Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life

Ikigai: Los secretos de Japón para una vida larga y feliz
Category: Aging
Genre: Health
Publisher: Penguin Life
Published: 8/29/2017
Bring meaning and joy to all your days with this internationally bestselling guide to the Japanese concept of ikigai (pronounced ee-key-guy)—the happiness of always being busy—as revealed by the daily habits of the world’s longest-living people.

Book Summary - Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Hector Garcia

Key Insights

When we daydream about living a fulfilling life, we each hold a different image in our minds. Some of us want small, simple pleasures while others prefer a grandiose existence full of luxury and comfort. In spite of our varied visions, though, our ideal realities all share a common theme: purpose.

In Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Hector Garcia asks us to explore the ikigai (the reason for living) in our daily lives. Our ikigai is found at the intersection of our skills, passions, earning potential, and the current needs of the world.

In this powerful text, Garcia contends that everyone has an ikigai--or destiny--even if they have not yet discovered what it is.

Key Points

Active Body, Active Mind

Your doctor will probably tell you that in order to live a long life, you should avoid sugar, maintain a healthy weight, and incorporate exercise into your regular routine. However, what you often don’t hear (and what is key in ikigai philosophy) is that in order to achieve longevity, cultivating the body is not enough--attention must be paid to the mind as well.

The mind, like the body, must be exercised often.

But how?

While your brain certainly benefits from logic puzzles like chess, card games, or the occasional 3,000 piece jigsaw, the best workout you can give your mind is actually social interaction. Because your brain is forced to work quickly in a social setting in order to analyze what is being said and formulate an appropriate response, simply talking with friends is an effective way to maintain your mental acuity.

Tell that to everyone who says that talking isn’t a workout.

On Stress

While brain training sessions are important in leading a fulfilling life, another key pillar of ikigai philosophy is the minimization of stress. Even though it is not feasible to remove stress from your life completely (and frankly, a bit of stress can provide motivation), it is necessary to take time to decompress and relax. Excessive stress can shave years off your life.

Consider the following example.

An aspiring doctor in Germany was forced to endure several high-stress interviews before having his blood sampled by Heidelberg University as part of a study.

The results?

The prospective doctor’s blood had begun releasing antibodies during the interviews, which is typically a response to a virus or bacteria. Basically, the man’s immune system was reacting to a perceived threat, which was actually just stress manifesting in a physical way.

The problem with this is that stress--which then triggers an illness-type response--can lead to the attacking of perfectly healthy cells by way of antibodies. This action forces your body to age faster than it should.


When the world becomes overwhelming, many Japanese turn to an intensive therapy called Morita, hoping to find relief. This technique, developed by psychotherapist Shoma Morita, is intended to help eliminate anxiety and obsessions and compulsions, but it has also been proven effective in combating burnout and stress.

There are four phases of Morita:


In the rest phase, which typically lasts about a week, the patient literally lays in bed with all distractions removed. During this time, there is no human contact for the patient--they are simply observing their emotions as they come and go.


In this phase, the patient begins resuming a limited number of activities, but only ones that are repetitive and entail an emotional focus, such as writing in a diary and participating in breathing exercises.


In the third phase, engagement, the patient starts to incorporate creative and physical activities into their daily routine. Some of these include woodcutting and painting, which are intended to cultivate feelings of joy and engagement.


In the final phase of Morita, re-entry, the patient re-enters the world in full, ideally with a fresh sense of purpose and calm.

A key difference between Morita and more traditional Western therapies is that Morita involves acknowledging your feelings without trying to change them. This is counter to, say, adopting a positive thinking strategy where you use your thoughts in order to influence your actions and feelings.


Do you ever find yourself so immersed in an activity that you forget everything else happening around you? In ikigai philosophy, this state of complete focus and joy is called flow.

In order to achieve optimal flow, you must ensure that your endeavor is appropriately challenging. If you try to master a new language, for instance, or climb a mountain when you have never done anything like that before, you may feel overwhelmed and thus unable to reach an authentic state of flow.

Start where you are with what you have and do what you can.

In short?

Follow your bliss.

Listen to Your Elders

The island of Okinawa, located in southern Japan, is home to the highest concentration of centenarians in the world.

Because all of these individuals have more than ten decades of life experience behind them, there is inherent merit in what they have to say about fulfillment and longevity.

