Japan is one of the most rapidly aging societies in the world. A quarter of the population is 65 or older. Several factors contribute to their longevity, and some you already know about. But there is a secret the Japanese have been keeping that can apparently extend life well past 100. It can be summed up in a single word: ikigai.

Diet, exercise and something more?

Most of us know that the Japanese diet is mainly made up of heart-healthy fish, rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Other commonly eaten foods include tofu, seaweed and rice, all of which carry a low risk for some cancers and arteriosclerosis.

Alongside their diet, Japan’s health care system is also one of the most accessible in the world. The government pays 70% of the cost of all health procedures and up to 90% for low-income citizens.

The Japanese use more public transport than we do in the U.S., which often means more walking in their day to day lives. In 2006 a bipartisan parliamentary group was formed in support of the formation of a suicide prevention policy. By 2012, the number of suicides in Japan fell below 30 000 for the first time since 1998, a gradual trend that began in 2009.

Purpose

But what is ikigai and what role does it play alongside diet and lifestyle? In Japanese, iki means “to live” and gai means “reason.” In other words, your reason to live or your sense of “purpose.” Living with purpose — the ikigai lifestyle — is especially prominent in Okinawa, which comprises more than 150 islands in the East China Sea.

Okinawa has some of the longest lifespans and highest prevalence rates of centenarians in the world according to a study published in ScienceDirect. Ikigai as a concept can be defined as simply as spending time with family, keeping up a gentle level of employment or volunteer work, or passing on knowledge by teaching the younger generations. It’s a reason to get up in the morning, it adds shape and color to the day, and it makes a person feel satisfied when their head hits the pillow.

In 2008 researchers from the Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine conducted a study to see if they could investigate the association between the sense of “life worth living (ikigai)” and the cause-specific mortality risk. They found that those who reported having ikigai in their lives had reduced risks of cardiovascular diseases and lower mortality rates. Seven years after the study, 95% of respondents who had ikigai were still alive, compared to the 83% who didn’t. Of course more research is needed, but these results certainly show promise.

How to ikigai

The first step appears to be slowing down. In Western cultures being “on” all the time or being perpetually busy is worn as a badge of honor. But in the East, emphasis is given to meditation, sitting down and drinking tea, and being careful and meticulous.

Taking time to stop and appreciate what you’re doing before running off to the next thing on your list can increase your chances of enjoying every moment and cultivate a sense of gratitude around even the smallest of task.

Slowing down can also make you more aware of the beauty that surrounds you. For example, did your spouse hand you a coffee as you ran out the door? Take time to stop and say thank you and appreciate the gesture. It’s not only good for your inner peace — it strengthens relationships, too.

Cultivating community is also important in ikigai. Fighting and bickering with those around you only adds stress and can make you feel alone when you go through challenging times. If you’re retired you now have time to reach out to family or old friends and make a point of seeing them. Don’t let these friendships slip away.

Be present and try to practice mindfulness everyday. Many Japanese sumo wrestlers testify that mindfulness is key in preparing for a fight. In one sumo legend, Onami, a wrestler who lived 100 years ago, went to see a Zen master because he suffered with stage fright. The Zen master told Onami, “Your name means Great Wave. Imagine you are a Great Wave. Visualize yourself sweeping your opponents aside like a powerful unstoppable wave.” He spent the days and nights meditating and visualizing himself as the Great Wave, sweeping his opponent aside with great unstoppable power, and — according to legend — it worked.

The four components of ikigai

Finally, being of service can also help with ikigai. In a TedTalk given by a Japanese girl on the subject of ikigai, she shared how helping a fellow student changed her whole perspective on life. By being of service she felt contented, looked forward to each day and was encouraged to help others find their own ikigai.

Ask yourself four questions: What do you love? What are you good at? What does the world need? And what can you be paid for?

She suggests that the four components of ikigai are: your passion, your mission, your vocation and your profession. In order to find these things she suggest you ask yourself four questions: What do you love? What are you good at? What does the world need? And what can you be paid for?

She concludes by saying, “As long as you never give up, as long as you never forget that you do have a purpose in life, as long as you never stop searching you will find your purpose in life and live a happy and meaningful life.”

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Remembering: Katherine Johnson