“Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life”
by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles
published in 2017 by Portfolio Books

This book was not what I was expecting.

Ikigai is a Japanese concept that describes a person’s purpose – what a French philosopher might call a raison d’être. Each of us has an ikigai which we carry deep within us. When we find our ikigai, we have a reason to get up in the morning and lead a fulfilling life. The diagram shown in Figure 1 illustrates the concept of ikigai.

Figure 1: Concept of ikigai

I had heard of this concept previously and it really intrigued me. And I should confess that I think I have already found my ikigai in the work that I do. Running Aurora Marketing and leading an incredible team of professionals is very fulfilling for me, and helping clients to improve their businesses, secure more clients and win major contracts is very exciting for me. Many tenders we work on are truly thrilling for their competitive challenge and rewarding for their opportunity for us to contribute to transformative, city-shaping (or indeed even nation-shaping) projects.

Where other people can’t wait for the weekends and hate going to work, I genuinely love the work I do. I seem to always be occupied with work-related thoughts and happily work at nights, weekends and on holidays when needed. I don’t do it because I have to, but because I want to and feel a sense of accomplishment. When I read of the concept of ikigai, it made sense to me and seemed to explain what I am fortunate to experience.

I expected this book to explain how to find one’s ikigai in order to make life more fulfilling. I had found my ikigai by accident, but I thought a process to discover one’s ikigai would be really interesting. However, the book is much more wholistic and delves in to the elements of Japanese lifestyle that contribute to living a long and happy life. (Yes, I see now that the sub-title said exactly that.) Even though it wasn’t the book I was expecting to read, it gave me a lot to think about, particularly in relation to some lifestyle factors that are counterproductive which I really should look at adjusting.

By page 22, the book was warning the reader about stress, particularly from the perspective of causing premature aging. (Uh oh. My work can be really stressful at times. #deadlines) According to the research cited by the authors, most health problems can be directly attributed to stress, as well as cellular aging.  “These days, people live at a frantic pace and in a nearly constant state of competition.” (Ah, yeah, tenders are straight-up competition.) Our bodies were not designed to live in this constant state of semi-stress. As cave dwellers, we were relaxed most of the time, felt stress only in very specific situations, and reacted to life-threatening incidents with short bursts of high doses of cortisol and adrenalin. Comparatively, we work most of the time, are on constant alert (think about the constant pinging of our phones with texts, calls and emails), and have low doses of cortisol constantly flowing through out bodies.

A small dose of stress is a positive thing, but this sustained state of emergency affects the neurons associated with memory, inhibits the release of certain hormones which can ward of depression, and causes irritability, insomnia, anxiety and high blood pressure. To avoid this premature aging, we need to adjust our lifestyle.

By page 27, the book was warning the reader about sitting for sustained periods of time. (Oh dear. We can spend 10+ hours sitting at our desks. #deadlines) Spending too much time sitting reduces muscular and respiratory fitness, increases appetite, and decreases motivation to move. It can lead to hypertension, imbalanced eating, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and even certain kinds of cancer.

We can combat the effects of a sedentary lifestyle with some simple changes to our routines, including going for a walk each day, walking to work, taking the stairs, using a standing desk, playing sports and stretching more.

By page 29, the book was warning the reader about not getting enough sleep. (Really? My lifestyle is not looking good. #deadlines) Sleep generates melatonin – a powerful antioxidant that strengthens our immune system, protects against cancer, produces insulin, slows Alzheimer’s disease and prevents osteoporosis and heart disease.

As well as getting more sleep, we can compensate for lower melatonin production by eating a balanced diet*, getting a moderate amount of sun each day, avoiding stress*, alcohol*, tobacco and caffeine*.  (*oh, come on!)

By page 37, the book had moved on to helping the reader to find their purpose, or their ikigai. The process starts with a comparison to logotherapy, a school of psychology that helps people to consciously discover their life’s purpose so that their quest to fulfil their destiny motivates them to press forward and overcome obstacles. The founder of logotherapy believed that a person’s health depends on the natural tension that comes from comparing what they have accomplished so far with what they would like to achieve in future. What people need is not so much a peaceful existence but a challenge that they can strive to meet by applying all the skills at their disposal.

