinking tea with my neighbors. That’s the best thing in life. And singing together.” “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.”

“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.”**

Victor Frankl used to ask patients right off the bat: “Why do you not commit suicide?” Usually the patient found good reasons not to, and was able to view reasons why they were alive.

Anguish on the inside is not a mental illness, it is natural and drives us to the next stage of development.

Logotherapy does not see this frustration as mental illness, the way other forms of therapy do, but rather as spiritual anguish—a natural and beneficial phenomenon that drives those who suffer from it to seek a cure, whether on their own or with the help of others, and in so doing to find greater satisfaction in life. It helps them change their own destiny.

Ask yourself: What makes us enjoy doing something so much that we forget about whatever worries we might have while we do it? When are we happiest?

You must find flow.

As Csikszentmihalyi asserts in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 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.”

Rituals over goals.

Don’t worry about the outcome—it will come naturally. Happiness is in the doing, not in the result. As a rule of thumb, remind yourself: “Rituals over goals.”

Art, in all its forms, is an ikigai that can bring happiness and purpose to our days. Enjoying or creating beauty is free, and something all human beings have access to.

“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.” —T. H. White, The Once and Future King

Consider a peaceful life in the country if you want to live long. There are many centenarians living in remote villages in other countries. A peaceful life in the countryside seems pretty common among people who have watched a century pass.

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.”

Community centers and events are more important than bars and restaurants. There are no bars and only a few restaurants in Ogimi, but those who live there enjoy a rich social life that revolves around community centers. The town is divided into seventeen neighborhoods, and each one has a president and several people in charge of things like culture, festivals, social activities, and longevity

Common elements: Gardening. Neighborhood association. Music, song, and dance. Have one or more ikigai, but don’t let it’s goals overwhelm you. Yuimaaru is the idea of always helping – build projects for others, help them with work, construct, etc.

One hundred percent of the people we interviewed keep a vegetable garden, and most of them also have fields of tea, mangoes, shikuwasa, and so on. All belong to some form of neighborhood association, where they feel cared for as though by family. They celebrate all the time, even little things. Music, song, and dance are essential parts of daily life. They have an important purpose in life, or several. They have an ikigai, but they don’t take it too seriously. They are relaxed and enjoy all that they do. They are very proud of their traditions and local culture. They are passionate about everything they do, however insignificant it might seem. Locals have a strong sense of yuimaaru—recognizing the connection between people. They help each other with everything from work in the fields (harvesting sugarcane or planting rice) to building houses and municipal projects. Our friend Miyagi, who ate dinner with us on our last night in town, told us that he was building a new home with the help of all his friends, and that we could stay there the next time we were in Ogimi. They are always busy, but they occupy themselves with tasks that allow them to relax. We didn’t see a single old grandpa sitting on a bench doing nothing. They’re always coming and going—to sing karaoke, visit with neighbors, or play a game of gateball.

Consider eating less than 10 grams of salt per day. It is also the only province that has managed to follow the Japanese government’s recommendation of eating less than ten grams of salt per day.

Variety of foods, vegetables especially. Five servings daily. Eat the rainbow. 30% of calories comes from vegetables. Grains are fine too – rice and noodles. No sugar except for cane sugar. The Okinawa Program: They reached the following conclusions: Locals eat a wide variety of foods, especially vegetables. Variety seems to be key. A study of Okinawa’s centenarians showed that they ate 206 different foods, including spices, on a regular basis. They ate an average of eighteen different foods each day, a striking contrast to the nutritional poverty of our fast-food culture. They eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. At least seven types of fruits and vegetables are consumed by Okinawans on a daily basis. The easiest way to check if there is enough variety on your table is to make sure you’re “eating the rainbow.” A table featuring red peppers, carrots, spinach, cauliflower, and eggplant, for example, offers great color and variety. Vegetables, potatoes, legumes, and soy products such as tofu are the staples of an Okinawan’s diet. More than 30 percent of their daily calories comes from vegetables. Grains are the foundation of their diet. Japanese people eat white rice every day, sometimes adding noodles. Rice is the primary food in Okinawa, as well. They rarely eat sugar, and if they do, it’s cane sugar. We drove through several sugarcane fields every morning on our way to Ogimi, and even drank a glass of cane juice at Nakijin Castle. Beside the stall selling the juice was a sign describing the anticarcinogenic benefits of sugarcane.

