I recently finished reading the book Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a long and happy life (or the Ikigai Book) by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles. I enjoyed reading the book. My philosophical disposition lends well to the authors’ intended message, but I suspect some people may have an issue with the basic premise of the book: living a long life. In this review, I describe a summary of the book’s contents, my observations, and then I try to offer a bridge to opponents of the idea.
The book tells you how to live a long and happy life by recounting their interviews and research on the elderly who reside in Blue Zones – areas where the life expectancy of the residents is significantly higher than the average. They discuss the diet, food habits, daily activities, and other relevant observations about these wonderful folks who live to 100 or above. But the book doesn’t tell you why you should live a long and fulfilling life. Technically, the authors don’t need to answer this: everyone should find their own reasons for living. I present my personal take on this matter.
The content is organised into 9 chapters along with a prologue and epilogue. The first chapter introduces us to Blue Zones – a name for those geographical regions on earth where people live the longest. Next, we learn about how our lifestyle differs from that of our cave-dwelling ancestors. Turns out, stress is important, but only occasionally, and only when we need it. Low to moderate levels of sustained stress have detrimental effects on our body. Emphasis is given to things like maintaining a balanced diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and having a positive outlook on everything.
We then take a slight detour to examine how to figure out the purpose of one’s life through either Logotherapy or Morita Therapy (which was derived from Naikan meditation). The authors describe various short case studies where the patients turned their life around when they found the purpose of their lives. It gave them the will to continue living and see everything to the end. Note that the cases presented here are only for illustration. We all have different lives and what works for person A might not work for person B, for example. The authors wish the readers to find their own reasons for being. They answer the question: How to live a long and happy life? But the answer to: “Why should you live a long and happy life?” must be answered by you alone.
Logotherapy and Morita therapy are both grounded in a personal, unique experience that you can access without therapists or spiritual retreats: the mission of finding your ikigai, your existential fuel. Once you find it, it is only a matter of having the courage and making the effort to stay on the right path.Ikigai Book, Page 51
After this comes a very nice chapter on the concept of Flow, pioneered by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. I experience a state of flow when I’m programming, writing, strategising, designing, or planning. Therefore, I am familiar with the feeling. This chapter discusses the conditions which are necessary to achieve flow:
- Choosing a challenging but achievable task.
- Having a clear aim.
- Avoiding juggling tasks and focussing on a single job.
The authors follow up the descriptive portion with analogies to make things easier for the non-technical readers to follow. This is very thoughtful and not at all pandering to newbies, in my opinion. I enjoyed reading about masters of their craft paving the way for the rest of the world to follow.
In the last few chapters, the authors share their experience of documenting the life of and interviewing the residents of Ogimi village in Okinawa, Japan. This is one of the aforementioned Blue Zones of longevity. I quickly skimmed over the chapter on exercise because I follow my custom routine. Briefly, the things discussed include:
- Keeping the body active and the mind engaged.
- Practising modest consumption.
- Developing anti-fragility in the face of adversity and really emphasising on having a positive outlook.
- Keeping things simple. Living in the moment.
Is a Long Life Worth It?
If you say making money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living. That is, to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid. Better to have a short life, which is full of what you like doing, than a long one spent in a miserable way.Alan Watts
I agree with this sentiment. I believe I am provided with the opportunity to do good things; activities that I enjoy doing. I recognise my privilege and accept the fact that not everyone can afford my education or style of living. Therefore, I am thankful, and I try my best to ensure that I do not waste this gift. If I am given the option to choose between doing what I like and having a shorter life expectancy and having a long life of mediocrity, I will choose the former.
Practically, we don’t know how long we’ll live. Therefore, I try to adapt to my circumstances and find things that give me joy. Then I’ll try my best to live a happy and fulfilling life until the day of my demise. We’ll never know if today’s the day we die, or tomorrow, or next year, or next decade. Therefore, it’s best to be honest with ourselves and live life as best as we can.
We are operating with incomplete information at all times. Therefore, it pays to be robust, or better yet, anti-fragile in most aspects of life.
The Ikigai Book contained information that wasn’t exactly new to me. I am thankful to my parents for teaching me a lot of things early on. However, I am in a position of privilege. On the proverbial high-horse. Not everyone gets to afford the luxury of a happy childhood or even a decent upbringing. This is especially true given the circumstance that young people have to deal with in this market.
Therefore, I recommend people read this book and figure out their life’s purpose. If you already have one, reinforce it and follow the suggestions as closely or as little as you want.