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Ikigai: The Japanese Philosophy of Life

The secret to a long and healthy life

There is a Japanese island called Okinawa, whose inhabitants are renowned for their longevity. It has one of the highest concentration of people over 100! And the most fascinating thing about it is that even the oldest Okinawans are thriving, healthy and sprightly, and have the emotional, intellectual and physical capacity to live on their own. So, what do the islanders on Okinawa do to live a long and happy life? 

IKIGAI:
That for which
i get up in
the morning.

The secret to their long and healthy life has been repeatedly studied. Most believe the key, in addition to a good, balanced diet, a life spent in the outdoors, fresh green tea and the subtropical climate - is the concept ikigai by which they live. Ikigai is very simple, it means “a reason for being.” In the Okinawan culture, ikigai is thought of as the reason one gets up in the morning, the reason for enjoying life.  Okinawans learn this early on and make it an integral part of their raison d'être

There are certainly many important components in this concept, and we have a lot to learn from these people. Here are the main aspects of ikigai:

#1 Find your ikigai

Ikigai is what keeps Okinawans in the blissful state that is so lacking in our own lives. Ikigai offers the answer to 4 important questions in life:

- What do I love doing?
- What am I good at?
- What does the world need from me?
- What can I get paid for?

As we all know, personal happiness contains much more than pursuing a career and earning a substantial paycheck. However, doing what you love but not being able to make ends meet is also not the solution. 

Ikigai holds that the perfect balance lies in the dovetailing of the answers to these four questions. Each one contributes to an individual’s happiness and the four together is crucial for your own raison d'être. Without it, one wanders aimlessly through life, holding onto material things that gives nothing back emotionally or spiritually. It’s like subsisting only on junk food, the body hungers never feeling fulfilled.

According to studies, individuals who believe their lives are meaningful - live longer! And ikigai is all about that.

#2 The art of slow living

Slow living is the other concept followed by Okinawans. It emphasizes the avoidance of the hectic while pursuing a deliberate, focused and conscious approach to everyday tasks. People on Okinawa love what they do, they approach everything with a relaxed and easy-going attitude. We, on the other hand, live in a world in which technology is designed to save us time; modern life, as we know it, is about speed and it seems to be accelerating all the time, and with that comes stress. 

Okinawans use the time to be present and enjoy what they do in the moment. Slowing down leads to a greater appreciation of life.

#3: Don’t stuff your stomach 

Okinawa also has the lowest death rate from cardiovascular diseases in the whole world. And diet has a lot to do with that. The Okinawan diet includes at least seven different types of vegetables a day, and that’s on top of seaweed, soy sprouts and green tea. Sugar is rarely ever eaten. The average daily intake of an Okinawan is only about 1,900 calories, significantly less than a western diet’s. They also eat half as much salt as the rest of Japan - only 7 grams per day. Okinawans follow the rule of hara hachi bu, meaning eating only till 80% full.  Once satiety is reached, they stop eating. You should never feel stuffed. 

The secret is to eat slowly with total focus on the food - no distractions, using small plates. The cultural practice of calorie restriction and mindful nutrient-dense eating is part of the reason Okinawa has the world’s largest elderly, healthy folk.

#4: Surround yourself with good friends

Okinawans live in small neighborhoods and they meet with friends for a common purpose every day or several times a week to talk, exchange experiences, go for walks or play go. This is called moai. The term originated hundreds of years ago and describes a traditional social support network that was the life in a village where everyone knew each other and cooperation was the norm. 

Okinawans today continue to live rich social lives that revolve around community centers and close friendships. It is common for Okinawans to have lifelong friends. Research shows that friends can affect health even more than family. People with many close friends tend to outlive those with the fewest by 22%. 

Keep in mind this refers to deep, mutually-supportive friendships, not tons of superficial ones. In other words, what we need are a handful of truly good friends who will stay with you through thick or thin. 

#5: Smile

Okinawans always have a smile on their face. They say that even with all the problems that comes with life, one should never forget the privilege of being alive in the here and now.

This cheerful attitude is soul-relaxing and helps one not to take things too seriously. By the way, smiling lowers heart rate and reduces blood pressure, all the while putting the body at ease.

#6: Reconnect with nature

Almost everyone in Okinawa keeps a vegetable garden. They say gardening is one of their ikigai rules of living. While working in their garden and getting exercise, they get plenty of fresh air and commune with nature. 

More than 100 studies have demonstrated that being in nature has positive impact on our mental and physical well-being. People who are surrounded by nature - live longer and have a lower risk for developing cancer and respiratory illness.  

#7: Show gratitude

And again, it always comes down to feeling grateful. In Okinawa, it is a part of their tradition to give thanks to the smallest of things. They show their thankfulness by making offerings to their ancestors, to nature for providing them with food, water and air.  They, of course, thank each other and everything else that brightens their day!

#8: Exercise

In Okinawa, people over eighty or ninety continue to be highly active. They walk a lot, get together to dance and work in their gardens. They do not play intense sports, preferring instead to move continuously throughout the day. The truth is, in order to stay healthy, you don’t need to go to the gym regularly. As these Japanese centenarians show us - all you need is to add movement to your day. 

Practicing slow-moving yoga or tai chi provides extraordinary health benefits. Most importantly, ikigai doesn’t mean you have to be happy all the time. Rather, it should be seen as a path to navigate through the difficult times, leading you to where you ultimately want to be. It is a lifestyle and an ancient concept that proves itself to be incredibly effective. We all have something to gain from this.

Ikigai is very simple,
it means
“a reason for being.”

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