The Path to Longevity: How to Unearth Your Ikigai and Live Like an Okinawan

Just last week, I came across a TED Talk that delved into the evidence behind longevity and the keys to living a long, happy, and healthy life. I know this seems difficult to pinpoint; however, TED talk speaker and National Geographic author and explorer, Dan Buettner knows a thing or two about how to eat and live like “the people who’ve lived the longest.” He specifically researches “Blue Zones” or communities with the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world.

I decided to watch Dan’s talk for several reasons; firstly, the average life expectancy in the United States is among the lowest worldwide despite spending twice the amount on healthcare as compared to other countries. This astounding statistic not only warrants healthcare reform, but also lifestyle changes to mimic those in the so-called Blue Zones. Secondly, I’ve recently encountered many people in the working world– doctors included– who are unsatisfied with their lifestyle and profession. That being said, it is essential for premedical and medical students to extensively explore their options to discover what career or medical specialty really speaks to them. After all, doctors should be the epitome of health–mental, physical, and emotional health. Finally, when I was working in Alzheimer’s clinical research, I came across a few studies exploring delaying retirement and maintaining physical and cognitive activity to reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s Disease or other types of dementia. I had a feeling that one of the secrets to health and long life was continuing to participate in the activities you most enjoy, if you are able. I was right.

In his 20-minute TED talk, Dan spoke on a few discovered Blue Zones such as the highlands of Sardinia, Italy and Adventists in Loma Linda, California. He also zeroed in on the Japanese, specifically a community on a group of islands 800 miles south of Tokyo called Okinawa. These islands used to be referred to as the land of immortals given that it has the highest disability-free life expectancy in the world, seven years longer than the average American. Okinawa also has among the highest centenarian ratios across the globe, approximately 6.5 per 10,000 as compared to 1.73 in the United States. Considering these statistics, it’s no surprise that Okinawa is also home to the oldest living female population in the world. Talk about girl power.

What are the inhabitants of Okinawa doing that most Americans are not? Of course, their plant-based and soy-rich diet, active lifestyle (as simple as walking, gardening, and standing up from being seated on the floor several dozen times daily), and only eating until 80% full are major contributing factors to their longevity. However, their secret to a long, healthy life may be more so influenced by their tight-knit social circles called moais and strong sense of purpose, both of which persist well into old age.

That sense of purpose or reason for waking up in the morning is in the heart of Okinawa culture. They call this ikigai which roughly translates to “the happiness of always being busy.” I can relate to this concept as I’m sure many of you can as well. Don’t get me wrong, taking a break from reality is much needed to refresh and reset the mind, especially for premedical and medical students. However, after a week or two of complete relaxation, I am no stranger to that itch to get back to my daily routine and doing the things that give my life meaning.

So, what is your ikigai and how can you find it? A good starting point is asking yourself these four questions:

  1. What do I love?
  2. What am I good at?
  3. What can I be paid for?
  4. What does the world need?

If you are still at a loss, don’t fret. Here are some tips from the experts to help you find your purpose:

  1. Leave urgency behind and adopt a slower pace of life
  2.  Surround yourself with good friends
  3. Get in shape through daily, gentle exercise
  4.  Smile and acknowledge people around you
  5.  Reconnect with nature
  6.  Give thanks to anything that brightens your day
  7.  Live in the moment

I have yet to find my ikigai, but I know my passion for travel and health along with the suggestions above will guide me in discovering my ultimate “reason for being.” Take a glimpse at the diagram below for a visual aid in awakening your ikigai to get on the path to a long, happy, healthy, and purposeful life.


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Elizabeth Arruda

Is a contributor to The Almost Doctor’s Channel.