3 Japanese Words That Lead to a Happier Life
According to the Japanese, everyone has an ikigai—what a French philosopher might call a raison d'être. Some people have found their ikigai, while others are still looking, though they carry it within them.
Our ikigai is hidden deep inside each of us, and finding it requires a patient search. According to those born on Okinawa, the island with the most centenarians in the world, our ikigai is the reason we get up in the morning.
Having a clearly defined ikigai brings satisfaction, happiness and meaning to our lives. One surprising thing you notice, living in Japan, is how active people remain after they retire. In fact, many Japanese people never really retire—they keep doing what they love for as long as their health allows.
There is, in fact, no word in Japanese that means retire in the sense of "leaving the workforce for good" as in English. According to Dan Buettner, a National Geographic reporter who knows the country well, having a purpose in life is so important in Japanese culture that our idea of retirement simply doesn't exist there.
In Japanese, "ikigai" is written as 生き甲斐, combining 生き, which means "life," with 甲斐, which means "to be worthwhile." 甲斐 can be broken down into the characters 甲, which means "armor," "number one" and "to be the first" (to head into battle, taking initiative as a leader), and 斐, which means "beautiful" or "elegant."
2. Hara hachi bu
One of the most common sayings in Japan is "Hara hachi bu," which is repeated before or after eating and means something like "Fill your belly to 80 percent." Ancient wisdom advises against eating until we are full. This is why Okinawans stop eating when they feel their stomachs reach 80 percent of their capacity, rather than overeating and wearing down their bodies with long digestive processes that accelerate cellular oxidation.
Of course, there is no way to know objectively if your stomach is at 80 percent capacity. The lesson to learn from this saying is that we should stop eating when we are starting to feel full. The extra side dish, the snack we eat when we know in our hearts we don't really need it, the apple pie after lunch—all these will give us pleasure in the short term, but not having them will make us happier in the long term.
The way food is served is also important. By presenting their meals on many small plates, the Japanese tend to eat less. A typical meal in a restaurant in Japan is served in five plates on a tray, four of them very small and the main dish slightly bigger. Having five plates in front of you makes it seem like you are going to eat a lot, but what happens most of the time is that you end up feeling slightly hungry. This is one of the reasons why Westerners in Japan typically lose weight and stay trim.
Recent studies by nutritionists reveal that Okinawans consume a daily average of 1,800 to 1,900 calories, compared to 2,200 to 3,300 in the United States, and have a body mass index between 18 and 22, compared to 26 or 27 in the United States.
Hara hachi bu is an ancient practice. The 12th-century book on Zen Buddhism Zazen Youjinki recommends eating two-thirds as much as you might want to. Eating less than one might want is common among all Buddhist temples in the East. Perhaps Buddhism recognized the benefits of limiting caloric intake more than nine centuries ago.
A moai is an informal group of people with common interests who look out for one another. For many, serving the community becomes part of their ikigai.
The moai has its origins in hard times, when farmers would get together to share best practices and help one another cope with meager harvests. Members of a moai make a set monthly contribution to the group. This payment allows them to participate in meetings, dinners, games of go and shogi (Japanese chess) or whatever hobby they have in common.
The funds collected by the group are used for activities, but if there is money left over, one member (decided on a rotating basis) receives a set amount from the surplus. In this way, being part of a moai helps maintain emotional and financial stability. If a member of a moai is in financial trouble, he or she can get an advance from the group's savings. While the details of each moai's accounting practices vary according to the group and its economic means, the feeling of belonging and support gives the individual a sense of security and helps increase life expectancy.
This excerpt was taken from Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles.