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Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life

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*Los Angeles Times bestseller* "If hygge is the art of doing nothing, ikigai is the art of doing something--and doing it with supreme focus and joy." --New York Post 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. What's your ikigai? "Only staying active will make you want to live a hundred years." --Japanese proverb According to the Japanese, everyone has an ikigai--a reason for living. And according to the residents of the Japanese village with the world's longest-living people, finding it is the key to a happier and longer life. Having a strong sense of ikigai--the place where passion, mission, vocation, and profession intersect--means that each day is infused with meaning. It's the reason we get up in the morning. It's also the reason many Japanese never really retire (in fact there's no word in Japanese that means retire in the sense it does in English): They remain active and work at what they enjoy, because they've found a real purpose in life--the happiness of always being busy. In researching this book, the authors interviewed the residents of the Japanese village with the highest percentage of 100-year-olds--one of the world's Blue Zones. Ikigai reveals the secrets to their longevity and happiness: how they eat, how they move, how they work, how they foster collaboration and community, and--their best-kept secret--how they find the ikigai that brings satisfaction to their lives. And it provides practical tools to help you discover your own ikigai. Because who doesn't want to find happiness in every day?
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آپ کتاب کا معائنہ کر سکتے ہیں اور اپنے تجربات شیئر کرسکتے ہیں۔ دوسرے قارئین کتابوں کے بارے میں آپ کی رائے میں ہمیشہ دلچسپی رکھیں گے۔ چاہے آپ کو کتاب پسند ہے یا نہیں ، اگر آپ اپنے دیانتدار اور تفصیلی خیالات دیںگے تو لوگوں کو نئی کتابیں ملیںگی جو ان کے لئے صحیح ہیں۔
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
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New York, New York 10014
Copyright © 2016 by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles
Translation copyright © 2017 by Penguin Random House LLC
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Originally published in Spanish as Ikigai: Los secretos de Japón para una vida larga y feliz by Ediciones Urano, Barcelona.
Illustration here: Abbie/Shutterstock
All other illustrations copyright © 2016 by Marisa Martínez
Graphics copyright © 2016 by Flora Buki
Names: García, Héctor, 1981– author. | Miralles, Francesc, 1968– author.
Title: Ikigai : the Japanese secret to a long and happy life / Héctor García and Francesc Miralles ; translated by Heather
Other titles: Ikigai. English
Description: New York : Penguin Books, [2017] | Originally published in Spanish as “Ikigai: Los secretos de Japón para una
vida larga y feliz” by Ediciones Urano in 2016." | Includes bibliographical references. | Description based on print version
record and CIP data provided by publisher; resource not viewed.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017005811 (print) | LCCN 2017022599 (ebook) | ISBN 9781524704551 (ebook) | ISBN
9780143130727 (hardcover)
Subjects: LCSH: Longevity—Japan. | Longevity. | Happiness. | Quality of life
Classification: LCC RA776.75 (ebook) | LCC RA776.75 .G3713 2017 (print) | DDC 613—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017005811
Neither the publisher nor the author is engaged in rendering professional advice or services to the individual reader. The
ideas, procedures, and suggestions contained in this book are not inte; nded as a substitute for consulting with your physician.
All matters regarding your health require medical supervision. Neither the author nor the publisher shall be liable or
responsible for any loss or damage allegedly arising from any information or suggestion in this book.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers, Internet addresses, and other contact
information at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors or for
changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any
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Cover illustration by Olga Grlic
Cover art direction by Roseanne Serra

For my brother, Aitor,
who’s said to me more often than anyone else,
“I don’t know what to do with my life.”
For all my past, present, and future friends,
for being my home and my motivation along
the way.

Only staying active will make you want to live a hundred years.
—Japanese proverb


Title Page
Ikigai: A mysterious word
I. Ikigai
The art of staying young while growing old
II. Antiaging Secrets
Little things that add up to a long and happy life
III. From Logotherapy to Ikigai
How to live longer and better by finding your purpose
IV. Find Flow in Everything You Do
How to turn work and free time into spaces for growth

V. Masters of Longevity
Words of wisdom from the longest-living people in the world
VI. Lessons from Japan’s Centenarians
Traditions and proverbs for happiness and longevity
VII. The Ikigai Diet
What the world’s longest-living people eat and drink
VIII. Gentle Movements, Longer Life
Exercises from the East that promote health and longevity
IX. Resilience and Wabi-sabi
How to face life’s challenges without letting stress and worry age you
Ikigai: The art of living
Suggestions for further reading
About the Authors


Ikigai: A mysterious word
THIS BOOK FIRST came into being on a rainy night in Tokyo, when its authors
sat down together for the first time in one of the city’s tiny bars.
We had read each other’s work but had never met, thanks to the thousands
of miles that separate Barcelona from the capital of Japan. Then a mutual
acquaintance put us in touch, launching a friendship that led to this project
and seems destined to last a lifetime.
The next time we got together, a year later, we strolled through a park in
downtown Tokyo and ended up talking about trends in Western psychology,
specifically logotherapy, which helps people find their purpose in life.
We remarked that Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy had gone out of fashion
among practicing therapists, who favored other schools of psychology, though
people still search for meaning in what they do and how they live. We ask
ourselves things like:
What is the meaning of my life?
Is the point just to live longer, or should I seek a higher purpose?
Why do some people know what they want and have a passion for life,
while others languish in confusion?
At some point in our conversation, the mysterious word ikigai came up.
This Japanese concept, which translates roughly as “the happiness of
always being busy,” is like logotherapy, but it goes a step beyond. It also
seems to be one way of explaining the extraordinary longevity of the
Japanese, especially on the island of Okinawa, where there are 24.55 people
over the age of 100 for every 100,000 inhabitants—far more than the global

Those who study why the inhabitants of this island in the south of Japan
live longer than people anywhere else in the world believe that one of the keys
—in addition to a healthful diet, a simple life in the outdoors, green tea, and
the subtropical climate (its average temperature is like that of Hawaii)—is the
ikigai that shapes their lives.
While researching this concept, we discovered that not a single book in the
fields of psychology or personal development is dedicated to bringing this
philosophy to the West.
Is ikigai the reason there are more centenarians in Okinawa than anywhere
else? How does it inspire people to stay active until the very end? What is the
secret to a long and happy life?
As we explored the matter further, we discovered that one place in
particular, Ogimi, a rural town on the north end of the island with a
population of three thousand, boasts the highest life expectancy in the world
—a fact that has earned it the nickname the Village of Longevity.
Okinawa is where most of Japan’s shikuwasa—a limelike fruit that packs
an extraordinary antioxidant punch—comes from. Could that be Ogimi’s
secret to long life? Or is it the purity of the water used to brew its Moringa
We decided to go study the secrets of the Japanese centenarians in person.
After a year of preliminary research we arrived in the village—where
residents speak an ancient dialect and practice an animist religion that
features long-haired forest sprites called bunagaya—with our cameras and
recording devices in hand. As soon as we arrived we could sense the
incredible friendliness of its residents, who laughed and joked incessantly
amid lush green hills fed by crystalline waters.
As we conducted our interviews with the eldest residents of the town, we
realized that something far more powerful than just these natural resources
was at work: an uncommon joy flows from its inhabitants and guides them
through the long and pleasurable journey of their lives.
Again, the mysterious ikigai.
But what is it, exactly? How do you get it?
It never ceased to surprise us that this haven of nearly eternal life was
located precisely in Okinawa, where two hundred thousand innocent lives
were lost at the end of World War II. Rather than harbor animosity toward
outsiders, however, Okinawans live by the principle of ichariba chode, a local

expression that means “treat everyone like a brother, even if you’ve never met
them before.”
It turns out that one of the secrets to happiness of Ogimi’s residents is
feeling like part of a community. From an early age they practice yuimaaru,
or teamwork, and so are used to helping one another.
Nurturing friendships, eating light, getting enough rest, and doing regular,
moderate exercise are all part of the equation of good health, but at the heart
of the joie de vivre that inspires these centenarians to keep celebrating
birthdays and cherishing each new day is their ikigai.
The purpose of this book is to bring the secrets of Japan’s centenarians to
you and give you the tools to find your own ikigai.
Because those who discover their ikigai have everything they need for a
long and joyful journey through life.
Happy travels!


The art of staying young while
growing old

What is your reason for being?
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.

Whatever you do, don’t retire!
Having a clearly defined ikigai brings satisfaction, happiness, and meaning to
our lives. The purpose of this book is to help you find yours, and to share
insights from Japanese philosophy on the lasting health of body, mind, and
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.

The island of (almost) eternal youth
Certain longevity studies suggest that a strong sense of community and a
clearly defined ikigai are just as important as the famously healthful Japanese
diet—perhaps even more so. Recent medical studies of centenarians from
Okinawa and other so-called Blue Zones—the geographic regions where
people live longest—provide a number of interesting facts about these
extraordinary human beings:
Not only do they live much longer than the rest of the world’s
population, they also suffer from fewer chronic illnesses such as cancer
and heart disease; inflammatory disorders are also less common.
Many of these centenarians enjoy enviable levels of vitality and health
that would be unthinkable for people of advanced age elsewhere.
Their blood tests reveal fewer free radicals (which are responsible for
cellular aging), as a result of drinking tea and eating until their stomachs
are only 80 percent full.
Women experience more moderate symptoms during menopause, and
both men and women maintain higher levels of sexual hormones until
much later in life.

The rate of dementia is well below the global average.
The Characters Behind Ikigai



In Japanese, ikigai is written as
, combining
, which
means “life,” with
, which means “to be worthwhile.”
can be
broken down into the characters , which means “armor,” “number
one,” and “to be the first” (to head into battle, taking initiative as a
leader), and , which means “beautiful” or “elegant.”



Though we will consider each of these findings over the course of the
book, research clearly indicates that the Okinawans’ focus on ikigai gives a
sense of purpose to each and every day and plays an important role in their
health and longevity.

