“Ikigai” — roughly translated as “the happiness of being constantly occupied” or, more concisely, one’s raison d’être — has taken the self-help industry by storm, but few who bat it around have actually taken the time to look into its meaning. Through this book review, you’ll come to understand its cultural importance, philosophical approach, and ability to transform your life into one of contentment.
This powerful Japanese concept is the universal key to longevity.
READ THIS BOOK REVIEW IF YOU:
- Are tired of looking for solutions to happiness when you know you have the power within
- Are looking for an alternative to the overwhelming amount of health advice out there
- Believe it’s time for a new you
Table of Contents
When Héctor García and Francesc Miralles first came together to flesh out the concepts covered in this summary, they were enamored by the fact that Japan boasted the highest population of people over the age of 100. Their journey took them to the rural village of Ogimi in northern Okinawa, home to the largest number of centenarians per capita. Toward defining the secret to Okinawans’ longevity, they focused on local foods and other resources, but after a year of anthropological study found that the real secret was something far less tangible: namely, an unbridled sense of joy.
This, they would discover, was the essence of ikigai, and had been for as long as anyone in Ogimi could remember. The good news was that ikigai wasn’t available only to the locals of an island far removed from most of the world, but something anyone and everyone could access by applying its principles in earnest.
In the most practical terms, ikigai is about finding something you love to do and doing it for as long as you’re able. It’s no coincidence that such a philosophy should gain traction in Japan, where “retirement” is a foreign concept and where the elderly feel remarkably alive because of it.
The island of Okinawa is one of five so-called Blue Zones — areas of the world in which people live the longest. This list is rounded out by Sardinia in Italy, Loma Linda in California, Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, and Ikaria in Greece. In addition to the healthy diet and exercise one would expect, common to all of these communities is a deep sense of purpose and belonging. Lack of stress has a profoundly positive effect on the body, and knowing that all one’s efforts mean something helps mitigate a lot of the unnecessary stress we place upon ourselves.
Ikigai is important, but so is general health. Science suggests that premature aging and a host of other health problems are linked to stress. One doesn’t need pages of research to know that human beings carry more stress now than at any point in history. Whereas our prehistoric ancestors had a lot of downtime, dealt with only occasional crises, and faced real predators, we modern humans are crisis magnets who take pride in our full schedules and treat abstract things such as push notifications and emails as if they were threats to our very existence.
Reducing the effects of stress begins with self-awareness, with knowing our habits intimately and living in the moment. Meditation and yoga, while helpful, are only partial solutions and must be included as part of holistic approach to stress reduction. Neither should we seek to rid ourselves completely of stress, as a moderate amount of it can inspire us to do great things.
Aging may look superficial, but your body is only as sound as your mind. Maintaining a youthful and energetic outlook can therefore go a long way in determining the quality of your life. Whether playing a board game with friends or learning a new language, mental exercise is just as important as physical. It actually creates new neural connections and revitalizes the brain, especially when the activity pushes you slightly beyond your comfort zone.
On the flip side, what we do with our bodies also has a profound effect on the brain. Our habit of sitting, for example, has become one of the most detrimental health epidemics of our daily lives. And nothing can replace the importance of getting enough sleep, which does wonders for our skin, energy levels, and overall health. But a positive mindset and active body mean little without a foundation of genuine emotional awareness.
From Logotherapy to Ikigai
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was examining concepts similar to Ikigai in the wake of the Second World War. His approach to personal well-being led to what he called “logotherapy,” the process by which patients learned to find a purpose in life. Frankl was trained in Freudian psychoanalysis, which mines the past for traumatic causes of one’s current mental and emotional instabilities. Logotherapy doesn’t look to the past, but instead trains an eye on the future and conceives of the self in relatively abstract, spiritual terms, thus leading to a more holistic sense of being.
In some cases, Frankl found, all it took was the right question to start someone on the path toward healing. His method was almost entirely self-driven and based on a principle of agency. His patients learned to access a feeling of purpose on their own terms.
As logotherapy was crystallizing in Vienna, a psychotherapist and practicing Zen Buddhist in Japan by the name of Shoma Morita was encouraging his patients to be at peace with their emotional landscape, renewing themselves through action over inspiration. His mastery of Zen meditation had led him to see the self as the common denominator in all problems. The only way to break the cycle was to stop attributing one’s own suffering to other people.
Recognizing yourself as the common denominator in all your problems helps you solve them, thus giving you a reason to live beyond cages of your own making. This process of healing prepares you to face any situation with something greater than fear: enthusiasm.
As so many of us go about our daily routines, wondering what it’s all for, it’s difficult to hold firmly to any sense of purpose. But life isn’t something to discover; it’s something to create. Our capacities for joy and sadness are equal, and it’s up to us to choose which will rule us. For those of us feeling stuck in life, a dramatic change — of career, of location, of perspective — might be all we need to right ourselves.
