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Happiness and well-being – what we can learn from the Japanese way of life

Life is short. But as the great Roman Stoic Philosopher, Seneca, profoundly taught, “if we do it right, then it is long enough”. It follows then, that the life we are living, should be a life in pursuit of happiness and well-being. 
What does happiness and well-being mean, look, and feel like to you? Can you think of a time when you felt really good, a strong sense of clarity, or smiled ear-to-ear? Chances are you brought back memories of when you were with friends and family, had a sense of purpose and freedom, and very likely included an experience in nature.

Well-being and happiness manifest in many ways, and are derived by various aspects of our lives. Happiness is often linked with a sense of fulfilment and living with purpose. Well-being is often linked with feeling equal, included, and free. Physiological and mental health also drive happiness and well-being. So then, what actions can we take to forge a life of lasting happiness and well-being, in spite of all the stresses and challenges that come our way? During my time of living and working in Japan, I learned that towns in Japan boast among the highest life expectancies in the world. Below are five concepts that I learned and that go some way to explaining this longevity:

1.Ikigai, iki meaning life and gai describing your value or worth. The people of Japan believe that everyone has an ikigai - a reason to jump out of bed in the morning. Knowing and living by your personal ikigai will bring joy and meaning to every day. To help determine your personal ikigai in order to nurture a happier and purposeful life, ask yourself the following questions:

- What you love?
- What you think the world needs?
- What you can be paid for?
- What you are good at? 

The intersect of the answers to these questions, will form your area of ikigai.

2. Hara hachi bu is a saying in Japan which means eat until 80% full. A concept to prevent overeating and wearing down the body with prolonged digestive processes that accelerate cellular oxidation, which can damage vital molecules in our cells. You might be asking how do I know when I’m at 80% full? It is said that it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register that the stomach is full, so start by eating slower and try to stop eating when you start to feel full. You can also remind yourself by repeating"hara hachi bu"before each meal. This is one where I still really struggle!

3. Shinrin-yoku translates into forest bathing and relates to taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells of a natural environment. Studies show that forest bathing is not only great for our physiological health by reducing cortisol levels in our blood and boosting our immune system, but are also massive mood and self-esteem boosters. I’m sure you’ve experienced that feeling of being refreshed and energised during a trip to the mountains or a greater sense of clarity, confidence and creativity that comes with a stroll through a forest.

4. Ichi-go-ichi-e is a reminder that each moment, encounter, and conversation, is unique, even though the surrounding elements may be familiar. It reminds us to slow down and appreciate each conversation and moment that life brings to us. It is a concept connected to the way of the tea. Roughly translated this means “one time, one meeting”, “one encounter, one opportunity”. Like in the way of the tea, we should respect the host and others in the garden and rooms, and honour the moment as if it were a once in a lifetime gathering. The idea is to cherish every moment and every meeting for it will never ever happen again. So next time you are with another human being, anyone in any setting, put that phone away. Look up.

5. Wabi-sabi, the wise Seneca teaches us that “all things human are short-lived and perishable”. Wabi-sabi is based on the philosophy of finding beauty in imperfection, in the ever changing, transient, and imperfect nature of the human being and the world around us. Wabi-sabi teaches us to strive for progress not perfection and is what builds resilience in us, helping us deal with life’s stresses and challenges. Wabi-sabi is what helps us avoid excessive pain in times of loss. If you break something, if things don’t go to plan, if gravity is inevitably catching up with you, or if you fail a lift in the gym, remind yourself of Wabi-sabi.

These guiding points have helped me live a happier and healthier life. Hopefully they will help you also by showing you how to leave the unimportant behind, nurture your health and relationships, and find the purpose and meaning which excites your energy and spirit.