Are you interested in living a long, healthy and fulfilling life? Who isn’t? The secret to doing so just may be found on the island of Okinawa, in southern Japan, home to the highest concentration of centenarians in the world. And these island dwellers’ secret to longevity may boil down to just one word: ikigai, which roughly translates to your reason for living – or your inner motivation for a specific professional activity. It can also be described as an intersection between four different elements: what you’re passionate about, where your skills lie, how you can earn a living and what the world needs. Many Japanese believe that everyone has an ikigai, or destiny, that they were born to fulfil.
However, while some people find their ikigai quickly, others must seek it out over time. If you fall into this latter category, it’s important to persist; after all, ikigai will ultimately be what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning. That’s why Okinawans often attain a high degree of specialisation and attention to detail in their daily work. For instance, in an Okinawan paintbrush factory, the authors met a skilled craftswoman who had spent her entire life perfecting the art of attaching individual hairs to a brush. At this stage in her career, she was able to do her job with stunning dexterity and skill. What’s more, ikigai is also the key to longevity. So, if your ikigai is your job, you should never retire. And if your ikigai is a hobby that brings you meaning and joy, don’t ever give it up. Okinawans abide by these rules and, as a result, remain active late into their lives. The benefits of this commitment are clear. Medical studies conducted on Okinawan centenarians have found extremely low rates of both heart disease and dementia.
You’ll need to find something upon which to focus your attention. Immersing yourself in an activity can help keep you young. Imagine you’re skiing down a beautiful powdery slope. Skiing is your absolute favourite thing in the world, and you’re in a state of complete, blissful, focused engagement. You feel as if you could do this for the rest of your life, you just might want to live forever. The good news is that engaging in such an activity could, in fact, increase your lifespan. Achieving such a state of flow regularly can help keep you young. Flow in this sense is a technical term coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s. It describes a state of enjoyment and concentration so deep it blocks out all other concerns–even time itself. Seeking out activities that produce such a state will increase your enjoyment of life and, therefore, your longevity. That’s why such experiences should be prioritized over hedonistic ones like overeating, alcohol and substance abuse or media entertainment, which people often indulge in out of boredom. Flow is even shared across cultures and types of people. As a result, chess players, engineers and painters can all find themselves in a state of flow. But beyond that, it’s healthy for the mind, since it focuses you on a single object for a sustained period. Ideally, your ikigai – that is, your main life occupation – will regularly produce a state of flow, but if it doesn’t, be sure your hobbies do.
Nobody knows how to live a long life better than those who are actually living one. So, let’s take a look at the advice of the Okinawan centenarians. The first tip these old folks recommend is that you worry as little as possible and make a habit of greeting others, even strangers, with a smile and an open heart. By doing so, they say you’ll maintain plenty of friendships throughout your years and make your grandchildren want to visit you all the time. Such constant stimulation will help keep you young. Beyond that, they caution that excessive worrying about things you can’t change only causes unnecessary stress. For instance, worrying that you’re not good enough or haven’t had a successful enough career will only waste your life energy. Instead, the centenarians wisely advise you to enjoy what you have. If you do, they say, you’ll likely realize you have much more than you thought. Another tip for longevity is the cultivation of good habits. For instance, waking up early in the morning is primarily a matter of habit; after doing it for a few years, it will just happen automatically. Beyond that, rising at an early hour will give you extra hours of quiet in the morning to relax and meditate, do yoga or exercise. Perhaps the most important habit of all for a long life is to enjoy and maintain your friendships. Recognizing this, Okinawans spend time chatting with their neighbours every single day.