Book review ‘Ikigai’ by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles

We recently read the book ‘Ikigai – The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life’, written by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles. The term can be described in different ways: meaningfulness, ‘raison d’être’, the reason why you get out of bed in the morning.

It is an important theme, meaningfulness. When there is trauma or piercing loss, fearfulness and dark thoughts and feelings can take the upper hand in such a way that it becomes difficult to see the meaning of life. Sometimes it is good to carefully discover again what gives joy and which elements feel like a blessing for the body. With small steps you can then work towards a situation in which larger goals can also be given a place for daily motivation once more. Meaning also has a crucial place in the Positive Health-view. When people are asked about the six pillars of the spider web (bodily functions, mental well-being, meaningfulness, quality of life, participation, and daily functioning), ‘meaningfulness’ appears to be the most important component for many. We want to feel that we are making a meaningful contribution to a greater whole. This may not be the same topic for everyone, but we do share that need for meaningfulness. This book aims to provide more insight for such a salutogenetic approach, a view in which you do not avoid things so that you do not get sick, but in which you proactively seek out things that make you happy and give meaning to your existence.

After an introductory Chapter I, Chapter II follows with an overview of the little things that add up to make a big contribution to a long and happy life. Consider, for example, the Latin proverb “mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body. An open, flexible attitude of mind helps you to keep feeling young, even as the body ages. One of the key points of trauma is that you lose an essential part of your flexibility when you have to structurally deploy your survival strategies. Stress promotes cell aging by weakening telomeres, cell structures that affect how cells regenerate and how they age (p. 23). You can lower the stress level of your life with the help of meditation, breathing exercises and yoga, for example. Ensuring sufficient exercise and sufficient sleep is also important to keep body and mind healthy.

Chapter III discusses how finding your ‘ikigai’, your purpose in life, helps you stay healthy. It opens with a pithy question from Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and former Auschwitz prisoner Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), who reportedly presented his patients with this dilemma: “Why don’t you kill yourself?” (p. 37). He saw this as a way to forcefully confront people with the fact that in most cases they did see aspects that made life worth living. Feelings of emptiness, frustration and fear, Frankl believed, usually stem from the deep need for a meaningful life. The chapter then provides a nice overview of the difference between psychoanalysis and Frankl’s logotherapy, the method in which patients are encouraged to consciously discover the meaning and purpose of their lives. That is helpful because then they can really do what suits their personal life destiny. Frankl makes a distinction between ‘being mentally ill’ and ‘experiencing spiritual suffering’ (p. 40): without meaning, the soul suffers. That is not a disease, but a logical consequence of an unfulfilled, inherent human need. The task for every human being is not to create meaning, but to discover the meaning that lies deep within us. By looking at situations in which we are deeply focused and ‘in flow’, where everything seems to go by itself, we can gain insight into that life purpose.


Chapters 5 through 8 provide the experiences of a group of very old people in Japan and how they look at what brought them here, what views, diets and physical exercises helped.
Chapter 9 discusses three concepts that indicate how a person, thing or organisation responds to adversity. When something happens and damage easily occurs, we speak of ‘fragility’. When something happens and it can be endured without weakening, we speak of ‘resilience’. And a third concept describes the situation in which violent influences or even damages occur and the person, thing or organisation does not become weaker, but rather stronger. We can then speak of ‘antifragility’ (p. 174). The book offers three strategies for becoming antifragile: create more options (with not one but several jobs or clients you are less dependent on one source of income), be careful in certain areas and take lots of small risks in others (small risks can bring big results without exposing ourselves to big dangers), get rid of things that make you fragile (don’t snack too much, pay off your debts, don’t spend time with toxic people) and also remember that every setback offers an opportunity for growth (p. 176-179). More on this concept, the authors say, can be found in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book ‘Antifragile’. Coincidentally, that book is also here – a small 500 finely printed pages thick. 😉

The epilogue summarizes the main points of the book:

  1. Stay active; don’t retire.
  2. Take it slow.
  3. Don’t fill your stomach (but only 80%).
  4. Surround yourself with good friends.
  5. Get in shape for your next birthday.
  6. Smile.
  7. Reconnect with nature.
  8. Give thanks.
  9. Live in the moment.
  10. Follow your ikigai.

This book offers great starting points to look for your life purpose. What seems to receive not so much attention is that in the case of early childhood trauma, the brain is ‘wired’ in such a way that the physiology makes all kinds of aspects of life (more) difficult. Few words are also devoted to the role social factors play in this. It is mainly focused on what you could do yourself within your own context. If you want to know more about that, this is a wonderfully handy, easy-to-read little reference work!

Posted in Book and movie reviews.