Remember when eating…Hara hachi bu! It is an ancient practice. The twelfth-century book on Zen Buddhism Zazen Youjinki recommends eating two-thirds as much as you might want to. Eating less than one might want is common among all Buddhist temples in the East. Perhaps Buddhism recognized the benefits of limiting caloric intake more than nine centuries ago. When you notice you’re almost full but could have a little more . . . just stop eating!

Eat a ton of nobiletin from citrus. All citrus fruits—grapefruits, oranges, lemons—are high in nobiletin, but Okinawa’s shikuwasas have forty times as much as oranges. Consuming nobiletin has been proven to protect us from arteriosclerosis, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity in general.

Broccoli. Oily fish. Fruits. Berries. Dried fruits. Grains with minerals. Olive Oil. Red wine. The Antioxidant Canon, for Westerners In 2010 the UK’s Daily Mirror published a list of foods recommended by experts to combat aging. Among these foods readily available in the West are: Vegetables such as broccoli and chard, for their high concentration of water, minerals, and fiber Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines, for all the antioxidants in their fat Fruits such as citrus, strawberries, and apricots; they are an excellent source of vitamins and help eliminate toxins from the body Berries such as blueberries and goji berries; they are rich in phytochemical antioxidants Dried fruits, which contain vitamins and antioxidants, and give you energy Grains such as oats and wheat, which give you energy and contain minerals Olive oil, for its antioxidant effects that show in your skin Red wine, in moderation, for its antioxidant and vasodilatory properties

Don’t sit at home and read the paper. Walk. Karoke with neighbors. Get up early and have breakfast, walk, weed the garden, no need for the gym but DON’T STOP MOVING. When we visited Ogimi, the Village of Longevity, we discovered that even people over eighty and ninety years old are still highly active. They don’t stay at home looking out the window or reading the newspaper. Ogimi’s residents walk a lot, do karaoke with their neighbors, get up early in the morning, and, as soon as they’ve had breakfast—or even before—head outside to weed their gardens. They don’t go to the gym or exercise intensely, but they almost never stop moving in the course of their daily routines.

Sitting is BAD…get up at least every 20 mins. 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,” says Gavin Bradley in a 2015 interview with Brigid Schulte for the Washington Post.

Create a practice with your body daily: consider yoga, qigong, or tai chi. Yoga—originally from India, though very popular in Japan—and China’s qigong and tai chi, among other disciplines, seek to create harmony between a person’s body and mind so they can face the world with strength, joy, and serenity. They are touted as elixirs of youth, and science has endorsed the claim.

Tai chi can heal you. It has been shown, among other things, to slow the development of osteoporosis and Parkinson’s disease, to increase circulation, and to improve muscle tone and flexibility. Its emotional benefits are just as important: It is a great shield against stress and depression.

Life is short. Also known as Wabi-sabi. This is a Japanese concept that shows us the beauty of the fleeting, changeable, and imperfect nature of the world around us. Instead of searching for beauty in perfection, we should look for it in things that are flawed, incomplete.

It is also known as ichi-go ichi-e. This could be translated as “This moment exists only now and won’t come again.” It is heard most often in social gatherings as a reminder that each encounter—whether with friends, family, or strangers—is unique and will never be repeated, meaning that we should enjoy the moment and not lose ourselves in worries about the past or the future.

There are forces designed to make you sad and void of meaning. Modern life estranges us more and more from our true nature, making it very easy for us to lead lives lacking in meaning. Powerful forces and incentives (money, power, attention, success) distract us on a daily basis; don’t let them take over your life. Our intuition and curiosity are very powerful internal compasses to help us connect with our ikigai. Follow those things you enjoy. Follow your ikigai. There is a passion inside you, a unique talent that gives meaning to your days and drives you to share the best of yourself until the very end.

If you don’t know what your ikigai is yet, as Viktor Frankl says, your mission is to discover it.