According to a 2017 study on the Mechanisms of Aging and Development, centenarians in Japan, especially in Okinawa have the longest lifespans and highest prevalence rates in the world. They are also less prone to age-related diseases [1]. This has earned the city the nickname “Land of Immortals”.

What’s the secret?
The secret to living a longer life can be associated with the level of happiness and fulfillment we get out of life. Although happiness and fulfillment are subjective concepts that signifies something different to each of us, they are invariably tied to the way we live and our life values. In Japan, this wholesome combination of happiness and fulfillment is summed up in one word: Ikigai.

The work Ikigai is made up of two words, ‘iki’ which means “to live” and ‘gai’ which means “reason”. When put together, ikigai means your reason to live or literally, a life worth living. The ikigai way of life is especially prominent Okinawa but the ideology is not a new one as it dates back to the Heian period in between 794 A.D. and 1185 A.D. It has come into the mainstream media in the past decade and become popular all over the world.

What is ikigai?
During a 2009 TED talk titled “How to Live to Be 100+,” renowned journalist, Dan Buettner attempted to explain the concept of ikigai by examining the lifestyle traits of people living in Okinawa. “In America, we divide our adult life into two different categories: work life and retirement life,” he says. “In Okinawa, they don’t even have a word for retirement. Instead, there’s simply ‘ikigai,’ which essentially means ‘the reason for which you wake up in the morning.’”[2].

To explain the concept, Buettner gave a few examples of the ikigai of several Okinawans. For a 102-year-old woman, it meant holding her tiny great-great-great-granddaughter; for a 101-year-old fisherman, ikigai meant catching fish for his family three times a week; for a 102-year-old karate master, it was teaching the younger generation martial arts. The simple life values of these individuals, their sense of purpose, meaning and motivation in life are what constitutes the very essence of ikigai.

The benefits of ikigai
For as long as we have been on earth, humans have tried to find the secret behind a long and healthy life. Although most experts agree that the answer is probably a mix of diet, regular exercise, and good genes, studies have found that having a sense of purpose in life is also a key component.

In a 2015 study that analyzed the effects of social participation on the concept of ikigai in older Japanese population, 767 subjects aged ≥65 years were followed for 2 years to find out what social activities one’s ikigai. The paper found that the positive psychological factor of ikigai is associated with longevity among Japanese people. Another 2008 study of over 50,000 participants revealed that those who reported having ikigai in their lives had reduced risks of cardiovascular diseases and lower mortality rates.

A lifelong process
Finding your inner ikigai takes time but it is well worth it. A good place to start is by asking a few simple soul-searching questions: Why do you get up in the morning? What makes you happy? What are your values? What are you good at? What motivates you? The answers to these questions will help you understand yourself and your purpose in life and bring you closer to ikigai.

References:

  1. Demographic, phenotypic, and genetic characteristics of centenarians in Okinawa and Japan: Part 1—centenarians in Okinawa. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development“, ScienceDirect. July, 2017.
  2. How to live to be 100+“, TED Talk. September, 2009.
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