The five Blue Zones
Okinawa holds first place among the world’s Blue Zones. In Okinawa, women
in particular live longer and have fewer diseases than anywhere else in the
world. The five regions identified and analyzed by Dan Buettner in his book
The Blue Zones are:
1. Okinawa, Japan (especially the northern part of the island). The locals
eat a diet rich in vegetables and tofu typically served on small plates. In
addition to their philosophy of ikigai, the moai, or close-knit group of
friends (see page 15), plays an important role in their longevity.
2. Sardinia, Italy (specifically the provinces of Nuoro and Ogliastra). Locals
on this island consume plenty of vegetables and one or two glasses of
wine per day. As in Okinawa, the cohesive nature of this community is
another factor directly related to longevity.
3. Loma Linda, California. Researchers studied a group of Seventh-day
Adventists who are among the longest-living people in the United States.

4. The Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. Locals remain remarkably active after
ninety; many of the region’s older residents have no problem getting up at
five thirty in the morning to work in the fields.
5. Ikaria, Greece. One of every three inhabitants of this island near the
coast of Turkey is over ninety years old (compared to less than 1 percent
of the population of the United States), a fact that has earned it the
nickname the Island of Long Life. The local secret seems to be a lifestyle
that dates back to 500 BC.
In the following chapters, we will examine several factors that seem to be
the keys to longevity and are found across the Blue Zones, paying special
attention to Okinawa and its so-called Village of Longevity. First, however, it
is worth pointing out that three of these regions are islands, where resources
can be scarce and communities have to help one another.
For many, helping others might be an ikigai strong enough to keep them
According to scientists who have studied the five Blue Zones, the keys to
longevity are diet, exercise, finding a purpose in life (an ikigai), and forming
strong social ties—that is, having a broad circle of friends and good family
Members of these communities manage their time well in order to reduce
stress, consume little meat or processed foods, and drink alcohol in
They don’t do strenuous exercise, but they do move every day, taking
walks and working in their vegetable gardens. People in the Blue Zones would
rather walk than drive. Gardening, which involves daily low-intensity
movement, is a practice almost all of them have in common.

The 80 percent secret
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.
The Okinawan diet is rich in tofu, sweet potatoes, fish (three times per
week), and vegetables (roughly 11 ounces per day). In the chapter dedicated
to nutrition we will see which healthy, antioxidant-rich foods are included in
this 80 percent.

Moai: Connected for life
It is customary in Okinawa to form close bonds within local communities. 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.
• • •
FOLLOWING THIS BRIEF introduction to the topics covered in this book, we
look at a few causes of premature aging in modern life, and then explore
different factors related to ikigai.


Little things that add up to a long
and happy life

Aging’s escape velocity
For more than a century, we’ve managed to add an average of 0.3 years to our
life expectancy every year. But what would happen if we had the technology
to add a year of life expectancy every year? In theory, we would achieve
biological immortality, having reached aging’s “escape velocity.”
Aging’s Escape Velocity and the Rabbit

Imagine a sign far off in the future with a number on it
that represents the age of your death. Every year that you
live, you advance closer to the sign. When you reach the sign, you die.
Now imagine a rabbit holding the sign and walking to the future.
Every year that you live, the rabbit is half a year as far away. After a
while, you will reach the rabbit and die.
But what if the rabbit could walk at a pace of one year for every
year of your life? You would never be able to catch the rabbit, and
therefore you would never die.
The speed at which the rabbit walks to the future is our technology.
The more we advance technology and knowledge of our bodies, the
faster we can make the rabbit walk.
Aging’s escape velocity is the moment at which the rabbit walks at a
pace of one year per year or faster, and we become immortal.
Researchers with an eye to the future, such as Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey
de Grey, claim that we’ll reach this escape velocity in a matter of decades.
Other scientists are less optimistic, predicting that we’ll reach a limit, a
maximum age we won’t be able to surpass, no matter how much technology
we have. For example, some biologists assert that our cells stop regenerating
after about 120 years.

Active mind, youthful body

There is much wisdom in the classic saying “mens sana in corpore sano” (“a
sound mind in a sound body”): It reminds us that both mind and body are
important, and that the health of one is connected to that of the other. It has
been shown that maintaining an active, adaptable mind is one of the key
factors in staying young.
Having a youthful mind also drives you toward a healthy lifestyle that will
slow the aging process.
Just as a lack of physical exercise has negative effects on our bodies and
mood, a lack of mental exercise is bad for us because it causes our neurons
and neural connections to deteriorate—and, as a result, reduces our ability to
react to our surroundings.
This is why it’s so important to give your brain a workout.
One pioneer in advocating for mental exercise is the Israeli neuroscientist
Shlomo Breznitz, who argues that the brain needs a lot of stimulation in order
to stay in shape. As he stated in an interview with Eduard Punset for the
Spanish television program Redes:
There is a tension between what is good for someone and what they want to do. This is
because people, especially older people, like to do things as they’ve always done them.
The problem is that when the brain develops ingrained habits, it doesn’t need to think
anymore. Things get done quickly and efficiently on automatic pilot, often in a very
advantageous way. This creates a tendency to stick to routines, and the only way of
breaking these is to confront the brain with new information.1

Presented with new information, the brain creates new connections and is
revitalized. This is why it is so important to expose yourself to change, even
if stepping outside your comfort zone means feeling a bit of anxiety.
The effects of mental training have been scientifically demonstrated.
According to Collins Hemingway and Shlomo Breznitz in their book
Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom, mental
training is beneficial on many levels: “You begin exercising your brain by
doing a certain task for the first time,” he writes. “And at first it seems very
difficult, but as you learn how to do it, the training is already working. The
second time, you realize that it’s easier, not harder, to do, because you’re
getting better at it. This has a fantastic effect on a person’s mood. In and of

itself, it is a transformation that affects not only the results obtained, but also
his or her self-image.”
This description of a “mental workout” might sound a bit formal, but
simply interacting with others—playing a game, for example—offers new
stimuli and helps prevent the depression that can come with solitude.
Our neurons start to age while we are still in our twenties. This process is
slowed, however, by intellectual activity, curiosity, and a desire to learn.
Dealing with new situations, learning something new every day, playing
games, and interacting with other people seem to be essential antiaging
strategies for the mind. Furthermore, a more positive outlook in this regard
will yield greater mental benefits.

Stress: Accused of killing longevity
Many people seem older than they are. Research into the causes of premature
aging has shown that stress has a lot to do with it, because the body wears
down much faster during periods of crisis. The American Institute of Stress
investigated this degenerative process and concluded that most health
problems are caused by stress.
Researchers at the Heidelberg University Hospital conducted a study in
which they subjected a young doctor to a job interview, which they made
even more stressful by forcing him to solve complex math problems for thirty
minutes. Afterward, they took a blood sample. What they discovered was that
his antibodies had reacted to stress the same way they react to pathogens,
activating the proteins that trigger an immune response. The problem is that
this response not only neutralizes harmful agents, it also damages healthy
cells, leading them to age prematurely.
The University of California conducted a similar study, taking data and
samples from thirty-nine women who had high levels of stress due to the
illness of one of their children and comparing them to samples from women
with healthy children and low levels of stress. They found that stress promotes
cellular aging by weakening cell structures known as telomeres, which affect
cellular regeneration and how our cells age. As the study revealed, the greater
the stress, the greater the degenerative effect on cells.

How does stress work?
These days, people live at a frantic pace and in a nearly constant state of
competition. At this fever pitch, stress is a natural response to the information
being received by the body as potentially dangerous or problematic.
Theoretically, this is a useful reaction, as it helps us survive in hostile
surroundings. Over the course of our evolution, we have used this response to
deal with difficult situations and to flee from predators.
The alarm that goes off in our head makes our neurons activate the
pituitary gland, which produces hormones that release corticotropin, which in
turn circulates through the body via the sympathetic nervous system. The
adrenal gland is then triggered to release adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline
raises our respiratory rate and pulse and prepares our muscles for action,
getting the body ready to react to perceived danger, while cortisol increases
the release of dopamine and blood glucose, which is what gets us “charged
up” and allows us to face challenges.
Cave Dwellers

Modern Humans

Were relaxed most of the

Work most of the time and are alert to any and all threats.

Felt stress only in very
specific situations.

Are online or waiting for notifications from their cell phones
twenty-four hours a day.

The threats were real: A
The brain associates the ping of a cell phone or an e-mail
predator could end their lives
notification with the threat of a predator.
at any moment.
High doses of cortisol and
Low doses of cortisol flow constantly through the body,
adrenaline at moments of
with implications for a range of health problems, including
danger kept the body healthy. adrenal fatigue and chronic fatigue syndrome.

These processes are, in moderation, beneficial—they help us overcome
challenges in our daily lives. Nonetheless, the stress to which human beings
are subjected today is clearly harmful.
Stress has a degenerative effect over time. A sustained state of emergency
affects the neurons associated with memory, as well as inhibiting the release
of certain hormones, the absence of which can cause depression. Its

secondary effects include irritability, insomnia, anxiety, and high blood
As such, though challenges are good for keeping mind and body active, we
should adjust our high-stress lifestyles in order to avoid the premature aging
of our bodies.

Be mindful about reducing stress
Whether or not the threats we perceive are real, stress is an easily identifiable
condition that not only causes anxiety but is also highly psychosomatic,
affecting everything from our digestive system to our skin.
This is why prevention is so important in avoiding the toll that stress takes
on us—and why many experts recommend practicing mindfulness.
The central premise of this stress-reduction method is focusing on the self:
noticing our responses, even if they are conditioned by habit, in order to be
fully conscious of them. In this way, we connect with the here and now and
limit thoughts that tend to spiral out of control.
“We have to learn to turn off the autopilot that’s steering us in an endless
loop. We all know people who snack while talking on the phone or watching
the news. You ask them if the omelet they just ate had onion in it, and they
can’t tell you,” says Roberto Alcibar, who abandoned his fast-paced life to
become a certified instructor of mindfulness after an illness threw him into a
period of acute stress.
One way to reach a state of mindfulness is through meditation, which
helps filter the information that reaches us from the outside world. It can also
be achieved through breathing exercises, yoga, and body scans.
Achieving mindfulness involves a gradual process of training, but with a
bit of practice we can learn to focus our mind completely, which reduces
stress and helps us live longer.

