The problem with our eternal quest for happiness is that it comes decked in complex caveats.
We’re told it’s about life-long friends – but only if we choose them well. It’s about creativity, but only if we’re able to take the time out needed to foster it. It’s about money – but only to a certain point.
So, it comes as a breath of fresh air to turn to our Japanese friends, who hold a refreshingly simple recipe for happiness.
It’s all to do with the concept of ikigai (pronounced aki-gay-aai).
According to the Japanese, everyone has an ikigai. It means your purpose – the reason you get up in the morning. The thing that fires you up and keeps you busy. Your raison d'être.
According to a report in the Guardian, which examined two upcoming books on the topic, ikigai is about “authentic living”.
“Practitioners must fill in overlapping circles that cover motivation, fulfilment, what they earn and what improves their life,” it says. “The answer at the centre will be the key to a happy and long life, whether one cleans trains or owns railways.”
If that sounds like it’s a little too abstract to work, consider this: a seven-year study of 43,000 participants by the Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine in Sendai, Japan found that those who practised ikigai were more likely to be alive seven years later, even after factoring in lifestyle variables such as smoking and exercise.
Those who did not achieve a sense of ikigai, on the other hand, had a significantly higher risk of mortality.
Yep, it’s that potent...
Some sociologists even believe that it is ikigai that is responsible for Japanese women having the highest life expectancy rate in the world, at 87 years old.
Read more: The happiest places to live in the world
Their universal healthcare system helps of course. As does a healthy national diet that features green tea, seafood and seaweed among other nutrient-packed fare.
In his 2009 TED talk, National Geographic’s Dan Buettner made reference to the health-giving benefits of ikigai, as he talked about the secret of people who live to be 100 year old or older.
“They [the Japanese] have vocabulary for sense of purpose, ikigai,” he said. “You know the two most dangerous years in your life are the year you're born, because of infant mortality, and the year you retire. These people know their sense of purpose, and they activate in their life, that's worth about seven years of extra life expectancy.”
Want to know more? Put a pre-order on these two books - Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles and The Little Book of Ikigai by neuroscientist Ken Mogi, both coming out this autumn.