Senior woman smiling

Ikigai: the secret to living a long life

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Since the dawn of ages, humankind has been searching for the secret to living a long life. Perhaps it is the fear of the unknown. Maybe it is the dread of saying good-bye to this world and our loved ones. Whatever the reason, we all want to beat the odds and outlive Father Time. 

Our ultimate goal in life is to live forever! Or, at the very least, delay the inevitable as much as possible.

Fortunately, we have advanced life expectancy rates with relatively excellent success with each generation. Advances in medicine, technology, and understanding of our environment allow us to recognize the influences on our health and well-being.

Furthermore, recent studies identify a complementary belief system which ties in well with the longevity of our lives. Known as ikigai, it is the concept born out of Japan meaning one’s “reason to live”.

Here, we will look at various influences on longevity and how your ikigai may be just the secret you need to extend your life expectancy.

What is life expectancy?

Life expectancy is a statistical measure on the average number of years one is expected to live. Though varying from region to region, researchers agree it is influenced by a number of factors. For the most part, these factors are out of our daily control.

Gender

Regarding gender, the numbers are in. The average life expectancy is around 79 years old with women statistically having longer lives at 81 years of age. Men’s life expectancy is 76 years of age.

Currently, however, there is just not enough statistical data to calculate an average on transgender.

The environment

Depending on certain environmental factors, a community’s life expectancy will vary. Climate, nature and the quality of air, soil, and water are environmental indicators conducive to longevity.

Socio-economic influencers

How societies improve their local or regional economy has an impact on the overall life expectancy of the community.

Communities with advanced or specialized educational levels often have higher paying jobs and readily accessible medical care. Also, reducing poverty in communities can be a positive influence on longevity.

Genetics

There are certain genetic variations within the family that occur normally in a person’s DNA. These variations predispose them to inherited diseases that may negatively affect longevity. Heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and cancer are among the most common types.

On the other hand, strong genes in the production of proteins, metabolism, and other DNA repair genes may provide for a longer life span.

Japan country side Torii symbolising ikigai
Image by Pexels

Longevity in Japan

With the factors mentioned above, it is worth looking at an area with above average senior populations. One such region is Japan.

According to World Health Statistics 2018, Japan has the highest life expectancy of a combined male and female population in the world at 84.2 years.

The Statistics Bureau, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in Japan also estimates that there are 68,000 centenarians in Japan.

Further analysis of the data shows that women in Japan statistically enjoy an extra three years of life expectancy at birth than men and an average age of 86.8. These women are among the longest living in all developed countries around the world.

Men in Japan, on the other hand, don’t quite enjoy such a luxury with a long life-span having only an average age of 80.5 years.

Incidentally, it is also comparable to men in Australia (80.9 years), Sweden (80.7 years) and Israel (80.6 years).

Torii gate at the beach
Image by Jordy Meow

Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones

Along with four other regions, Dan Buettner designated Okinawa Japan as a “Blue Zone,” an area where there is a higher than average mortality rate.

The term was first coined by the researcher in the National Geographic story, 5 “Blue Zones” Where the World’s Healthiest People Live

Current Blue Zones

  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Loma Linda, California
  • Costa Rica, The Nicoya Peninsula
  • Ikaria, an isolated Greek island
  • The Italian island of Sardinia

Through his research on the aged population within each Blue Zone, Buettner identifies common lifestyle characteristics that contribute to the people’s secret to a long life. Above all are family, less smoking, an omnivorous diet including the consumption of legumes, physical activity, and social engagement.

Considering that such characteristics contribute to living longer, it is not a far stretch to make a connection between them and the concept of ikigai. In other words, the country which gave birth to ikigai is home to one of the oldest populations in the world.

Managing old age to live longer

Genetics, gender, the environment, are all strong influences on our lifespan. But, they are mainly out of our control.

However, there are a number of aspects commonly found in people of age that can be managed individually.

healthy food, vegetables
Image by Robert-Owen-Wahl

Healthy diet

“You are what you eat” is perhaps one of the most powerful adages ever spoken. It is a simple truism that is seemingly ignored by far too many.

First and foremost is giving up unhealthy eating habits. If you wish to exceed the average life expectancy, eating junk food is not the right way to do it. Doing so will result in a body that doesn’t perform at its highest level. 

Over time, such a destructive diet will result in your body shutting down. In the end, you will have only yourself to blame.

According to a study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation titled Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017, their finding was clear. There is a direct correlation between healthy diets and life expectancy rates.

In 2017, 11 million deaths and 255 million disability-adjusted life-years were attributable to dietary risk factors.

The study determined that diets with a high intake of sodium, low intake of whole grains, and low intake of fruits are the leading causes of dietary risk. In fact, a suboptimal diet is more detrimental to your health than other activities such as smoking.

Moderation

Next is the amount of calorie intake a person consumes. Indeed, it is another major factor. In fact, it is the leading cause of obesity.

Unfortunately, overeating is all too common. The obesity rate has exploded over the past 30 years and is still increasing year on year, doubling across the US.

According to the most recent Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) data, adult obesity rates in the United States now exceed 35% in seven states, 30% in 29 states and 25% in 48 states.

