Much can be said about finding joy in life, and what better place to look for advice than the Japanese island of Okinawa with the most centenarians in the world?
Now comes the point when I tell you I packed my bags last Wednesday and headed across the world to discover the secret to happiness.
Alas, one of the rules of life is that you simply can’t have everything, so I settled for an inspiring book by Hector Garcia Puigcerver called Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.
And boy, did I learn a great deal about joy. Not only that, but it seems that joy is inextricably intertwined with longevity.
As Puigcerver describes Ogimi, the so-called Village of Longevity on the north end of Okinawa: “An uncommon joy flows from its inhabitants and guides them through the long and pleasurable journey of their lives.”
Sounds awesome, right?
Let’s dive into the 7 rules to finding joy in life, according to Japanese wisdom.
1) Find your ikigai and don’t retire
The main point of Puigcerver’s book is that ikigai – what roughly translates to “reason for being” or “life purpose” – lies at the very core of happiness.
In that sense, ikigai isn’t all too different from Frankl’s logotherapy wherein people who are miserable commonly struggle to find meaning in life, and once they find it, everything falls into place.
This makes a lot of sense because, well, why would you get up in the morning if you don’t see the point?
Discovering your ikigai is therefore vital. And no, I’m not talking about climbing the corporate ladder or finally being able to afford a holiday in the Maldives.
I’m talking about something that you’d gladly do long after you’re supposed to retire.
In Japanese, there is apparently no word that would mean “retire”, at least not in the sense of leaving the workforce forever.
And that’s because mucking about and doing nothing isn’t exactly joyous. If you have something that fills your soul with fire, though…you won’t even want to retire.
You’ll keep living in sync with your ikigai until the day you die.
2) Enter states of flow on a regular basis
So, how do you find your ikigai? That is the question.
And flow is the key to it all.
Do you know that feeling when you’re so submersed in an activity that your ego essentially dissolves because your focus is 100% directed at the task at hand?
Let me give you some examples:
- Taking an exam
- Reading a very good book
- Putting together a piece of furniture
- Doing maths
Chances are, you’ve entered a state of flow doing at least one of these. The next step is to find an activity that lets you enter flow and that fulfills you on an existential level.
The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi apparently describes it as “the pleasure, delight, creativity, and process when we are completely immersed in life.”
According to Puigcerver, that is exactly what the inhabitants of Ogimi are all about. They enter flow states easily because they all have a purpose for being, and they devote a lot of their time to activities that spark that sense of meaning.
To enter a flow state, you should ideally:
- Choose a task that’s challenging but not too difficult (if it’s too hard, you’ll feel overwhelmed; if it’s too easy, you’ll get bored)
- Have a concrete goal (e.g., “I will put this chair together today” or “I will write 1000 words today”)
- Focus on a single task (contrary to popular belief, multitasking isn’t great for the human brain, not to mention it makes entering a state of flow very difficult)
3) Keep yourself happily busy and create microflow
Okay, we’ve now established that the main way to find joy in life is to discover your ikigai, which can be done by trying your hand at many different tasks and seeing which activity makes you enter flow while fulfilling you simultaneously.
What about the stuff in between, though? I mean, can washing the dishes really be anything other than boring?
The main thing that Puigcerver noticed about Ogimi residents was how busy they were – and I don’t mean in a hurried, stressed way.
What I mean is that they are always doing something, be it tending to their vegetable gardens, going for karaoke with neighbors, completing house chores, or working with their hands.
They know how to find joy in mundane daily tasks and enter microflow, which occurs when you’re able to turn something easy and boring into a challenge that keeps you entertained.
Puigcerver gives us an example of Bill Gates, who apparently enjoys washing the dishes every night because he tries to do it a little bit better each day and has a set of rules he follows.
It may sound trivial, but it’s true – anything can be enjoyable if you approach it with creativity and optimism. And the more flow there is in your day, the happier you’ll be.
4) Meditate and focus on maintaining inner peace
Did you really think this list would be complete without meditation thrown into the mix?
Nowadays, we need meditation more than ever.
Puigcerver writes, “If we want to get better at reaching a state of flow, meditation is an excellent antidote to our smartphones and their notifications constantly clamoring for our attention.”
Meditation isn’t only good for flow, either. Based on research, it increases well-being, reduces stress and anxiety, and might even boost the immune system.
When you’re mindful of your thoughts and the physical sensations in your body, and when you’re willing to accept those feelings with understanding and compassion rather than judgment, you’re improving your resilience and cultivating a sense of inner peace.
The more you practice, the higher the chances that this calmness will manifest in your daily life and will help you find joy in everything you do.
5) Find your community
One of the reasons Ogimi is such a happy village is that its inhabitants go out of their way to help and support each other.
In Ogimi, no one feels alone – people happily chat with their neighbors, gather in the evenings, and have multiple celebrations that bring them together.
What’s more, Okinawans are just as welcoming to outsiders as they are to each other. They live by the principle of ichariba chode, which apparently means “Treat everyone like a brother, even if you’ve never met them before”.
Humans are social beings. Even the most introverted of us all want to be able to rely on someone if needed.
Community is where the true secret to joy lies.
6) Stay active for as long as possible
There’s a Japanese proverb that says, “Only staying active will make you want to live a hundred years.”
Is there better proof than Ogimi? I don’t think so. While visiting the village, Puigcerver found that even people over ninety were still active.
In case you were wondering, no, they don’t hit the gym at 6 AM every morning or run marathons every weekend. They don’t have to. Puigcerver explains that the people who live the longest aren’t necessarily those who exercise the most; they’re the ones who *move* the most.
“One hundred percent of the people we interviewed keep a vegetable garden, and most of them also have fields of tea, mangoes, shikuwasa, and so on… Ogimi’s residents walk a lot, do karaoke with their neighbors, get up early in the morning, and, as soon as they’ve had breakfast—or even before—head outside to weed their gardens.”
You might not want to hear it, but here goes: in order to keep your mind happy, your body has to be happy, too. Add more daily movement into your life.
7) Live according to ichi-go ichi-e
Last but not least, one of the most important rules to finding joy in life is to apply the concept of ichi-go ichi-e, which could translate to something like “this moment exists only now and won’t come again”.
Puigcerver writes that the Japanese often say this phrase during social gatherings to remind each other that this moment will soon pass and never return, and so they ought to treasure it for what it is and focus on the here and now.
Time is inherently fleeting. And while many of us try to find joy in thoughts about the future or memories of the past, the truth is that joy can only ever be found in the present moment.
As you are reading these words, you are living in a unique moment that will never occur again. Take a breath in. And out.
You are brimming with life.
And that feeling of aliveness and inner calm? That is true joy.