Find Flow in Everything You Do
Ikigai finds kinship in another vital concept we might call “flow” or “being in the moment” — an experience of doing something we love so much that time ceases to matter. Such activities have many things in common, but above all they share a balance between difficulty and reward. If skiing, for example, brings you great peace and joy, you also know that it took no small amount of practice before it clicked for you. The trick of achieving flow is to find that sweet spot. Too little challenge and it becomes boring; too much and it becomes anxiety-inducing.
Whatever your flow might be, you must always have a concrete objective toward which to aspire and a mind homed in on the process of getting there. It doesn’t mean you need an exhaustive map, just a reliable compass. Without this, everything else falls apart in your quest for flow. Some small things you can do every day to get your mind ready to achieve flow:
- Not looking at screens for close to an hour after waking or before sleeping.
- Turning off your phone.
- Abstaining from technology for one day a week.
- Putting yourself in places without Wi-Fi.
- Checking your email at most twice a day, and at scheduled times.
- Taking frequent breaks from work.
- Sanctifying your work with some kind of ritual, and rewarding yourself when finished.
- Freeing yourself from distraction.
- Taking care of routine tasks in one go.
Masters of Longevity
Japan is known for its takumi, or master artisans. A quintessential example would be the subject of the popular documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, who, after more than 80 years, still finds flow in the art of placing raw fish on rice for his morethan-satisfied customers. His task is simple; his skill, astronomical. This is the very picture of ikigai.
Another takumi is filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, whose passion for animation and the beauty and fragility of the natural world has been captured in such classics as Spirited Away, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Ponyo, all of which are themed around pollution and other ecological disruptions. His sense of flow is indefatigable, as evidenced by the fact that even after “retirement,” he was back in the studio drawing at his desk. He will continue to do so, he says, until he breathes his last.
But ikigai is not just the purview of famous directors and chefs. The Japanese are also experts at “microflowing,” as evidenced by the apparent enthusiasm with which many Japanese workers approach mundane tasks that might otherwise be taken for granted. From convenience store clerks to elevator operators, an undeniable happiness exudes from their very being as they go about their daily work.
We must likewise learn to take pleasure in our own repetitive tasks. Whether it’s washing the dishes or packing a school lunch, these little rituals can give us a sense of order and purpose if we let them. Human beings thrive on routine, repetition, and reliability. All of which means that those who are happiest in life aren’t the overachievers, but those who spend the most time in a state of flow.
Lessons from Japan’s Centenarians
Cultures outside of Japan have their own ideas about what enables a long life: some attribute it to proper eating and sleeping, while others thank God for a strong will to live. But Ikigai takes things further, and tells us that a broader sense of community, friendship, and connectivity is what ultimately keeps us all running. The long-lived back in Ogimi, Okinawa focus strongly on a communal life and positive outlook. Their sense of belonging gives even mundane tasks a clear purpose, as those tasks support the community that they love.
One example is the Okinawan tradition of moai, or hangout groups built around common interests. The practice dates back to a time when farmers banded together to sustain each other through bad harvests. The members of any given moai depend on each other for emotional support, even paying a monthly fee to cover food and activity expenses for the group, and share financial remainders equally with the group. Knowing such a dependable support system is there for you at all times makes waking up in the morning that much easier.
The Ikigai Diet
That Japan on the whole has the highest life expectancy of anywhere in the world has at least something to do with its food choices. The Okinawan diet is predicated on its variety, prevalence of vegetables (some unique to the island), preference for rice over bread, and lack of sugar. Okinawans eat fish on a regular basis and take in less than the average 2000-calorie diet by following the “80 percent full” principle. Their diet is also rich in antioxidants and green tea.
In Okinawa, the following antioxidant-rich foods are common:
- Goya (bitter melon)
- Kombu (sea kelp)
- Nori (seaweed)
- Soy sprouts
- Hechima (cucumber-like gourd)
- Soybeans (boiled or raw)
- Sweet potato
Sanpin-cha (a mixture of jasmine flowers and green tea) is a particularly important part of this diet and has been proven to lower cholesterol in the blood, relieve stress, fortify the immune system, and lessen the risk of a heart attack.
Gentle Movements, Longer Life
Another ikigai secret that won’t come as a surprise is that the elderly of Okinawa, well into their nineties and even beyond, remain active. One of the most important parts of the routines of the elderly in Japan is an exercise program that has been airing daily on the radio since before World War II. Even nursing home residents do it for an average of five minutes a day.
Radio exercises are basic, involving little more than a lifting of the arms and light bending of the knees, but the intention behind these movements — along with the increased blood flow and general happiness they promote — are life-changing. For those more agile and able, yoga provides the same benefits, as do tai chi, qigong, and shiatsu. Fundamental to all of these is deep breathing, which oxygenates the blood and strengthens overall health. Whatever method you choose, consistency is key.