Taking this concept one step further, a key ingredient of ikigai is the concept of flow – where we are so immersed in our task that we lose track of time. We enter ‘the zone’. This is a state of pleasure, delight, creativity and process where we are completely immersed in life.

Finding your ikigai requires you to discover those activities where you flow – where you enjoy doing something so much that you forget your worries, where you are happiest, where your mind is ‘in order’.

There are 7 conditions for achieving flow:

  1. Knowing what to do
  2. Knowing how to do it
  3. Knowing how well you are doing
  4. Knowing where to go (where navigation is involved)
  5. Perceived significant challenges
  6. Perceived significant skills
  7. Being free from distractions.

A few strategies are outlined for achieving flow, including choosing a difficult task (but not too difficult), having a clear, concrete objective, and concentrating on a single task.

Finding one’s ikigai is just one element of living a long and happy life. One’s lifestyle needs to support longevity. This is where we have a lot to learn from the Japanese.

A chapter is devoted to Okinawa’s miracle diet. According to the World Health Organisation, Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world (85 years for me and 87.3 years for women), and the highest ratio of centenarians in the world. The region of Okinawa exceeds the national average and is first amongst the world’s Blue Zones of longevity.

Okinawan’s eat a wide variety of goods, especially vegetables; eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day; eat white rice every day; rarely eat sugar; eat very little salt and consume fewer calories overall. In fact, low caloric intake is common among all the Blue Zones, with an average Okinawan consuming only 1785 calories per day. The Japanese even have a concept called hara hachi bu which roughly translates to ‘fill your belly to 80%’. Portion sizes are much smaller and people stop eating when they are feeling just a little bit still hungry.

The Okinawans have 15 foods which they consider to be keys to vitality and are eaten almost every day: tofu, miso, tuna, carrots, goya (bitter melon), kombu (sea kelp), cabbage, nori (seaweed), onion, soy sprouts, hechima (cucumber-like gourd), soybeans (boiled or raw), sweet potato, peppers and sanpin-cha (jasmine tea). (I need to expand my shopping list.)

Another chapter is devoted to Eastern exercise and movement, including taiso, yoga, tai chi and qigong. Deepening the guilt trip about sitting for too long, the book cites research that metabolism slows down by 90% after 30 minutes of sitting and good cholesterol drops 20% after 2 hours. “Just getting up for 5 minutes is going to get things going again. These things are so simply they’re almost stupid,” says Gavin Bradley, one of the preeminent experts on the subject. Basic taiso exercises take 5 minutes and can be done while standing at your desk (instructions and diagrams are provided). And if you know how to do a sun salutation, do that every morning. If you don’t know how to do it, it is explained, with diagrams, in the book.

And lastly, there is a chapter on resilience. People with a clearly defined ikigai pursue their passion no matter what. They never give up, even when the cards are stacked against them. This is resilience. Interestingly, resilience is not just an ability to persevere, but an ability to stay focussed on the important things in life and to keep from being carried away by negative emotions. Resilience is therefore crucial to living a long and happy life.

Buddhism and stoicism can both provide pathways to achieving resilience. Instead of worrying about the past or the future, appreciate things just as they are in the moment, in the now. I found this quote quite moving: “We should never forget that everything we have and all the people we love will disappear at some point. This is something we should keep in mind, but without giving in to pessimism. Being aware of the impermanence of things does not have to make us sad; it should help us love the present moment and those who surround us.”

Going beyond resilience is the concept of antifragility. The resilient person can resist shocks and stay the same, but the antifragile person gets stronger. Finding ways to go beyond resilience to antifragility brings to effect that well-known mantra “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”.

In summary, this was a really interesting book, and thought-provoking in many areas. While I have found my ikigai, I have a few lifestyle changes to make in order to lead a happier and healthier life.

But what I really liked about the book was the key theme of ‘busyness’ being important to a long and happy life. People who have discovered their ikigai have a purpose in life, and therefore a desire to jump out of bed in the morning to do things and be engaged. It is the opposite of laziness. It is the focus on living life to the fullest and doing your best in all of your endeavours, even the small tasks.

For further information about Aurora Marketing and how we can help you win your tenders, call us on 07 3211 4299 or email info@auroramarketing.com.au.