A little stress is good for you
While sustained, intense stress is a known enemy of longevity and both
mental and physical health, low levels of stress have been shown to be

After observing a group of test subjects for more than twenty years, Dr.
Howard S. Friedman, a psychology professor at the University of California,
Riverside, discovered that people who maintained a low level of stress, who
faced challenges and put their heart and soul into their work in order to
succeed, lived longer than those who chose a more relaxed lifestyle and
retired earlier. From this, he concluded that a small dose of stress is a positive
thing, as those who live with low levels of stress tend to develop healthier
habits, smoke less, and drink less alcohol.2
Given this, it is not surprising that many of the supercentenarians—people
who live to be 110 or more—whom we’ll meet in this book talk about having
lived intense lives and working well into old age.

A lot of sitting will age you
In the Western world in particular, the rise in sedentary behavior has led to
numerous diseases such as hypertension and obesity, which in turn affect
Spending too much time seated at work or at home not only reduces
muscular and respiratory fitness but also increases appetite and curbs the
desire to participate in activities. Being sedentary can lead to hypertension,
imbalanced eating, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and even certain
kinds of cancer. Recent studies have shown a connection between a lack of
physical activity and the progressive distortion of telomeres in the immune
system, which ages those cells and, in turn, the organism as a whole.
This is a problem at all life stages, not only among adults. Sedentary
children suffer from high rates of obesity and all its associated health issues
and risks, which is why it’s so important to develop a healthy and active
lifestyle at an early age.
It’s easy to be less sedentary; it just takes a bit of effort and a few changes
to your routine. We can access a more active lifestyle that makes us feel
better inside and out—we just have to add a few ingredients to our everyday
Walk to work, or just go on a walk for at least twenty minutes each day.

Use your feet instead of an elevator or escalator. This is good for your
posture, your muscles, and your respiratory system, among other things.
Participate in social or leisure activities so that you don’t spend too much
time in front of the television.
Replace your junk food with fruit and you’ll have less of an urge to
snack, and more nutrients in your system.
Get the right amount of sleep. Seven to nine hours is good, but any more
than that makes us lethargic.
Play with children or pets, or join a sports team. This not only
strengthens the body but also stimulates the mind and boosts selfesteem.
Be conscious of your daily routine in order to detect harmful habits and
replace them with more positive ones.
By making these small changes, we can begin to renew our bodies and
minds and increase our life expectancy.

A model’s best-kept secret
Though we age both externally and internally, both physically and mentally,
one of the things that tell us the most about people’s age is their skin, which
takes on different textures and colors according to processes going on beneath
the surface. Most of those who make their living as models claim to sleep
between nine and ten hours the night before a fashion show. This gives their
skin a taut, wrinkle-free appearance and a healthy, radiant glow.
Science has shown that sleep is a key antiaging tool, because when we
sleep we generate melatonin, a hormone that occurs naturally in our bodies.
The pineal gland produces it from the neurotransmitter serotonin according to
our diurnal and nocturnal rhythms, and it plays a role in our sleep and waking
A powerful antioxidant, melatonin helps us live longer, and also offers the
following benefits:
It strengthens the immune system.
It contains an element that protects against cancer.

It promotes the natural production of insulin.
It slows the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
It helps prevent osteoporosis and fight heart disease.
For all these reasons, melatonin is a great ally in preserving youth. It
should be noted, however, that melatonin production decreases after age
thirty. We can compensate for this by:
Eating a balanced diet and getting more calcium.
Soaking up a moderate amount of sun each day.
Getting enough sleep.
Avoiding stress, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, all of which make it
harder to get a good night’s rest, depriving us of the melatonin we need.
Experts are trying to determine whether artificially stimulating production
of melatonin might help slow the aging process . . . which would confirm the
theory that we already carry the secret to longevity within us.

Antiaging attitudes
The mind has tremendous power over the body and how quickly it ages. Most
doctors agree that the secret to keeping the body young is keeping the mind
active—a key element of ikigai—and in not caving in when we face
difficulties throughout our lives.
One study, conducted at Yeshiva University, found that the people who
live the longest have two dispositional traits in common: a positive attitude and
a high degree of emotional awareness. In other words, those who face
challenges with a positive outlook and are able to manage their emotions are
already well on their way toward longevity.
A stoic attitude—serenity in the face of a setback—can also help keep you
young, as it lowers anxiety and stress levels and stabilizes behavior. This can
be seen in the greater life expectancies of certain cultures with unhurried,
deliberate lifestyles.
Many centenarians and supercentenarians have similar profiles: They have
had full lives that were difficult at times, but they knew how to approach these

challenges with a positive attitude and not be overwhelmed by the obstacles
they faced.
Alexander Imich, who in 2014 became the world’s oldest living man at age
111, knew he had good genes but understood that other factors contributed,
too: “The life you live is equally or more important for longevity,” he said in
an interview with Reuters after being added to Guinness World Records in

An ode to longevity
During our stay in Ogimi, the village that holds the Guinness record for
longevity, a woman who was about to turn 100 years old sang the following
song for us in a mixture of Japanese and the local dialect:
To keep healthy and have a long life,
eat just a little of everything with relish,
go to bed early, get up early, and then go out for a walk.
We live each day with serenity and we enjoy the journey.
To keep healthy and have a long life,
we get on well with all of our friends.
Spring, summer, fall, winter,
we happily enjoy all the seasons.
The secret is to not get distracted by how old the fingers are;
from the fingers to the head and back once again.
If you keep moving with your fingers working, 100 years
will come to you.*
We can now use our fingers to turn the page to the next chapter, where we
will look at the close relationship between longevity and discovering our life’s


How to live longer and better by
finding your purpose

What is logotherapy?
A colleague once asked Viktor Frankl to define his school of psychology in a
single phrase, to which Frankl replied, “Well, in logotherapy the patient sits
up straight and has to listen to things that are, on occasion, hard to hear.” The
colleague had just described psychoanalysis to him in the following terms: “In
psychoanalysis, the patient lies down on a couch and tells you things that are,
on occasion, hard to say.”
Frankl explains that one of the first questions he would ask his patients
was “Why do you not commit suicide?” Usually the patient found good
reasons not to, and was able to carry on. What, then, does logotherapy do? 1
The answer is pretty clear: It helps you find reasons to live.
Logotherapy pushes patients to consciously discover their life’s purpose in
order to confront their neuroses. Their quest to fulfill their destiny then
motivates them to press forward, breaking the mental chains of the past and
overcoming whatever obstacles they encounter along the way.
Something to Live For

A study conducted by Frankl in his Vienna clinic found that among
both patients and personnel, around 80 percent believed that human
beings needed a reason for living, and around 60 percent felt they had
someone or something in their lives worth dying for.2

The search for meaning
The search for purpose became a personal, driving force that allowed Frankl
to achieve his goals. The process of logotherapy can be summarized in these
five steps:

1. A person feels empty, frustrated, or anxious.
2. The therapist shows him that what he is feeling is the desire to have a
meaningful life.
3. The patient discovers his life’s purpose (at that particular point in time).
4. Of his own free will, the patient decides to accept or reject that destiny.
5. This newfound passion for life helps him overcome obstacles and
Frankl himself would live and die for his principles and ideals. His
experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz showed him that “Everything can be
taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose
one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”3 It
was something he had to go through alone, without any help, and it inspired
him for the rest of his life.
Ten Differences Between Psychoanalysis and Logotherapy



The patient reclines on a couch, like a

The patient sits facing the therapist, who guides
him or her without passing judgment.

Is retrospective: It looks to the past.

Looks toward the future.

Is introspective: It analyzes neuroses.

Does not delve into the patient’s neuroses.

The drive is toward pleasure.

The drive is toward purpose and meaning.

Centers on psychology.

Includes a spiritual dimension.

Works on psychogenic neuroses.

Also works on noogenic, or existential, neuroses.

Analyzes the unconscious origin of
conflicts (instinctual dimension).

Deals with conflicts when and where they arise
(spiritual dimension).

Limits itself to the patient’s instincts.

Also deals with spiritual realities.

Is fundamentally incompatible with

Is compatible with faith.

Seeks to reconcile conflicts and satisfy Seeks to help the patient find meaning in his life
impulses and instincts.
and satisfy his moral principles.

Fight for yourself
Existential frustration arises when our life is without purpose, or when that
purpose is skewed. In Frankl’s view, however, there is no need to see this
frustration as an anomaly or a symptom of neurosis; instead, it can be a
positive thing—a catalyst for change.
Logotherapy does not see this frustration as mental illness, the way other
forms of therapy do, but rather as spiritual anguish—a natural and beneficial
phenomenon that drives those who suffer from it to seek a cure, whether on
their own or with the help of others, and in so doing to find greater
satisfaction in life. It helps them change their own destiny.
Logotherapy enters the picture if the person needs help doing this, if he
needs guidance in discovering his life’s purpose and later in overcoming
conflicts so he can keep moving toward his objective. In Man’s Search for
Meaning, Frankl cites one of Nietzsche’s famous aphorisms: “He who has a
why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
Based on his own experience, Frankl believed that our health depends on
that natural tension that comes from comparing what we’ve accomplished so
far with what we’d like to achieve in the future. What we need, then, is not a
peaceful existence, but a challenge we can strive to meet by applying all the
skills at our disposal.
Existential crisis, on the other hand, is typical of modern societies in
which people do what they are told to do, or what others do, rather than what
they want to do. They often try to fill the gap between what is expected of
them and what they want for themselves with economic power or physical
pleasure, or by numbing their senses. It can even lead to suicide.
Sunday neurosis, for example, is what happens when, without the
obligations and commitments of the workweek, the individual realizes how
empty he is inside. He has to find a solution. Above all, he has to find his
purpose, his reason for getting out of bed—his ikigai.
“I Feel Empty Inside”

In a study conducted at the Vienna Polyclinic Hospital, Frankl’s team
found that 55 percent of the patients they interviewed were
experiencing some degree of existential crisis.4

According to logotherapy, discovering one’s purpose in life helps an
individual fill that existential void. Frankl, a man who faced his problems and
turned his objectives into actions, could look back on his life in peace as he
grew old. He did not have to envy those still enjoying their youth, because he
had amassed a broad set of experiences that showed he had lived for

Better living through logotherapy: A few key ideas

We don’t create the meaning of our life, as Sartre claimed—we discover
We each have a unique reason for being, which can be adjusted or
transformed many times over the years.
Just as worry often brings about precisely the thing that was feared,
excessive attention to a desire (or “hyper-intention”) can keep that desire
from being fulfilled.
Humor can help break negative cycles and reduce anxiety.
We all have the capacity to do noble or terrible things. The side of the
equation we end up on depends on our decisions, not on the condition in
which we find ourselves.

