Achieving Longevity Through Ikigai
Okinawa, an island in Japan, has the highest concentration of centenarians. They practice, and believe in the concept of Ikigai – roughly translated to ‘the reason for living’. Ikigai is their secret to longevity, in addition to attaining a deep, fulfilling sense of happiness.
Finding purpose in one’s life, a deep sense of happiness, along with living a healthy, long life, is something that everyone wishes to achieve. Hector Garcia Puigcerver and Francesc Miralles’ Ikigai (2016) is a guide that delves into the wisdom of the Japanese culture and helps one find their ‘Ikigai’ while giving a few health tips along the way.
What Is Ikigai
Ikigai not only means one’s reason for living. It can also mean one’s inner motivation towards any professional activity, and one’s ability to attain a high level of specialization and attention to detail in their daily work. Ikigai is often described as a confluence of four notions –
- What one is passionate about
- Where one’s skills lie
- How one can earn a living, and
- What the world needs
According to many Okinawans, everyone is born to fulfil their Ikigai, however, some find it earlier and quickly, while some take time to understand and seek it.
Those who follow the rules of Ikigai, are highly motivated and committed to their Ikigai, and hence, are able to unlock the secrets of longevity. Many Okinawans are able to remain active late in their lives. Their belief and pursuit of Ikigai keep them engaged for long, as they are simply able to translate their motivations and their passions into whatever they do.
Simply put, if one’s job is their Ikigai, then one shouldn’t retire. Or if one’s hobby is one’s Ikigai, then it should never be given up!
According to studies conducted on Okinawan centenarians, the level of commitment Okinawans have to their Ikigai and that they have engaged minds, are the reasons they have lower rates of heart diseases and dementia.
An Active, Low-Stress Mind
It is common knowledge that ageing gracefully is the result of having a healthy body and mind. However, most people tend to neglect the health of their minds.
Physiologically, a lack of mental work results in weakening of the brain neural connections, just as living a sedentary life impacts the body. According to neuroscientist Shlomo Breznitz, the elderly tend to lose the flexibility of their brains because they refuse to try out new things and get trapped in routines and patterns.
Hence exercising the brain too is extremely vital to maintain good mental health. While mind games such as cards or chess help, what one really needs to exercise the brain is social interaction. An active mind that has exposure to many enriching activities, interaction with friends and family, etc. is a healthy mind.
In addition to having an active mind, avoiding stress is important. Stress is the key reason why the body and the mind experience unnecessary wear and tear. Stress increases the possibility of premature ageing.
A study conducted at the Heidelberg University had a young doctor undergo a few strenuous job interviews, wherein he was asked to solve complicated mathematical questions. After the interviews, his blood sample taken indicated the presence of stress-induced antibodies, as though his body was fighting a viral or bacterial infection.
His body had reacted to the stress, where its immune response was aimed at wiping away the threat. However, in the absence of any viral or bacterial threat, the antibodies were attacking healthy cells, causing the body to age faster.
It is thus important to be able to calm the mind and body down, avoid stress, practice techniques such as mindfulness or yoga, and even exercise to improve one’s longevity.
The Morita Therapy
In the fast-paced modern world, stress, burnouts, and anxiety are on the rise. Japan itself sees an increase in these due to the intense working culture the country has adopted.
The Japanese, however, have a tool called the Morita therapy, which can be practised world-over to cope and reduce anxiety, stress, and burnouts.
Invented by the psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner Soma Morita, the technique addressed and dealt with obsessions, compulsions, and chronic anxiety.
Unlike other therapies that focus on positive thinking, Morita therapy works by asking patients to address and accept their emotions and feelings, without trying to change them. Next, patients are asked to take particular actions to form new emotions, replacing old ones gradually.
The therapy has 4 stages. The first stage is one of absolute rest, where patients are asked to lie down in bed for about a week, without talking to anyone or having any exposure to media. They have to simply observe their emotions as they come and go. Their only contact is a small amount of supervision by the psychotherapist.
The second stage involves integrating repetitive activities into their daily routines, such as breathing exercises, diary writing, or taking walks.
The third stage increases the level of these activities, wherein they become more creative and physical. Activities such as painting, woodcutting, etc., and the increase in the level of activity and physical engagement, produce new feelings in patients and they begin to feel equanimity and joy due to the engagement.
In stage four, the patient re-engages with the world with a new sense of purpose and calmness.
The Morita therapy is a form of cleansing that proves that if one gets plenty of space and rest from distractions in life, one will be able to focus attention on things that are important.
Immersing Oneself In A State Of Flow
A state of flow refers to a state of concentration and enjoyment that is so deep that one gets completely immersed into the activity, even losing a track of time itself. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term in 1970.
Getting immersed in any activity enables one to achieve such a state, where the activity itself becomes the source of one’s enjoyment. Such activities, as opposed to hedonistic ones that people indulge in to get rid of boredom, such as substance abuse, overindulgence in entertainment media and even overeating, should be prioritized. These activities help increase longevity.
The state of flow is universal to all cultures and helps one to focus on a single activity for a prolonged period of time. Chess players, painters, etc often experience such a state of flow. Ikigai can also produce a similar state of flow. Hence if one’s occupation doesn’t, then it is essential that one indulge in a hobby that does.
