Finding Your Sweet Spot

What is the meaning of my life? Is the point just to live longer, or should I seek a higher purpose?

– Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles, Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life

If prone to worry, we tend to worry most about vicious circles, those repetitive processes where unfortunate situations get steadily worse because of consequences that only deteriorate. Once started, a vicious circle looks like what it foreshadows is almost inevitable. After a certain point, it really is. Nonetheless, as economists of all people, will explain to you, the vicious circle and its opposite, the virtuous circle have one big thing in common: without well considered intervention, either is very hard to reverse. Much effort is spent attempting to reverse the more troublesome vicious circles such as the poverty cycle, expanding conflict, all kinds of prejudice and family feuds. Results on balance, have been disappointing. To start, where do you start?

Now with virtuous circles, those happily caught up in them obviously aren’t interested in turning them around nor particularly curious about how they started. Many of the privileged are said to be notoriously blasé about where the money comes from. The healthy take well-being as a given and don’t generally pore over papers on disease unless they are doctors, medical researchers or relatives of the afflicted. Why argue with what you’re grateful for? Unless, that is, something spectacularly striking about your situation or potential comes to your attention.

What if the good, happy and long life is not a matter of privilege or fortune. What if you don’t need extraordinary genes or talents to achieve what most matters? What if there was plenty of empirical, statistical and anecdotal evidence to back that up?

We may continue to fret about the causes or the starting points of vicious circles, but in recent years researchers have discovered some extraordinarily simple but wonderful facts about virtuous circles. Especially the big ones – the positive circles themselves and the values we really care about. You may have heard of these discoveries, one of the most convincing goes by the Japanese name of ikigai.

You may also recall Judy Umlas’ presentation in which she explored her own ikigai on the IIL stage during last fall’s International Project Management Day. She summarized what it meant to her with confidence and unmistakable passion. Judy is fortunate to have found her ikigai, which combines what she is good at with what she loves, what the world needs and what she can be paid for. In other schemas, this is known as the “sweet spot” where passion, mission, vocation and profession converge. Judy’s ikigai is, as those of us who know her realize, the center point and driving force of her grateful leadership practice.

In 2016 two Spanish born authors familiar with Japanese culture and the ikigai tradition published a remarkable book that provides us with a full sense of what ikigai is and how it has come to be. In Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life readers also see how western science and eastern wisdom come together over the unmistakable evidence of happy elders in community living simply but well, still practicing their lifelong trades, and living full, self-sufficient yet thoroughly connected lives through their eighties, nineties and beyond.

Hector Garcia, a computer engineer by training, moved to Japan from Spain to help develop the voice recognition software that opened up the Japanese market to Silicone Valley. He has lived there for over ten years, is the author of a best-selling memoir of his experiences in Japan and is a Japanese citizen. His coauthor Francesc Miralles was born in Barcelona and would write many self-help and inspirational best-selling books after studying journalism, English literature and German. He has since worked as an editor, translator, ghostwriter and a musician. Between them these men have not only shown us how ikigai is practiced in unspoiled Okinawan settings like the village of Ogimi, where the youngsters are in their eighties, but also developed the links that tie the quest for ikigai to well-known western thinkers and researchers.

Chapters are devoted to the connections between Victor Frankl whose logotherapy forged the therapeutic links between survival, purpose and accomplishment as well as to Mihaly Csikszentmihali’s work as the psychologist who documented and researched “flow” – that creative, timeless phenomenon known to people lost in the joy of inspiring work. Immersing ourselves in purpose and process is the road to ikigai and what it means to lead gratefully.

The ikigai way looks simple in practice although it has many aspects we can learn from. Many are attracted to the path it offers to a long, happy and meaningful life. Okinawans like other designated blue zone communities (regions of the world where people live much longer than average) support one another by meeting daily and sharing experiences over a long lifetime. Community, continuous movement, celebration (there are many birthdays and anniversaries) plus a magical diet all contribute to a rich measure of shared gratitude. The authors list the main foods they eat each of which is high in powerful antioxidants, nutritious or curative properties as well as low in sugar. Variety is important as is keeping portions small. One rule Okinawans follow religiously is to not eat more than 80% of what they could. This coupled with regular fasts keeps the body healthy by not overtaxing its digestive system.

The same holds for exercise. Moderation, as long as your routine is practiced regularly, is the key to healthful activity. You can pursue your ikigai actively in a variety of ways. Tai chi, qigong, yoga and something they call radio taino (a series of exercises once broadcast and still remembered across Japan) are all available. The key is to honour the body, not punish it. Nature responds positively and rewards this approach with years of healthy living.

Adversity comes to Okinawa as it does everywhere else. During the second world war over 200,000 residents died on the island. Resilience kept the survivors alive and optimistic. Garcia and Miralles note that on Okinawa residents are more than resilient, they are antifragile, a word coined by Nicholas Taleb to describe people or systems that grow rather than weaken under serious stress. Long and healthy lives are prepared lives, made so by activity, care, connection, nourishment, purpose: ikigai! These folks are grateful they know this. Now you do too.

Ikigai gently unlocks simple secrets we can all use to live long, meaningful, happy lives. Science-based studies weave beautifully into honest, straight-talking conversation you won’t be able to put down. Warm, patient and kind, this book pulls you gently along your own journey rather than pushing you from behind.

– Neil Pasricha, author of The Book of Awesome

What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities.