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Ikigai: The Secret to a Long and Happy Life

Ikigai is a Japanese concept that roughly translates to “the happiness of always being busy.” More broadly, it means having a purpose or reason for living. A new book called Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life was written by Spaniards Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, who came up with the idea while chatting in a bar in Tokyo. Could ikigai, they wondered, be the reason Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world (86.8 years for women and 80.5 years for men, according to the World Health Organization), and lays claim to the highest ratio of people who live to the age of 100 or beyond?

To explore that question, Héctor and Francesc decided to interview Japan’s centenarians in person. After a year of research, they decamped for Ogimi, a rural town of 3,200 on the north end of the island of Okinawa. Ogimi has been nicknamed the Village of Longevity, as people live longer here than in any other place on the planet.

Two happy women face to face.

This distinction, of course, wouldn’t mean much if these elders turned out to be frail, sickly and depressed. But, as Héctor and Francesc discovered, the longest-living people in the world exude happiness, friendliness and a remarkable vigor. (One woman who had recently turned 104 beat the authors in gateball, a fast-paced, croquet-like sport popular among Okinawa’s older residents.)

As they conducted their interviews with the eldest residents of the town, the authors recognized that something even more powerful than the area’s rich natural resources and beauty was at work: “an uncommon joy that flows from its inhabitants and guides them through the long and pleasurable journey of their lives.”

Here are some regular habits that help the elders of Ogimi cultivate ikigai.

  • They stay busy without hurrying.

The older residents of Ogimi are always doing something, and they approach each activity attentively and slowly, whether preparing tea or crafting objects out of wicker. Every single elder the authors spoke to has a vegetable garden they tend to daily. As one centenarian noted, “I plant my own vegetables and cook them myself. That’s my ikigai.”

  • They nurture connections with friends every day.

Ogimi is divided into 17 neighborhoods and each one has a president and other community members in charge of things like culture, festivals, social activities and longevity. There are few restaurants and no bars in Ogimi. Instead, social life revolves around the community center where everyone gathers frequently for celebrations and events such as birthday parties, weekly gateball competitions and karaoke.

Read more about Okinawa: Secrets to a Happy Life

  • They move throughout the day.

Even the Ogimi townspeople who are over 80 and 90 years old are still highly active. They don’t go to the gym or exercise intensely, but they are on the move during the course of their daily routines. Most get up early and spend an hour or so before or after breakfast tending their gardens. They meet friends for walks. And almost everyone follows a morning warm-up called “radio taiso,” gentle exercises that were first introduced to Japan through radio broadcasts in 1928. The movements, such as lifting your arms above your head and circling them to your sides, are simple and take only a few minutes. But they’re an effective, low-intensity form of dynamic stretching that helps keep residents limber. Try the calisthenics yourself with this brief video.

Couple crossing a bridge
  • They eat healthy foods in moderation.

Okinawans, research has shown, eat a diet rich in vegetables and herbs, and low in animal products. Daily staples, like seaweed, sweet potatoes, green tea and miso, are high in antioxidants. Okinawans consume one-third as much sugar and nearly half as much salt as the rest of Japan. Locals, the authors note, eat a wide variety of foods, especially vegetables and spices—an average of 18 different foods a day. They also consume fewer calories—1,758 per day compared to 2,068 in the rest of Japan and an estimated 2,200 to 3,300 calories in the U.S. The Okinawan diet is built around nutrient-dense, low-calorie vegetables and fruits. They also subscribe to the Japanese concept of hara hachi bu, which means “fill your belly to 80 percent.” In other words, stop eating before you feel completely full.

  • They connect with nature every day.

Okinawans spend time in nature—often while moving and engaging with friends. One Ogimi centenarian sums it up this way: “I wake up at 5 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 a long life: getting together with people, and going from place to place.”

Read more about global secrets for happiness: What the Heck Is Hygge?

Shelley Levitt is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles and editor at large for Live Happy. Her work has appeared in Real Simple, People, SUCCESS and more.

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