In the pages that follow, we will look at four cases from Frankl’s own
practice in order to better understand the search for meaning and purpose.

Case study: Viktor Frankl
In German concentration camps, as in those that would later be built in Japan
and Korea, psychiatrists confirmed that the prisoners with the greatest chance
of survival were those who had things they wanted to accomplish outside the
camp, those who felt a strong need to get out of there alive. This was true of
Frankl, who, after being released and successfully developing the school of
logotherapy, realized he had been the first patient of his own practice.

Frankl had a goal to achieve, and it made him persevere. He arrived at
Auschwitz carrying a manuscript that contained all the theories and research
he had compiled over the course of his career, ready for publication. When it
was confiscated, he felt compelled to write it all over again, and that need
drove him and gave his life meaning amid the constant horror and doubt of
the concentration camp—so much so that over the years, and especially when
he fell ill with typhus, he would jot down fragments and key words from the
lost work on any scrap of paper he found.

Case study: The American diplomat
An important North American diplomat went to Frankl to pick up where he
left off with a course of treatment he had started five years earlier in the
United States. When Frankl asked him why he’d started therapy in the first
place, the diplomat answered that he hated his job and his country’s
international policies, which he had to follow and enforce. His American
psychoanalyst, whom he’d been seeing for years, insisted he make peace with
his father so that his government and his job, both representations of the
paternal figure, would seem less disagreeable. Frankl, however, showed him
in just a few sessions that his frustration was due to the fact that he wanted to
pursue a different career, and the diplomat concluded his treatment with that
idea in mind.
Five years later, the former diplomat informed Frankl that he had been
working during that time in a different profession, and that he was happy.
In Frankl’s view, the man not only didn’t need all those years of
psychoanalysis, he also couldn’t even really be considered a “patient” in need
of therapy. He was simply someone in search of a new life’s purpose; as soon
as he found it, his life took on deeper meaning.

Case study: The suicidal mother
The mother of a boy who had died at age eleven was admitted to Frankl’s
clinic after she tried to kill herself and her other son. It was this other son,
paralyzed since birth, who kept her from carrying out her plan: He did believe

his life had a purpose, and if his mother killed them both, it would keep him
from achieving his goals.
The woman shared her story in a group session. To help her, Frankl asked
another woman to imagine a hypothetical situation in which she lay on her
deathbed, old and wealthy but childless. The woman insisted that, in that
case, she would have felt her life had been a failure.
When the suicidal mother was asked to perform the same exercise,
imagining herself on her deathbed, she looked back and realized that she had
done everything in her power for her children—for both of them. She had
given her paralyzed son a good life, and he had turned into a kind, reasonably
happy person. To this she added, crying, “As for myself, I can look back
peacefully on my life; for I can say my life was full of meaning, and I have
tried hard to live it fully; I have done my best—I have done my best for my
son. My life was no failure!”
In this way, by imagining herself on her deathbed and looking back, the
suicidal mother found the meaning that, though she was not aware of it, her
life already had.

Case study: The grief-stricken doctor
An elderly doctor, unable to overcome the deep depression into which he’d
fallen after the death of his wife two years earlier, went to Frankl for help.
Instead of giving him advice or analyzing his condition, Frankl asked him
what would have happened if he had been the one who died first. The doctor,
horrified, answered that it would have been terrible for his poor wife, that she
would have suffered tremendously. To which Frankl responded, “You see,
doctor? You have spared her all that suffering, but the price you have to pay
for this is to survive, and mourn her.”
The doctor didn’t say another word. He left Frankl’s office in peace, after
taking the therapist’s hand in his own. He was able to tolerate the pain in
place of his beloved wife. His life had been given a purpose.

Morita therapy

In the same decade that logotherapy came into being—a few years earlier, in
fact—Shoma Morita created his own purpose-centered therapy, in Japan. It
proved to be effective in the treatment of neurosis, obsessive-compulsive
disorder, and posttraumatic stress.
In addition to being a psychotherapist, Shoma Morita was a Zen Buddhist,
and his therapy left a lasting spiritual mark on Japan.
Many Western forms of therapy focus on controlling or modifying the
patient’s emotions. In the West, we tend to believe that what we think
influences how we feel, which in turn influences how we act. In contrast,
Morita therapy focuses on teaching patients to accept their emotions without
trying to control them, since their feelings will change as a result of their
In addition to accepting the patient’s emotions, Morita therapy seeks to
“create” new emotions on the basis of actions. According to Morita, these
emotions are learned through experience and repetition.
Morita therapy is not meant to eliminate symptoms; instead it teaches us
to accept our desires, anxieties, fears, and worries, and let them go. As Morita
writes in his book Morita Therapy and the True Nature of Anxiety-Based
Disorders, “In feelings, it is best to be wealthy and generous.”
Morita explained the idea of letting go of negative feelings with the
following fable: A donkey that is tied to a post by a rope will keep walking
around the post in an attempt to free itself, only to become more immobilized
and attached to the post. The same thing applies to people with obsessive
thinking who become more trapped in their own suffering when they try to
escape from their fears and discomfort.5

The basic principles of Morita therapy
1. Accept your feelings. If we have obsessive thoughts, we should not try to
control them or get rid of them. If we do, they become more intense.
Regarding human emotions, the Zen master would say, “If we try to get rid of
one wave with another, we end up with an infinite sea.” We don’t create our
feelings; they simply come to us, and we have to accept them. The trick is
welcoming them. Morita likened emotions to the weather: We can’t predict or
control them; we can only observe them. To this point, he often quoted the

Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who would say, “Hello, solitude. How
are you today? Come, sit with me, and I will care for you.”6
2. Do what you should be doing. We shouldn’t focus on eliminating
symptoms, because recovery will come on its own. We should focus instead
on the present moment, and if we are suffering, on accepting that suffering.
Above all, we should avoid intellectualizing the situation. The therapist’s
mission is to develop the patient’s character so he or she can face any
situation, and character is grounded in the things we do. Morita therapy does
not offer its patients explanations, but rather allows them to learn from their
actions and activities. It doesn’t tell you how to meditate, or how to keep a
diary the way Western therapies do. It is up to the patient to make discoveries
through experience.
3. Discover your life’s purpose. We can’t control our emotions, but we can
take charge of our actions every day. This is why we should have a clear sense
of our purpose, and always keep Morita’s mantra in mind: “What do we need
to be doing right now? What action should we be taking?” The key to
achieving this is having dared to look inside yourself to find your ikigai.
The four phases of Morita therapy

Morita’s original treatment, which lasts fifteen to twenty-one days, consists of
the following stages:
1. Isolation and rest (five to seven days). During the first week of
treatment, the patient rests in a room without any external stimuli. No
television, books, family, friends, or speaking. All the patient has is his
thoughts. He lies down for most of the day and is visited regularly by the
therapist, who tries to avoid interacting with him as much as possible. The
therapist simply advises the patient to continue observing the rise and fall of
his emotions as he lies there. When the patient gets bored and wants to start
doing things again, he is ready to move on to the next stage of therapy.
2. Light occupational therapy (five to seven days). In this stage, the patient
performs repetitive tasks in silence. One of these is keeping a diary about his
thoughts and feelings. The patient goes outside after a week of being shut in,
takes walks in nature, and does breathing exercises. He also starts doing

simple activities, such as gardening, drawing, or painting. During this stage,
the patient is still not allowed to talk to anyone, except the therapist.
3. Occupational therapy (five to seven days). In this stage, the patient
performs tasks that require physical movement. Dr. Morita liked to take his
patients to the mountains to chop wood. In addition to physical tasks, the
patient is also immersed in other activities, such as writing, painting, or
making ceramics. The patient can speak with others at this stage, but only
about the tasks at hand.
4. The return to social life and the “real” world. The patient leaves the
hospital and is reintroduced to social life, but maintains the practices of
meditation and occupational therapy developed during treatment. The idea is
to reenter society as a new person, with a sense of purpose, and without being
controlled by social or emotional pressures.

Naikan meditation
Morita was a great Zen master of Naikan introspective meditation. Much of
his therapy draws on his knowledge and mastery of this school, which centers
on three questions the individual must ask him- or herself:
1. What have I received from person X?
2. What have I given to person X?
3. What problems have I caused person X?
Through these reflections, we stop identifying others as the cause of our
problems and deepen our own sense of responsibility. As Morita said, “If you
are angry and want to fight, think about it for three days before coming to
blows. After three days, the intense desire to fight will pass on its own.”7

And now, ikigai
Logotherapy and Morita therapy are both grounded in a personal, unique
experience that you can access without therapists or spiritual retreats: the

mission of finding your ikigai, your existential fuel. Once you find it, it is only
a matter of having the courage and making the effort to stay on the right path.
In the following chapters, we’ll take a look at the basic tools you’ll need to
get moving along that path: finding flow in the tasks you’ve chosen to do,
eating in a balanced and mindful way, doing low-intensity exercise, and
learning not to give in when difficulties arise. In order to do this, you have to
accept that the world—like the people who live in it—is imperfect, but that it
is still full of opportunities for growth and achievement.
Are you ready to throw yourself into your passion as if it were the most
important thing in the world?


