Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Healthy Life | Book Review

Written by the Spanish health and lifestyle authors; Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles, one of their many books on Japanese culture, Ikigai is a self-improvement book about finding meaning in life and how having a sense of purpose contributes to longevity.

Ikigai is a beautifully nuanced concept, rooted in Japanese culture and can be translated as “the happiness of always being busy” according to the authors. It’s a unique and perhaps elusive expression for many Westerners in that there’s no exact English translation, much like with another Japanese term; wabi-sabi; ‘the beauty of age and imperfection,’ which is also the title of a fiction novel authored by Francesc Miralles. These expressions are hard to translate accurately because of how they exist at the center of Japanese customs and ways of living. It is through these singularly Japanese ways that the authors depict the concept of ikigai for its Western readers.

This is an effortlessly influential read, written in a simplistic, easily laid out format, that I completed in a day. I was impressed by how effectively it uses few words to discuss the importance of finding one’s purpose and how doing so can result in a long life, as it does for the many inhabitants of Okinawa Island, a prefecture belonging to Japan and one of the world’s five Blue Zones i.e. places where the healthiest people on earth live the longest.

The book sometimes deviates into explaining Western philosophies, such as Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’. It was super intriguing and impactful stuff and I could definitely see the connections to the ethos of ikigai. Whilst reading about the works of these thinkers, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the book could’ve used more examples of Eastern philosophers to explain the meaning of ikigai, seeing as they would be able to impart unparalleled insight because it lies at the heart of their culture. But retrospectively, I think that the weaving in of minds like Frankl and Csikszentmihalyi did help to make the concept of ikigai more understandable in a Western context.

Unfortunately, inasmuch as I loved the broad-brush nature of the writing, it didn’t always feel cohesive to me. It encourages the reader to find meaning in the things there’re passionate about and to continue working hard at them, well past retirement age. But at the same time, it felt like I was reading a book on how to live a healthier life and thus increase your chances of making it to 100 years of age. The takeaway? Remaining active and always doing the things you love, even in old age is the secret to a long and happy life. However, I would’ve loved it if the writers bridged the gap between these two objectives a bit more.

There’s also a really interesting diagram that appears at the very beginning of the book and on the back cover; a Venn diagram that illustrates the concept of ikigai. I was hoping for more of an analysis of that diagram and how the different components interact to define your mission, your passion, your vocation and your profession. Who developed that Venn diagram, anway? Was it the authors or some Japanese thinker inspired by John Venn? The book doesn’t say.

That aside, there’s much to take away from this small but motivating guide. Reading it will definitely change your outlook and get you moving as you attempt a yoga pose for the very first time, all whilst holding the book!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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