Resilience and Wabi-Sabi
Ikigai is all about resilience, and the residents of Ogimi have it in spades. In their worldview, everyone has their own mabui, or essence, which only increases over time when one has something to do, something to love, and something to hope for. Ways to do this include:
- Creating redundancies by finding multiple sources of income so that if you lose one the others will have your back.
- Betting strategically, such as through small investments in multiple ventures rather than a large one with greater risk.
- Purging yourself of anything that makes you fragile, be it a substance, habit, or even a person.
Ikigai is practical for recognizing that life should be taken moment by moment, and in that spirit asks us to embrace “antifragility,” meaning that we are strengthened by that which doesn’t harm us. Tragedies on any level can be difficult to process, but one look at the unity they inspire is all we need to remind ourselves of the power of the human spirit.
Resilience is, further, about avoiding cynicism. It’s about being stoic and controlling our emotions before emotions control us. Think back on the worst events in your life, and you might just marvel at how well you’ve recovered from them. Such meditations are the essence of another Japanese concept called wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in that which is fleeting and imperfect. It tells us that being special entails bearing the scars to prove it. It means not only appreciating imperfection, but actually seeking it out as an aesthetic way of life.
There are as many varieties of ikigai as there are people in the world. Only you can discover your ikigai, that reason you wake up in the morning. But as the long-living Okinawans found, there are a few things you can do to find your passion (and live longer, to boot).
- Respect your mind and body. Stress is a silent killer, and prevents you from being your best self.
- It all starts with a question. When you really investigate what you care about and why, you’ll find the answers.
- Find your flow. When you’re in flow, you’re completely focused on the present, which brings joy and skill.
- Focus on mastery. Once you find what you love, do it to the very best of your ability for as long as you are able.
- Don’t neglect your community. Your friends and family will be there for you when things are hard, and celebrate with you when things go well.
- Eat well. Include a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet, and focus on the 80% principle.
- Move well. There’s no need to run a marathon. Even short, consistent bouts of stretching increase the health of your body and mind.
- Recognize the beauty in flaws. Loving yourself for who you are ensures you have the resilience you need to live a long and happy life.
About the Héctor García and Francesc Miralles
Héctor García has dual citizenship in Japan and Spain. He worked as a software engineer for CERN in Switzerland before relocating to Japan to usher Silicon Valley startups into the Japanese market. He’s the author of the bestselling book A Geek in Japan and runs a highly regarded blog called kirainet.com. Francesc Miralles, born in Barcelona, is an award-winning self-help author and novelist.
The book is a practical guide that teaches readers how to find their ikigai, which is a Japanese concept that means “a reason for being” or “a reason to live”. The book is based on the authors’ research and interviews with the residents of Okinawa, a Japanese island that has the highest percentage of centenarians in the world. The book consists of four parts:
- Part One: The book introduces the concept of ikigai and explains why it is important for living a long and happy life. It also outlines the ten rules of ikigai, which are: stay active, take it slow, don’t fill your stomach, surround yourself with good friends, get in shape, smile, reconnect with nature, give thanks, live in the present, and follow your passion.
- Part Two: The book explores the different aspects of ikigai, such as finding your flow, discovering your purpose, cultivating your talents, and embracing your values. It also provides some tips and exercises to help readers identify and pursue their own ikigai.
- Part Three: The book examines the secrets of longevity and happiness from the Okinawan perspective, such as eating a balanced diet, practicing gentle exercise, forming strong social bonds, having a positive attitude, and enjoying simple pleasures. It also offers some advice and examples on how to apply these secrets to one’s own life.
- Part Four: The book concludes with some reflections and suggestions on how to live an ikigai-filled life, such as creating a personal mission statement, setting goals, overcoming obstacles, celebrating achievements, and sharing one’s story with others.
The book is an informative and engaging resource for anyone who wants to learn more about ikigai or find their own reason for living. The book is written in a clear, concise, and friendly tone that makes it easy to read and understand. The book also uses vivid examples, anecdotes, humor, and emotion to convey its messages and invite its readers to reflect and relate. The book does not impose any judgments or prescriptions on its readers but rather encourages them to explore their own paths and perspectives.
The book is not only a guide but also a source of inspiration and enlightenment. It helps readers understand the essence and spirit of ikigai, and how it can help them live longer and happier lives. It also helps readers develop their skills, abilities, and potential, and achieve their goals. It motivates readers to pursue excellence, seek challenges, and overcome difficulties. It also urges readers to share their knowledge and experience with others who may benefit from them.
Overall, I think the book is a valuable addition to the literature on ikigai and personal development. It is suitable for anyone who wants to learn more about ikigai or find their own reason for living. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in this topic.