How to turn work and free time
into spaces for growth

We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.


Going with the flow
Imagine you are skiing down one of your favorite slopes. Powdery snow flies
up on both sides of you like white sand. Conditions are perfect.
You are entirely focused on skiing as well as you can. You know exactly
how to move at each moment. There is no future, no past. There is only the
present. You feel the snow, your skis, your body, and your consciousness
united as a single entity. You are completely immersed in the experience, not
thinking about or distracted by anything else. Your ego dissolves, and you
become part of what you are doing.
This is the kind of experience Bruce Lee described with his famous “Be
water, my friend.”
We’ve all felt our sense of time vanish when we lose ourselves in an
activity we enjoy. We start cooking and before we know it, several hours have
passed. We spend an afternoon with a book and forget about the world going
by until we notice the sunset and realize we haven’t eaten dinner. We go
surfing and don’t realize how many hours we have spent in the water until the
next day, when our muscles ache.
The opposite can also happen. When we have to complete a task we don’t
want to do, every minute feels like a lifetime and we can’t stop looking at our
watch. As the quip attributed to Einstein goes, “Put your hand on a hot stove
for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it
seems like a minute. That is relativity.”
The funny thing is that someone else might really enjoy the same task, but
we want to finish as quickly as possible.
What makes us enjoy doing something so much that we forget about
whatever worries we might have while we do it? When are we happiest?
These questions can help us discover our ikigai.

The power of flow
These questions are also at the heart of psychologist Mihaly
Csikszentmihalyi’s research into the experience of being completely
immersed in what we are doing. Csikszentmihalyi called this state “flow,” and
described it as the pleasure, delight, creativity, and process when we are
completely immersed in life.
There is no magic recipe for finding happiness, for living according to
your ikigai, but one key ingredient is the ability to reach this state of flow and,
through this state, to have an “optimal experience.”
In order to achieve this optimal experience, we have to focus on increasing
the time we spend on activities that bring us to this state of flow, rather than
allowing ourselves to get caught up in activities that offer immediate pleasure
—like eating too much, abusing drugs or alcohol, or stuffing ourselves with
chocolate in front of the TV.
As Csikszentmihalyi asserts in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal
Experience, flow is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity
that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that
people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
It is not only creative professionals who require the high doses of
concentration that promote flow. Most athletes, chess players, and engineers
also spend much of their time on activities that bring them to this state.
According to Csikszentmihalyi’s research, a chess player feels the same
way upon entering a state of flow as a mathematician working on a formula or
a surgeon performing an operation. A professor of psychology,
Csikszentmihalyi analyzed data from people around the world and discovered
that flow is the same among individuals of all ages and cultures. In New York
and Okinawa, we all reach a state of flow in the same way.
But what happens to our mind when we are in that state?
When we flow, we are focused on a concrete task without any distractions.
Our mind is “in order.” The opposite occurs when we try to do something
while our mind is on other things.
If you often find yourself losing focus while working on something you
consider important, there are several strategies you can employ to increase
your chances of achieving flow.

The Seven Conditions for Achieving Flow

According to researcher Owen Schaffer of DePaul University, the
requirements for achieving flow are:
1. Knowing what to do
2. Knowing how to do it
3. Knowing how well you are doing
4. Knowing where to go (where navigation is involved)
5. Perceiving significant challenges
6. Perceiving significant skills
7. Being free from distractions1

Strategy 1: Choose a difficult task (but not too
Schaffer’s model encourages us to take on tasks that we have a chance of
completing but that are slightly outside our comfort zone.
Every task, sport, or job has a set of rules, and we need a set of skills to
follow them. If the rules for completing a task or achieving a purpose are too
basic relative to our skill set, we will likely get bored. Activities that are too
easy lead to apathy.
If, on the other hand, we assign ourselves a task that is too difficult, we
won’t have the skills to complete it and will almost certainly give up—and
feel frustrated, to boot.
The ideal is to find a middle path, something aligned with our abilities but
just a bit of a stretch, so we experience it as a challenge. This is what Ernest
Hemingway meant when he said, “Sometimes I write better than I can.”2
We want to see challenges through to the end because we enjoy the feeling
of pushing ourselves. Bertrand Russell expressed a similar idea when he said,
“To be able to concentrate for a considerable amount of time is essential to
difficult achievement.”3
If you’re a graphic designer, learn a new software program for your next
project. If you’re a programmer, use a new programming language. If you’re a

dancer, try to incorporate into your next routine a movement that has seemed
impossible for years.
Add a little something extra, something that takes you out of your comfort
Even doing something as simple as reading means following certain rules,
having certain abilities and knowledge. If we set out to read a book on
quantum mechanics for specialists in physics without being specialists in
physics ourselves, we’ll probably give up after a few minutes. On the other
end of the spectrum, if we already know everything a book has to tell us,
we’ll get bored right away.
However, if the book is appropriate to our knowledge and abilities, and
builds on what we already know, we’ll immerse ourselves in our reading, and
time will flow. This pleasure and satisfaction are evidence that we are in tune
with our ikigai.


Beyond Our Abilities




Strategy 2: Have a clear, concrete objective
Video games—played in moderation—board games, and sports are great
ways to achieve flow, because the objective tends to be very clear: Beat your
rival or your own record while following a set of explicitly defined rules.
Unfortunately, the objective isn’t quite as clear in most situations.
According to a study by Boston Consulting Group, when asked about their
bosses, the number one complaint of employees at multinational corporations
is that they don’t “communicate the team’s mission clearly,” and that, as a
result, the employees don’t know what their objectives are.
What often happens, especially in big companies, is that the executives get
lost in the details of obsessive planning, creating strategies to hide the fact
that they don’t have a clear objective. It’s like heading out to sea with a map
but no destination.
It is much more important to have a compass pointing to a concrete
objective than to have a map. Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab,

encourages us to use the principle of “compass over maps” as a tool to
navigate our world of uncertainty. In the book Whiplash: How to Survive Our
Faster Future, he and Jeff Howe write, “In an increasingly unpredictable
world moving ever more quickly, a detailed map may lead you deep into the
woods at an unnecessarily high cost. A good compass, though, will always
take you where you need to go. It doesn’t mean that you should start your
journey without any idea where you’re going. What it does mean is
understanding that while the path to your goal may not be straight, you’ll
finish faster and more efficiently than you would have if you had trudged
along a preplanned route.”
In business, the creative professions, and education alike, it’s important to
reflect on what we hope to achieve before starting to work, study, or make
something. We should ask ourselves questions such as:
What is my objective for today’s session in the studio?
How many words am I going to write today for the article coming out
next month?
What is my team’s mission?
How fast will I set the metronome tomorrow in order to play that sonata
at an allegro tempo by the end of the week?
Having a clear objective is important in achieving flow, but we also have to
know how to leave it behind when we get down to business. Once the journey
has begun, we should keep this objective in mind without obsessing over it.
When Olympic athletes compete for a gold medal, they can’t stop to think
how pretty the medal is. They have to be present in the moment—they have
to flow. If they lose focus for a second, thinking how proud they’ll be to show
the medal to their parents, they’ll almost certainly commit an error at a
critical moment and will not win the competition.
One common example of this is writer’s block. Imagine that a writer has
to finish a novel in three months. The objective is clear; the problem is that
the writer can’t stop obsessing over it. Every day she wakes up thinking, “I
have to write that novel,” and every day she sets about reading the newspaper
and cleaning the house. Every evening she feels frustrated and promises she’ll
get to work the next day.

Days, weeks, and months pass, and the writer still hasn’t gotten anything
down on the page, when all it would have taken was to sit down and get that
first word out, then the second . . . to flow with the project, expressing her
As soon as you take these first small steps, your anxiety will disappear and
you will achieve a pleasant flow in the activity you’re doing. Getting back to
Albert Einstein, “a happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell on the
Vague Objective

Clearly Defined
Obsessive Desire to Achieve a
Objective and a Focus on
Goal While Ignoring Process

Confusion; time and energy
wasted on meaningless tasks

Fixation on the objective rather
than getting down to business

Mental block

Mental block


Strategy 3: Concentrate on a single task
This is perhaps one of the greatest obstacles we face today, with so much
technology and so many distractions. We’re listening to a video on YouTube
while writing an e-mail, when suddenly a chat prompt pops up and we answer
it. Then our smartphone vibrates in our pocket; just as soon as we respond to
that message, we’re back at our computer, logging on to Facebook.
Pretty soon thirty minutes have passed, and we’ve forgotten what the email we were writing was supposed to be about.
This also happens sometimes when we put on a movie with dinner and
don’t realize how delicious the salmon was until we’re taking the last bite.
We often think that combining tasks will save us time, but scientific
evidence shows that it has the opposite effect. Even those who claim to be
good at multitasking are not very productive. In fact, they are some of the
least productive people.
Our brains can take in millions of bits of information but can only actually
process a few dozen per second. When we say we’re multitasking, what we’re
really doing is switching back and forth between tasks very quickly.