Therefore, being mindful about how much you eat is just as important as what you eat. If only people practiced moderation instead of super-sizing everything, obesity might not be such the issue it is.

We should heed the advice of the Japanese, “hara-hachi-bu” meaning, eat until you are 80% full. Simply, you shouldn’t stuff yourself, or rather, eat in moderation.

Regular exercise and physical activity

Of course, eating the right foods in the right amounts is simply not enough. Exercise is another key component for a healthier longer lifespan.

Physical activity will get your blood pumping and strengthen your muscles. It will increase your energy levels to burn those calories and give you the pep and vinegar you need to stay active. Exercise also reduces the risk of chronic disease.

When considering your ikigai, exercise makes you feel happier about yourself and what you are doing. Unsurprisingly, those who are living their ikigai always find time to exercise.

crossword puzzle
Image by Steve Buissinne

You are as old as you think you are

Not only do our bodies begin to change with old age, so do our minds. Everyone regards keeping a sound mind as the most important function to have if you are to live to old age.

In general, people are much more concerned about the state of their mental health than their physical well being. We are naturally inclined to do everything possible to prevent ourselves from losing our minds to senility or dementia.

Prevention is worthwhile

Though scientists are still researching diseases like Alzheimer’s, a cure has yet to be discovered. However, there is some evidence suggesting that all efforts towards prevention are merited.

Scientists at the Harvard Medical School have found that thought-based activities and other types of mental stimulation can enhance neurological connections that contribute to the development of a more active brain which may reduce the future loss of cells.

Essentially, mentally stimulating activities (frequent reading, taking new courses, doing puzzles, etc.) will help keep your brain active and sharp.

In a direct sense, in order to live a full life of purpose, you must make a concerted effort to increase and maintain constant amounts of mental stimulation. Forward thinking, problem-solving and actively expanding your knowledge of your ikigai will give your brain the exercise it needs.

Mental downtime

Just as important to the health of your mind is your mental downtime. It is important that as you continue to learn, read, think, and otherwise exercise your brain, you should also relax it. The mind benefits from a cooldown after a workout.

Surely, there are various types of meditation that will help relax and reduce stress levels. One of the more common forms in the context of ikigai is mindful meditation.

Mindful meditation helps you focus on the here and now, and is something you can do anywhere. Furthermore, it can give you an immediate sense of the direction you are headed in and the obstacles before you. It is perfect for a purpose-driven lifestyle.

No one ages alone

Lastly, one of the many principles rooted in ikigai is social harmony and sustainability. How often we connect with those around us and share our lives, feelings, and aspirations has a large impact on our happiness.

With every engagement comes a commitment to others and a responsibility to carry it through. Being socially active enhances loyalty between each other and is a driving force, motivating us to see our promises through.

In each of the Blue Zones, a commonality among all centenarians is their social construct and how often they are engaged with family and friends. In other words, people who live the longest usually don’t do it alone.

Pinker finds interaction for a long life

Developmental Psychologist and author of ‘The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter’ Susan Pinker explains in a 2017 Ted Talk, how social interactions are one of the key factors for a long and healthy life.

Through various examples of centenarians, Pinker notices how often they are surrounded by loved ones and friends. 

According to her research on social integration, the frequency with how often you are socially active with family and friends is one the “strongest predictors of how long you will live.” 

Furthermore, such integration is not limited to close relationships, but also includes mere acquaintances and people you meet for the first time.

Pinker cites studies on longevity

Pinker goes on to cite a number of studies that support her findings on the importance of social well being when it comes to longevity:

  • Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Brigham Young University on the lifestyle of seniors and what contributes to a longer life
  • Elizabeth Redcay, University of Maryland, on mapping the neurological behavior when interacting in person versus when viewing something that is static
  • Nicholas Epley, University of Chicago Business School on human perceptions when engaging others

So, keep yourself socially active and surround yourself with like-minded people. Enjoy your ikigai together and share your experiences with the world.

Itsukushima Torii as a symbol of ikigai
Image by Jordy Meow

The secret lies in your purpose

Is ikigai the secret to longevity? Well, the Okinawans believe that having an ikigai means that longevity is on your side.

By following your purpose in life, you are enabling one of the driving forces in wanting a happy and long life. With it, you have reason to treat yourself accordingly, well beyond personal preference.

With ikigai, comes a responsibility to both yourself and your mission to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Consuming the right foods in the right amounts as well as partaking in habitual exercise creates the vitality you need to maintain a high level of engagement.

Ikigai keeps you mentally stimulated towards pursuing a meaningful life. You should be continuously challenging the limits of your knowledge and looking for a way to improve what you are doing.

There is also the commitment you make to yourself and the promise to those around you. Personal attention and conscious effort to manage positive connections with others is a characteristic of a healthy society.

In every way, taking care of yourself and ikigai are intertwined as it paves the way for us to create positive habits in our lives that can affect our well being. Adjusting your lifestyle towards ikigai has a direct and positive impact on your ability to live well beyond the average age to the end of your days.

The value you bring to the world, should not be underestimated. Take care of yourself and share your life with others. You will not only be happier for doing it, you just might reap the reward of living to 100.

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