The level of difficulty of the activity at hand is intrinsic to achieving a state of flow. For example, if the activity is too easy, then one can get easily distracted and bored. Similarly, with an activity that is too tough, one gets stressed out and tends to give up. Both scenarios can hinder a person from attaining a state of flow, and hence, it is essential to calibrate the level of difficulty of the activity indulged in.
One has to keep innovating, lookout for new and interesting things to do and keep calibrating the levels of difficulty to achieve flow.
Get Recommendations From The Experienced
We now know that some habits can increase longevity. However, understanding how to really have a longer life is best known by those who are already living it. The Okinawan centenarians have some simple tips on how to get about increasing longevity. According to these old-timers, one should –
- Worry about things in life as little as you possibly can.
- Greet everyone, even strangers, with an open heart and a smile.
- Having a sunny disposition will ensure that one always has loved ones and friends near – a type of simulation that will keep one younger.
- Stop worrying about the things that cant be changed.
- Enjoy whatever one has in life rather than fretting over what one doesn’t.
- Cultivate good habits such as getting up early. Early risers tend to have more time to themselves, are happier and healthier.
- One should grow one’s own vegetables, and cook one’s own food. The benefits of a farm-to-table habit are many-fold.
- Finally, maintain friendships, visit neighbours, and be socially engaged.
By following these tips, one can live a healthier, happier life and thus have better chances at longevity.
The Okinawan Diet
It is obvious knowledge that maintaining a healthy diet is one of the secrets to longevity. Makoto Suzuki, a heart specialist from Ryukyus University in Okinawa, conducted research on the Okinawan diet.
He found that firstly, the Okinawans consume a variety of foods, having as many as 206 different types of food regularly. While the base of their diet consists of grains – essentially noodles and rice, it also includes a variety of herbs and spices, about 5 separate portions of fruits and vegetables every day. They strive to ensure that their plate has all the colours of the rainbow.
Moreover, the Okinawans use salt and sugar sparingly, eating about 60% and 50% fewer amounts of sugar and salt respectively than the other Japanese natives (who have a relatively healthier diet than the rest of the world already!)
Along with variety in their diet, the Okinawans also place importance on portion size. They believe that one should stop eating when one is about 80% full – essentially, remain a little hungry. This concept is called the hara hachi bu. They achieve this by either avoiding dessert or reducing the portions they consume. They control their portion size by using smaller plates and instinctively eat less.
Even according to modern sciences, calorie-reduction has shown benefits. Consuming lesser calories helps limit the level of insulin-like growth factor 1 – a protein that is known to age cells faster. Thus eating lesser amounts is intrinsic to longevity.
Foods Rich In Anti-Oxidants
It is the age of the super-foods. Diet today is an essential form of medication. Some of the foods consumed by the Japanese are great for rejuvenation and longevity.
The Japanese regularly consume green tea. Green tea is full of antioxidants and helps promote longevity. The Okinawans regularly consume green tea, as, unlike other teas, it is unfermented and air-dried, thus retaining anti-oxidants and other active elements. It is known to reduce bad cholesterol, improve circulation, help regulate blood sugar levels, and even fight off infections.
Another option is white tea. White tea has a higher level of anti-oxidants, and when boosted with jasmine, both green and white tea improves immunity and cardiovascular health.
The Okinawans also eat shikuwasa, a type of citrus fruit that is loaded with antioxidants, containing about 40% more of nobiletin than other citrus fruits such as lemons and oranges. The fruit is highly acidic and is used in diluted quantities in a number of Okinawan dishes.
Traditional Okinawan foods might not be available to everyone. Hence it is best to increase one’s consumption of anti-oxidant rich foods such as broccoli, apricots, salmon, strawberries, etc.
Humans have evolved to move. Unfortunately, in the past few decades, humans have inched closer to sedentary lives, increasing the number and the chances of lifestyle diseases.
Being physically active, even in the smallest of ways, have numerous health benefits. The Okinawan centenarians aren’t big on physical activities such as sports and fitness, however, are known to incorporate movement into their lives in the simplest of ways.
The Okinawans walk. They walk in their gardens and in the neighbourhood. They ensure that they are constantly on the move, whether it is to get up, and sing karaoke at a bar, or spend time with grandchildren in their gardens. Their activities aren’t always intense, however, they never stop.
Even modern sciences have proved that sitting idly can adversely impact health. According to Gavin Bradley, a health expert, the body’s metabolism slows down after just sitting for half an hour. Sitting for more than two hours results in a drop in the levels of good cholesterol, and disrupts the digestion of fat. Thankfully, moving around for just five minutes after a half an hour sit-down can help offset these effects.
The Okinawans and native Japanese practice a concentrated form of exercise known as Radio Taiso, a basic form of warm-up. Originally broadcasted on the radio, Radio Taiso involves simple exercises, for example, lifting the arms above the head and bringing them down in circular movements.
These exercises are performed in the morning and even throughout the day. The Okinawans have incorporated these in schools, old-age homes and even in some workplaces, and gather as a community to perform them. The exercises help to gently warm up the muscles and joints of different parts of the body, keeping the body active and incorporating movement.
Living a long healthy life isn’t difficult. Like the Okinawans of Japan, everyone can work towards leading a healthier, happier life by practising Ikigai, finding one’s flow, reducing stress, maintaining a simple yet healthy diet and incorporating movement in life. Achieving longevity isn’t about a concentrated effort. It is about incorporating simplicity in life and truly loving whatever one has.