Unfortunately, we’re not computers adept at parallel processing. We end up
spending all our energy alternating between tasks, instead of focusing on
doing one of them well.
Concentrating on one thing at a time may be the single most important
factor in achieving flow.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, in order to focus on a task we need:
1. To be in a distraction-free environment
2. To have control over what we are doing at every moment
Technology is great, if we’re in control of it. It’s not so great if it takes
control of us. For example, if you have to write a research paper, you might
sit down at your computer and use Google to look up the information you
need. However, if you’re not very disciplined, you might end up surfing the
Web instead of writing that paper. In that case, Google and the Internet will
have taken over, pulling you out of your state of flow.
It has been scientifically shown that if we continually ask our brains to
switch back and forth between tasks, we waste time, make more mistakes,
and remember less of what we’ve done.
Several studies conducted at Stanford University by Clifford Ivar Nass
describe our generation as suffering from an epidemic of multitasking. One
such study analyzed the behavior of hundreds of students, dividing them into
groups based on the number of things they tended to do at once. The students
who were the most addicted to multitasking typically alternated among more
than four tasks; for example, taking notes while reading a textbook, listening
to a podcast, answering messages on their smartphone, and sometimes
checking their Twitter timeline.
Each group of students was shown a screen with several red and several
blue arrows. The objective of the exercise was to count the red arrows.
At first, all the students answered correctly right away, without much
trouble. As the number of blue arrows increased (the number of red arrows
stayed the same; only their position changed), however, the students
accustomed to multitasking had serious trouble counting the red arrows in the
time allotted, or as quickly as the students who did not habitually multitask,
for one very simple reason: They got distracted by the blue arrows! Their

brains were trained to pay attention to every stimulus, regardless of its
importance, while the brains of the other students were trained to focus on a
single task—in this case, counting the red arrows and ignoring the blue ones.5
Other studies indicate that working on several things at once lowers our
productivity by at least 60 percent and our IQ by more than ten points.
One study funded by the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social
Research found that a sample group of more than four thousand young adults
between the ages of twenty and twenty-four who were addicted to their
smartphones got less sleep, felt less connected to their community at school,
and were more likely to show signs of depression.6
Concentrating on a Single Task Multitasking
Makes achieving flow more likely

Makes achieving flow impossible

Increases productivity

Decreases productivity by 60 percent (though it
doesn’t seem to)

Increases our power of retention

Makes it harder to remember things

Makes us less likely to make

Makes us more likely to make mistakes

Helps us feel calm and in control
of the task at hand

Makes us feel stressed by the sensation that we’re
losing control, that our tasks are controlling us

Causes us to become more
Causes us to hurt those around us through our
considerate as we pay full attention “addiction” to stimuli: always checking our phones,
to those around us
always on social media . . .
Increases creativity

Reduces creativity

What can we do to avoid falling victim to this flow-impeding epidemic?
How can we train our brains to focus on a single task? Here are a few ideas
for creating a space and time free of distractions, to increase our chances of
reaching a state of flow and thereby getting in touch with our ikigai:
Don’t look at any kind of screen for the first hour you’re awake and the
last hour before you go to sleep.

Turn off your phone before you achieve flow. There is nothing more
important than the task you have chosen to do during this time. If this
seems too extreme, enable the “do not disturb” function so only the
people closest to you can contact you in case of emergency.
Designate one day of the week, perhaps a Saturday or Sunday, a day of
technological “fasting,” making exceptions only for e-readers (without
Wi-Fi) or MP3 players.
Go to a café that doesn’t have Wi-Fi.
Read and respond to e-mail only once or twice per day. Define those
times clearly and stick to them.
Try the Pomodoro Technique: Get yourself a kitchen timer (some are
made to look like a pomodoro, or tomato) and commit to working on a
single task as long as it’s running. The Pomodoro Technique
recommends 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of rest for each cycle,
but you can also do 50 minutes of work and 10 minutes of rest. Find the
pace that’s best for you; the most important thing is to be disciplined in
completing each cycle.
Start your work session with a ritual you enjoy and end it with a reward.
Train your mind to return to the present when you find yourself getting
distracted. Practice mindfulness or another form of meditation, go for a
walk or a swim—whatever will help you get centered again.
Work in a space where you will not be distracted. If you can’t do this at
home, go to a library, a café, or, if your task involves playing the
saxophone, a music studio. If you find that your surroundings continue
to distract you, keep looking until you find the right place.
Divide each activity into groups of related tasks, and assign each group
its own place and time. For example, if you’re writing a magazine
article, you could do research and take notes at home in the morning,
write in the library in the afternoon, and edit on the couch at night.
Bundle routine tasks—such as sending out invoices, making phone calls,
and so on—and do them all at once.
Advantages of Flow

Disadvantages of Distraction

A focused mind

A wandering mind

Living in the present

Thinking about the past and the future

Advantages of Flow

Disadvantages of Distraction

We are free from worry

Concerns about our daily life and the people
around us invade our thoughts

The hours fly by

Every minute seems endless

We feel in control

We lose control and fail to complete the task
at hand, or other tasks or people keep us
from our work

We prepare thoroughly

We act without being prepared

We know what we should be doing at any
given moment

We frequently get stuck and don’t know how
to proceed

Our mind is clear and overcomes all
obstacles to the flow of thought

We are plagued by doubts, concerns, and low

It’s pleasant

It’s boring and exhausting

Our ego fades: We are not the ones
Constant self-criticism: Our ego is present
controlling the activity or task we’re doing—
and we feel frustrated
the task is leading us

Flow in Japan: Takumis, engineers, geniuses, and
What do takumis (artisans), engineers, inventors, and otakus (fans of anime
and manga) have in common? They all understand the importance of flowing
with their ikigai at all times.
One widespread stereotype about people in Japan is that they’re
exceptionally dedicated and hardworking, even though some Japanese people
say they look like they’re working harder than they really are. There is no
doubt, though, about their ability to be completely absorbed in a task, or
about their perseverance when there is a problem to be solved. One of the
first words one learns when starting Japanese lessons is ganbaru, which means
“to persevere” or “to stay firm by doing one’s best.”
Japanese people often apply themselves to even the most basic tasks with
an intensity that borders on obsession. We see this in all kinds of contexts,
from the “retirees” taking meticulous care of their rice fields in the mountains

of Nagano to the college students working the weekend shift in convenience
stores known as konbinis. If you go to Japan, you’ll experience this attention
to detail firsthand in almost every transaction.
Walk into one of the stores that sell handcrafted objects in Naha,
Kanazawa, or Kyoto and you’ll also discover that Japan is a treasure trove of
traditional craftwork. The people of Japan have a unique talent for creating
new technologies while preserving artisanal traditions and techniques.

The art of the takumi
Toyota employs “artisans” who are able to make a certain type of screw by
hand. These takumi, or experts in a particular manual skill, are extremely
important to Toyota, and they are hard to replace. Some of them are the only
people who know how to perform their exact skill, and it doesn’t seem as
though a new generation is going to take up the mantle.
Turntable needles are another example: They’re produced almost
exclusively in Japan, where you can find the last remaining people who know
how to use the machinery required to make these precision needles, and who
are trying to pass on their knowledge to their descendants.
We met a takumi on a visit to Kumano, a small town near Hiroshima. We
were there for the day, working on a photo essay for one of the most famous
brands of makeup brushes in the West. The billboard welcoming visitors to
Kumano shows a mascot holding a large brush. In addition to the brush
factories, the town is full of little houses and vegetable gardens; heading
farther in, you can see several Shinto shrines at the base of the mountains that
surround the town.
We spent hours taking photos in factories full of people in orderly rows,
each doing a single task—such as painting the handles of the brushes or
loading boxes of them onto trucks—before we realized we still hadn’t seen
anyone actually putting bristles into the brush heads.
After we asked about this and got the runaround several times, the
president of one company agreed to show us how it was done. He led us out
of the building and asked us to get into his car. After a five-minute drive we
parked next to another, smaller structure and climbed the stairs. He opened a

door and we walked into a small room filled with windows that let in lovely
natural light.
In the middle of the room was a woman wearing a mask. You could see
only her eyes. She was so focused on choosing individual bristles for the
brushes—gracefully moving her hands and fingers, using scissors and combs
to sort the bristles—that she didn’t even notice our presence. Her movements
were so quick it was hard to tell what she was doing.
The president of the company interrupted her to let her know that we’d be
taking photos as she worked. We couldn’t see her mouth, but the glint in her
eye and the cheerful inflection in her speech let us know she was smiling. She
looked happy and proud talking about her work and responsibilities.
We had to use extremely fast shutter speeds to capture her movements.
Her hands danced and flowed in concert with her tools and the bristles she
was sorting.
The president told us that this takumi was one of the most important
people in the company, even though she was hidden away in a separate
building. Every bristle of every brush the company made passed through her

Steve Jobs in Japan
Apple cofounder Steve Jobs was a big fan of Japan. Not only did he visit the
Sony factories in the 1980s and adopt many of their methods when he
founded Apple, he was also captivated by the simplicity and quality of
Japanese porcelain in Kyoto.
It was not, however, an artisan from Kyoto who won Steve Jobs’s devotion,
but rather a takumi from Toyama named Yukio Shakunaga, who used a
technique called Etchu Seto-yaki, known by only a few.
On a visit to Kyoto, Jobs heard of an exhibition of Shakunaga’s work. He
immediately understood that there was something special about Shakunaga’s
porcelain. As a matter of fact, he bought several cups, vases, and plates, and
went back to the show three times that week.
Jobs returned to Kyoto several times over the course of his life in search
of inspiration, and ended up meeting Shakunaga in person. It is said that Jobs

had many questions for him—almost all of them about the fabrication process
and the type of porcelain he used.
Shakunaga explained that he used white porcelain he extracted himself
from mountains in the Toyama prefecture, making him the only artist of his
ilk familiar with the fabrication process of porcelain objects from their origins
in the mountains to their final form—an authentic takumi.
Jobs was so impressed that he considered going to Toyama to see the
mountain where Shakunaga got his porcelain, but thought better of it when he
heard that it was more than four hours by train from Kyoto.
In an interview after Jobs’s death, Shakunaga said he was very proud that
his work had been appreciated by the man who created the iPhone. He added
that Jobs’s last purchase from him had been a set of twelve teacups. Jobs had
asked for something special, “a new style.” To satisfy this request, Shakunaga
made 150 teacups in the process of testing out new ideas. Of these, he chose
the twelve best and sent them to the Jobs family.
Ever since his first trip to Japan, Jobs was fascinated and inspired by the
country’s artisans, engineers (especially at Sony), philosophy (especially Zen),
and cuisine (especially sushi).7

Sophisticated simplicity
What do Japanese artisans, engineers, Zen philosophy, and cuisine have in
common? Simplicity and attention to detail. It is not a lazy simplicity but a
sophisticated one that searches out new frontiers, always taking the object, the
body and mind, or the cuisine to the next level, according to one’s ikigai.
As Csikszentmihalyi would say, the key is always having a meaningful
challenge to overcome in order to maintain flow.
The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi gives us another example of a
takumi, this time in the kitchen. Its protagonist has been making sushi every
day for more than eighty years, and owns a small sushi restaurant near the
Ginza subway station in Tokyo. He and his son go every day to the famous
Tsukiji fish market and choose the best fish to bring back to the restaurant.
In the documentary, we see one of Jiro’s apprentices learning to make
tamago (a thin, slightly sweet omelet). No matter how hard he tries, he can’t
get Jiro’s approval. He keeps practicing for years until he finally does.