Here is the compiled advice that several elders were happy to provide:

--Worry as little as possible

--Make a habit of greeting others--including strangers--with a smile and an open heart

--Enjoy what you have

--Cultivate good habits

--Maintain your friendships

If you hold each of these values, Japan’s centenarians believe that you will live a long and productive life. And they live by this example. The centenarians of Okinawa wake up early, drink tea, tend their gardens, clean their houses, and spend the rest of the day socializing with friends. They are also known for growing their own vegetables and cooking their own food as part of a healthy garden-to-table diet.

The Magic Diet

If a truly magic diet existed, we would all be flocking to the stores to try it out. However, while nothing is perfect, the Japanese say that the Okinawan eating habits come pretty close to magic and this is why.

Okinawans eat a huge variety of food. On a regular basis, island locals are known to devour more than 206 different foods. They pay special attention to color in their diet and believe that a healthy plate includes the full-color spectrum. They also place a lot of value on herbs and spices.

In addition to variety, Okinawans pay strict attention to portion size. This population recommends that a person should stop eating when they are 80% full and they believe that it is okay to be a little bit hungry when you stop eating.

The philosophy of eating 80% of what you are served is referred to as hara hachi bu. Accordingly, Okinawans try to avoid dessert!

The theory behind hara hachi bu is that when you take in fewer calories, you limit your body’s production of insulin-like growth factor 1, which is a protein. In doing this, you decrease the aging of your cells, which ultimately leads to a longer life.


Superfood is a newly-popularized term for a food item that is high in antioxidants. An example? Green tea.

Because green tea is high in antioxidants, it is known for lowering bad cholesterol, managing blood sugar, minimizing infection, and even improving circulation. In order for it to be effective in easing these ailments, though, the green tea must be air-dried and left unfermented, which is how it is traditionally served in Okinawa.

To further enhance the healing powers of the green tea, Okinawans are known to add the herb jasmine to their rejuvenating drink. The addition of this bonus element boosts both immune and cardiovascular function.

And if green tea doesn’t do it for you, try white tea. It is actually even higher in antioxidants than green tea, and provides similar restorative effects.

Another superfood?


This is a citrus fruit that is also super-rich in antioxidants and is often found in both cakes and traditional dishes.

If you can’t find shikuwasa at your local grocery store, never fear: other citrus fruits, broccoli, strawberries, and apricots will also do the trick as far as antioxidants are concerned.

Keep it Moving

While much of ikigai philosophy emphasizes the value of maintaining a sound and competent mind as we age, we would be remiss to think that physical activity is not a key aspect of longevity as well.

Sure, the typical Okinawan centenarian is probably not going out for long-distance runs, but for many of the eldery islanders, working in gardens and even participating in fun activities that involve some movement--such as karaoke--is par for the course in this highly active culture.

As a result of COVID-19, many of us are now working remotely and are confined to our desks (or our kitchen tables, whatever the case may be). However, in spite of these limitations, we still must make sure we are standing up regularly even if it is just to walk around the house for a couple of minutes.

Studies show that after just half an hour of sitting, people experience a decrease in metabolism as well as a drop in good cholesterol levels.

Fortunately, the solution is simple: if you develop a routine of standing for five minutes once every half an hour, this action will offset the negative health effects of being sedentary.

So, no excuses, go wash that load of clothes! Your body will thank you.

In addition to walking around, Okinawans commonly participate in another form of movement which is known as Radio Taiso. Typically, Radio Taiso is a group-based activity that involves moving your arms above your head and generally warming up your joints and muscles before you start your day. Accordingly, it is usually practiced in the morning hours.

The Main Take-away

While there is no magic button to slow down the human aging process, there are several tangible steps that we, as individuals, can take in order to maximize our time on the planet in a meaningful way in alignment with our personal ikigai.

Exercising our brains does not have to involve completing intense mind challenges. It can simply be done through socialization with friends. Physical movement does not require a rapid cardiovascular workout--walking around on a regular basis is often enough.

Similarly, in ikigai philosophy, eating well is not cutting out entire food groups--it is focusing on portion size and variety in nutrients.

By acting as the Okinawans do in Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, we significantly increase the likelihood that our existences will be fulfilling and our destinies will be reached, whatever they may entail.

About the Author

Hector Garcia was born in Alicante, Spain in 1981. After graduating from college with a master’s degree in software engineering, Garcia moved to Japan where he was involved in developing voice recognition software. Much of the technology that Garcia created was later used for Silicon Valley startups including the highly-popular social media site, Twitter.

In addition to Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Garcia is also well-known for authoring A Geek in Japan, which became a national bestseller in the country.

Garcia is the creator of the blog kirainet, which was the inspiration behind A Geek in Japan.


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