Happiness; it’s a feeling that’s hard to quantify and is unique to each individual, but still, we discuss how we can achieve it and continue to search for it throughout the whole of our lives.
We ask the elderly what the secret to a happy life is, you can even now do a university course to find out how to harness it and attempt to exercise your way into feeling it. But with Japanese people being recognised as some of longest living and happiest in the world, you might be interested to know that within their culture happiness is considered to be a way of life described as ikigai.
Now, us Brits are known for getting exciting over adopting lifestyle trends from other cultures. There was the booming popularity of Denmark’s hygge, which encouraged us to get cosy and enjoy snuggling up inside, the Swedish world of lagom, which encourages us to streamline our lifestyles so that they’re more functional and efficient, and niksen, practiced by the Dutch to slow down and relish the art of doing nothing.
But ikigai could be the most beneficial yet.
We spoke to Erin Niimi Longhurst, ambassador for Yakult UK (who are big supporters of ikigai), and author of Japonisme, who explained to us exactly what ikigai and how you can embrace it.
“Ikigai is a word that means purpose, or your reason for being. It’s a Japanese philosophy, or way of life. Its the thing in our life that gives it that delicious richness – meaning, or raison d’être,” says Longhurst.
“Japan still leads the way for the longest and healthiest life expectancy globally, as it has done for many years. There are, of course, several factors at play, like genetics, diet, lifestyle, but there are several other countries that have it. Ikigai, in my opinion, is the key differentiator.
Longhurst continues: “It’s at the core of who you are as an individual, and the things that motivate and drive you. For most people, they know what it is, or it comes to them – they just might not have thought about it in that way before.”
There are four ways you can come to realise your ikigai, something that’s done gradually and unconsciously over time. According to Longhurst in involves asking yourself four questions: what are you good at? What do you love? What do you think the world needs? How do you sustain yourself?
Finding your ikigai helps you also find your balance, encouraging you to be more mindful and within the act of doing simple things reminds you to stop putting pressure on our hectic daily lives and appreciate the small things.
Longhurst reiterates how crucial understanding balance is in order to be happy: “Finding your ikigai simply isn’t possible without balance. As much joy as I get through the work I do in helping charities, it wouldn’t be enough to sustain me – having a strong family connection, wonderful friendships, and a beautiful little home all contribute towards making my ikigai richer and more meaningful.
“None of this is passively attained. All relationships require hard work, and communication; sustaining work and home requires compromise; and negativity, self-doubt, and hardships are all facts of life. Your ikigai is what propels you forward in the darkest moments. Knowing it will pass, and finding the element in your life that helps you achieve contentment, is what ikigai is all about.”
What are the benefits of incorporating ikigai into your life?
If there are two things that ikigai can teach us, they are resilience and reflection. One of the key aspects of this lifestyle choice is to be appreciative for the everyday and practice having gratitude for the things we already have. Longhurst says that by registering this, it will help you to be stronger in the future.
“Of course, there will always be tough times – there is a Japanese proverb that goes ‘if the current sinks, it will rise again’ – and I think that comes across in ikigai, too,” she says.
“By taking the time to reflect on the things that give your life purpose – whether it’s family, friends, work, helping make the world around you a better place – you can achieve a sense of contentment.”
For Longhurst personally, her journey to ikigai has helped motivate her: “There is another Japanese proverb – ‘The prime of your life does not come twice’, and I think the constant search and reflection required when thinking about the concept of ikigai requires you to be more inquisitive.”
How can I practice ikigai?
Longhurst recommends three traditional ways of getting your ikigai on, listed below, that she not only does herself but has written about in her book.
“‘Shinrinyoku’ is a term coined by the Japanese Ministry for Agriculture in the 80s, to describe the practice of healing through being immersed in nature, or ‘forest bathing’. There have been countless scientific studies that have proven the value of being surrounded by nature, and trees, and the practice is considered to have therapeutic value.
“Feeling the sun on your face, or the wind in your hair, even if only for a little bit, can be so refreshing. This is feeling that you are chasing through shinrinyoku – being healed by nature, and it works wonders.
“There is a saying in Japan – kachou fuugetsu (花鳥風月). Separately, the characters are ‘flower, bird, wind, and moon’, but together they are greater than the sum of its parts, and describe something far more emotive. Kachou fuugetsu most commonly translates to learning about yourself, through experiencing the beauty of nature. I think there is something so beautiful in that sentiment, and almost restorative – knowing your place in the world and taking it back to basics.
“Ideally, you want to be surrounded by greenery – and trees in particular. Japan is home to some beautiful forests, and the Japanese are famous for their gardens. Think of being out in nature as a type of medicine, similar to your eight fruit or vegetables a day - counteracting your hectic and stressful day-to-day or 9 to 5.”
“Chado or Sado, also known as ‘The Way of The Tea’, is the ceremonial presentation of a powdered green tea called matcha. Tea ceremony is founded on four principles – harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity. What I love about tea ceremony isn’t just about tea and the food served (although that is a bonus), but flower arrangements and calligraphy used as decoration, which highlight and give a commentary reflecting the seasons.”
“Food is as big passion of mine. Particularly when it comes to the process and preparation required of cooking. Making your own gyoza dumplings, for example, can be very therapeutic (once you get into the swing of things!)”