Why does the apprentice refuse to give up? Doesn’t he get bored cooking
eggs every day? No, because making sushi is his ikigai, too.
Both Jiro and his son are culinary artists. They don’t get bored when they
cook—they achieve a state of flow. They enjoy themselves completely when
they are in the kitchen; that is their happiness, their ikigai. They’ve learned to
take pleasure in their work, to lose their sense of time.
Beyond the close relationship between father and son, which helps them
keep the challenge going each day, they also work in a quiet, peaceful
environment that allows them to concentrate. Even after receiving a three-star
rating from Michelin, they never considered opening other locations or
expanding the business. They serve just ten patrons at a time at the bar of
their small restaurant. Jiro’s family isn’t looking to make money; instead they
value good working conditions and creating an environment in which they can
flow while making the best sushi in the world.
Jiro, like Yukio Shakunaga, begins his work at “the source.” He goes to
the fish market to find the best tuna; Shakunaga goes to the mountains to find
the best porcelain. When they get down to work, both become one with the
object they are creating. This unity with the object that they reach in a state of
flow takes on special meaning in Japan, where, according to Shintoism,
forests, trees, and objects have a kami (spirit or god) within them.
When someone—whether an artist, an engineer, or a chef—sets out to
create something, his or her responsibility is to use nature to give it “life”
while respecting that nature at every moment. During this process, the artisan
becomes one with the object and flows with it. An ironworker would say that
metal has a life of its own, just as someone making ceramics would say that
the clay does. The Japanese are skilled at bringing nature and technology
together: not man versus nature, but rather a union of the two.

The purity of Ghibli
There are those who say that the Shinto value of being connected with nature
is vanishing. One of the harshest critics of this loss is another artist with a
clearly defined ikigai: Hayao Miyazaki, the director of the animated films
produced by Studio Ghibli.

In nearly all his films we see humans, technology, fantasy, and nature in a
state of conflict—and, in the end, coming together. One of the most poignant
metaphors in his film Spirited Away is an obese spirit covered in trash that
represents the pollution of the rivers.
In Miyazaki’s films, forests have personalities, trees have feelings, and
robots befriend birds. Considered a national treasure by the Japanese
government, Miyazaki is an artist capable of becoming completely absorbed
in his art. He uses a cell phone from the late 1990s, and he makes his entire
team draw by hand. He “directs” his films by rendering on paper even the
tiniest detail, achieving flow by drawing, not by using a computer. Thanks to
this obsession on the director’s part, Studio Ghibli is one of the only studios
in the world where almost the entire production process is carried out using
traditional techniques.
Those who have visited Studio Ghibli know that it is fairly typical, on a
given Sunday to see a solitary individual tucked away in a corner, hard at
work—a man in simple clothes who will greet them with an ohayo (hello)
without looking up.
Miyazaki is so passionate about his work that he spends many Sundays in
the studio, enjoying the state of flow, putting his ikigai above all else. Visitors
know that under no circumstances is one to bother Miyazaki, who is known
for his quick temper—especially if he is interrupted while drawing.
In 2013, Miyazaki announced he was going to retire. To commemorate his
retirement, the television station NHK made a documentary showing him in
his last days at work. He is drawing in nearly every scene of the film. In one
scene, several of his colleagues are seen coming out of a meeting, and there
he is, drawing in a corner, paying no attention to them. In another scene, he is
shown walking to work on December 30 (a national holiday in Japan) and
opening the doors of Studio Ghibli so he can spend the day there, drawing
Miyazaki can’t stop drawing. The day after his “retirement,” instead of
going on vacation or staying at home, he went to Studio Ghibli and sat down
to draw. His colleagues put on their best poker faces, not knowing what to
say. One year later, he announced he wouldn’t make any more feature films
but that he would keep on drawing until the day he died.
Can someone really retire if he is passionate about what he does?

The recluses
It is not only the Japanese who have this capacity; there are artists and
scientists all over the world with strong, clear ikigais. They do what they love
until their dying day.
The last thing Einstein wrote before closing his eyes forever was a formula
that attempted to unite all the forces of the universe in a single theory. When
he died, he was still doing what he loved. If he hadn’t been a physicist, he
said, he would have been happy as a musician. When he wasn’t focused on
physics or mathematics, he enjoyed playing the violin. Reaching a state of
flow while working on his formulas or playing music, his two ikigais, brought
him endless pleasure.
Many such artists might seem misanthropic or reclusive, but what they are
really doing is protecting the time that brings them happiness, sometimes at
the expense of other aspects of their lives. They are outliers who apply the
principles of flow to their lives to an extreme.
Another example of this kind of artist is the novelist Haruki Murakami.
He sees only a close circle of friends, and appears in public in Japan only
once every few years.
Artists know how important it is to protect their space, control their
environment, and be free of distractions if they want to flow with their ikigai.

Microflow: Enjoying mundane tasks
But what happens when we have to, say, do the laundry, mow the lawn, or
attend to paperwork? Is there a way to make these mundane tasks enjoyable?
Near the Shinjuku subway station, in one of the neural centers of Tokyo,
there is a supermarket that still employs elevator operators. The elevators are
fairly standard and could easily be operated by the customers, but the store
prefers to provide the service of someone holding the door open for you,
pushing the button for your floor, and bowing as you exit.
If you ask around, you’ll learn that there is one elevator operator who has
been doing the same job since 2004. She is always smiling and enthusiastic
about her work. How is she able to enjoy such a job? Doesn’t she get bored
doing something so repetitive?

On closer inspection, it becomes clear that the elevator operator is not just
pushing buttons but is instead performing a whole sequence of movements.
She begins by greeting the customers with a songlike salutation followed by a
bow and a welcoming wave of the hand. Then she presses the elevator button
with a graceful movement, as though she is a geisha offering a client a cup of
Csikszentmihalyi calls this microflow.
We’ve all been bored in a class or at a conference and started doodling to
keep ourselves entertained. Or whistled while painting a wall. If we’re not
truly being challenged, we get bored and add a layer of complexity to amuse
ourselves. Our ability to turn routine tasks into moments of microflow, into
something we enjoy, is key to our being happy, since we all have to do such
Even Bill Gates washes the dishes every night. He says he enjoys it—that
it helps him relax and clear his mind, and that he tries to do it a little better
each day, following an established order or set of rules he’s made for himself:
plates first, forks second, and so on.
It’s one of his daily moments of microflow.
Richard Feynman, one of the most important physicists of all time, also
took pleasure in routine tasks. W. Daniel Hillis, one of the founders of the
supercomputer manufacturer Thinking Machines, hired Feynman to work on
the development of a computer that could handle parallel processing when he
was already world famous. He says Feynman showed up on his first day of
work and said, “OK, boss, what’s my assignment?” They didn’t have anything
prepared, so they asked him to work on a certain mathematical problem. He
immediately realized they were giving him an irrelevant task to keep him
busy and said, “That sounds like a bunch of baloney—give me something real
to do.”
So they sent him to a nearby shop to buy office supplies, and he completed
his assignment with a smile on his face. When he didn’t have something
important to do or needed to rest his mind, Feynman dedicated himself to
microflowing—say, painting the office walls.
Weeks later, after visiting the Thinking Machines offices a group of
investors declared, “You have a Nobel laureate in there painting walls and
soldering circuits.”8

Instant vacations: Getting there through meditation
Training the mind can get us to a place of flow more quickly. Meditation is
one way to exercise our mental muscles.
There are many types of meditation, but they all have the same objective:
calming the mind, observing our thoughts and emotions, and centering our
focus on a single object.
The basic practice involves sitting with a straight back and focusing on
your breath. Anyone can do it, and you feel a difference after just one session.
By fixing your attention on the air moving in and out of your nose, you can
slow the torrent of thoughts and clear your mental horizons.
The Archer’s Secret

The winner of the 1988 Olympic gold medal for archery was a
seventeen-year-old woman from South Korea. When asked how she
prepared, she replied that the most important part of her training was
meditating for two hours each day.
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.
One of the most common mistakes among people starting to meditate is
worrying about doing it “right,” achieving absolute mental silence, or reaching
“nirvana.” The most important thing is to focus on the journey.
Since the mind is a constant swirl of thoughts, ideas, and emotions,
slowing down the “centrifuge”—even for just a few seconds—can help us feel
more rested and leave us with a sense of clarity.
In fact, one of the things we learn in the practice of meditation is not to
worry about anything that flits across our mental screen. The idea of killing
our boss might flash into our mind, but we simply label it as a thought and let
it pass like a cloud, without judging or rejecting it. It is only a thought—one
of the sixty thousand we have every day, according to some experts.
Meditation generates alpha and theta brain waves. For those experienced
in meditation, these waves appear right away, while it might take a half hour

for a beginner to experience them. These relaxing brain waves are the ones
that are activated right before we fall asleep, as we lie in the sun, or right after
taking a hot bath.
We all carry a spa with us everywhere we go. It’s just a matter of knowing
how to get in—something anyone can do, with a bit of practice.

Humans as ritualistic beings
Life is inherently ritualistic. We could argue that humans naturally follow
rituals that keep us busy. In some modern cultures, we have been forced out
of our ritualistic lives to pursue goal after goal in order to be seen as
successful. But throughout history, humans have always been busy. We were
hunting, cooking, farming, exploring, and raising families—activities that
were structured as rituals to keep us busy throughout our days.
But in an unusual way, rituals still permeate daily life and business
practices in modern Japan. The main religions in Japan—Confucianism,
Buddhism, and Shintoism—are all ones in which the rituals are more
important than absolute rules.
When doing business in Japan, process, manners, and how you work on
something is more important than the final results. Whether this is good or
bad for the economy is beyond the scope of this book. What is indisputable,
though, is that finding flow in a “ritualistic workplace” is much easier than in
one in which we are continually stressed out trying to achieve unclear goals
set by our bosses.
Rituals give us clear rules and objectives, which help us enter a state of
flow. When we have only a big goal in front of us, we might feel lost or
overwhelmed by it; rituals help us by giving us the process, the substeps, on
the path to achieving a goal. When confronted with a big goal, try to break it
down into parts and then attack each part one by one.
Focus on enjoying your daily rituals, using them as tools to enter a state of
flow. Don’t worry about the outcome—it will come naturally. Happiness is in
the doing, not in the result. As a rule of thumb, remind yourself: “Rituals over
The happiest people are not the ones who achieve the most. They are the
ones who spend more time than others in a state of flow.

Using flow to find your ikigai
After reading this chapter you should have a better idea of which activities in
your life make you enter flow. Write all of them on a piece of paper, then ask
yourself these questions: What do the activities that drive you to flow have in
common? Why do those activities drive you to flow? For example, are all the
activities you most like doing ones that you practice alone or with other
people? Do you flow more when doing things that require you to move your
body or just to think?
In the answers to these questions you might find the underlying ikigai that
drives your life. If you don’t, then keep searching by going deeper into what
you like by spending more of your time in the activities that make you flow.
Also, try new things that are not on the list of what makes you flow but that
are similar and that you are curious about. For example, if photography is
something that drives you into flow, you could also try painting; you might
even like it more! Or if you love snowboarding and have never tried
surfing . . .
Flow is mysterious. It is like a muscle: the more you train it, the more you
will flow, and the closer you will be to your ikigai.


Words of wisdom from the
longest-living people in the world

WHEN WE STARTED working on this book, we didn’t want to just research the

factors that contribute to a long and happy life; we wanted to hear from the
true masters of this art.
The interviews we conducted in Okinawa merit their own chapter, but in
the section that precedes it we have provided an overview of the life
philosophies of a few international champions of longevity. We’re talking
about supercentenarians—people who live to 110 years of age or more.
The term was coined in 1970 by Norris McWhirter, editor of The
Guinness Book of World Records. Its use became more widespread in the
1990s, after it appeared in William Strauss and Neil Howe’s Generations.
Today there are an estimated 300 to 450 supercentenarians in the world,
although the age of only around 75 of them has been confirmed. They aren’t
superheroes, but we could see them as such for having spent far more time on
this planet than the average life expectancy would predict.
Given the rise in life expectancy around the world, the number of
supercentenarians might also increase. A healthy and purposeful life could
help us join their ranks.
Let’s take a look at what a few of them have to say.

Misao Okawa (117)

“Eat and sleep, and you’ll live a long time. You have
to learn to relax.”
According to the Gerontology Research Group, until April 2015, the oldest
living person in the world was Misao Okawa, who passed away in a care
facility in Osaka, Japan, after living for 117 years and 27 days.
The daughter of a textile merchant, she was born in 1898, when Spain lost
its colonies in Cuba and the Philippines, and the United States annexed
Hawaii and launched Pepsi-Cola. Until she was 110, this woman—who lived
in three different centuries—cared for herself unassisted.

When specialists asked about her self-care routine, Misao answered
simply, “Eating sushi and sleeping,” to which we should add, having a
tremendous thirst for life. When they inquired about her secret for longevity,
she answered with a smile, “I ask myself the same thing.”1
Proof that Japan continues to be a factory of long life: In July of the same
year Sakari Momoi passed away at 112 years and 150 days old. At the time
he was the oldest man in the world, though he was younger than fifty-seven

María Capovilla (116)

“I’ve never eaten meat in my life.”
Born in Ecuador in 1889, María Capovilla was recognized by Guinness as the
world’s oldest person. She died of pneumonia in 2006, at 116 years and 347
days old, leaving behind three children, twelve grandchildren, and twenty
great- and great-great-grandchildren.
She gave one of her last interviews at age 107, sharing her memories and
her thoughts:
I’m happy, and I give thanks to God, who keeps me going. I never thought I’d live so
long, I thought I’d die long ago. My husband, Antonio Capovilla, was the captain of a
ship. He passed away at 84. We had two daughters and a son, and now I have many
grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Things were better, back in the old days. People behaved better. We used to dance,
but we were more restrained; there was this one song I loved dancing to: “María” by
Luis Alarcón. I still remember most of the words. I also remember many prayers, and
say them every day.
I like the waltz, and can still dance it. I also still make crafts, I still do some of the
things I did when I was in school.2

When she had finished recalling her past, she began to dance—one of her
great passions—with an energy that made her seem decades younger.
When asked about her secret for longevity, she responded simply, “I don’t
know what the secret to long life is. The only thing I do is I’ve never eaten
meat in my life. I attribute it to that.”

Jeanne Calment (122)
“Everything’s fine.”

Born in Arles, France, in February 1875, Jeanne Calment lived until August
4, 1997, making her, at 122, the oldest person of verified age in history. She
jokingly said that she “competed with Methuselah,” and there is no question
that she broke numerous records as she went on celebrating birthdays.
She died of natural causes at the end of a happy life during which she
denied herself almost nothing. She rode a bicycle until she turned 100. She
lived on her own until 110, when she agreed to move into a nursing home
after accidentally starting a small fire in her apartment. She stopped smoking
at 120, when her cataracts started making it hard for her to bring a cigarette
to her lips.
One of her secrets may have been her sense of humor. As she said on her
120th birthday, “I see badly, I hear badly, and I feel bad, but everything’s

Walter Breuning (114)

“If you keep your mind and body busy, you’ll be
around a long time.”
Born in Minnesota in 1896, Walter Breuning was able to see three centuries
in his lifetime. He died in Montana in 2011, from natural causes; he’d had
two wives and a fifty-year career on the railroad. At eighty-three he retired to
an assisted living center in Montana, where he remained until his death. He is
the second-oldest man (of verified age) ever born in the United States.
He gave many interviews in his final years, insisting that his longevity
stemmed from, among other things, his habit of eating only two meals per
day and working for as many years as he could. “Your mind and your body.
You keep both busy,” he said on his 112th birthday, “you’ll be here a long
time.” Back then, he was still exercising every day.
Among Breuning’s other secrets: He had a habit of helping others, and he
wasn’t afraid of dying. As he declared in a 2010 interview with the

Associated Press, “We’re all going to die. Some people are scared of dying.
Never be afraid to die. Because you’re born to die.”4
Before passing away in 2011, he is said to have told a pastor that he’d
made a deal with God: If he wasn’t going to get better, it was time to go.

Alexander Imich (111)

“I just haven’t died yet.”
Born in Poland in 1903, Alexander Imich was a chemist and parapsychologist
residing in the United States who, after the death of his predecessor in 2014,
became the oldest man of authenticated age in the world. Imich himself died
shortly thereafter, in June of that year, leaving behind a long life rich with
Imich attributed his longevity to, among other things, never drinking
alcohol. “It’s not as though I’d won the Nobel Prize,” he said upon being
declared the world’s oldest man. “I never thought I’d get to be so old.” When
asked about his secret to living so long, his answer was “I don’t know. I just
haven’t died yet.”5

Ikigai artists
The secret to long life, however, is not held by supercentenarians alone. There
are many people of advanced age who, though they haven’t made it into
Guinness World Records, offer us inspiration and ideas for bringing energy
and meaning to our lives.
Artists, for example, who carry the torch of their ikigai instead of retiring,
have this power.
Art, in all its forms, is an ikigai that can bring happiness and purpose to
our days. Enjoying or creating beauty is free, and something all human beings
have access to.
Hokusai, the Japanese artist who made woodblock prints in the ukiyo-e
style and lived for 88 years, from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth
century, added this postscript to the first edition of his One Hundred Views of
Mount Fuji:6

All that I have produced before the age of 70 is not worth being counted. It is at the
age of 73 that I have somewhat begun to understand the structure of true nature, of
animals and grasses, and trees and birds, and fishes and insects; consequently at 80
years of age I shall have made still more progress; at 90 I hope to have penetrated into
the mystery of things; at 100 years of age I should have reached decidedly a marvelous
degree, and when I shall be 110, all that I do, every point and every line, shall be
instinct with life.

In the pages that follow, we’ve collected some of the most inspirational
words from artists interviewed by Camille Sweeney for the New York Times.7
Of those still living, none have retired, and all still enjoy their passion, which
they plan to pursue until their final breath, demonstrating that when you have
a clear purpose, no one can stop you.
The actor Christopher Plummer, still working at eighty-six, reveals a dark
desire shared by many who love the profession: “We want to drop dead
onstage. That would be a nice theatrical way to go.”8
Osamu Tezuka, the father of modern Japanese manga, shared this feeling.
Before he died in 1989, his last words as he drew one final cartoon were
“Please, just let me work!”9
The eighty-six-year-old filmmaker Frederick Wiseman declared on a stroll
through Paris that he likes to work, which is why he does it with such
intensity. “Everybody complains about their aches and pains and all that, but
my friends are either dead or are still working,” he said.10
Carmen Herrera, a painter who just entered her one hundredth year, sold
her first canvas at age eighty-nine. Today her work is in the permanent
collections of the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art. When asked
how she viewed her future, she responded, “I