It is now known that working for longer may help you live longer. This may not sound all that appealing, but staying in the workplace for just one year morethan another retired and healthy counterpart has been shown to be associated with an 11% lower risk of death from all causes. But perhaps there’s another way to gain these extra years without commuting for any longer than necessary.
The people of Japan know this intuitively, which is one of the key reasons they have the longest life expectancy in the world.
In Japanese culture, retiring and not keeping your mind and body busy is seen as being bad for your health since it disconnects your soul from your ikigai. Ikigai can be translated as “a reason for being” – the thing that gets you out of bed each morning. Finding your ikigai is felt to be crucial to longevity and a life full of meaning. The people of Japan keep doing what they love, what they are good at, and what the world needs even after they have left the office for the last time.
After more than 13 years of living in Japan, I am still pondering the meaning of “retirement” here. There is, in fact, no word in Japanese that means “retire” in the sense of “leaving the workforce for good”. Retirement as we see it is not looked upon favourably since it implies that once you retire you will cease to do anything at all, become a burden on society and stop following your passions.
What happens instead is that Japanese people of retirement age keep engaged with the world around them, moving on to work and activities that demand less responsibility. The idea is to keep mind and body active in order to fill yourself with purpose and ikigai on a daily basis.
In the course of researching our book, my co-author Francesc Miralles and I visited Ogimi, a village on the Japanese island of Okinawa, which is a three-hour flight from Tokyo. With a population of 3,000, this “village of longevity” enjoys the highest life expectancy in the world: the longest living people in a country of long-lived men and women.
When we asked the elders when and how they retired they refused to answer us directly, not talking about or defining themselves by what they had done throughout their working life. Instead, they spoke to us in detail about all the things they are doing now in their 80s and 90s. “Every day I wake up and go to the fields to grow tomatoes. Later I walk to the grocery store next to the beach and sell them. In the afternoon I go to the community centre and prepare green tea for all my family and friends,” says 92-year-old Akira.
During our week in Ogimi, we didn’t see anyone idling, but neither did the villagers seem rushed or overburdened. They always had something to do, but not tasks that would bring the people here to a state of stress. In the west, our modern urban lives are generally ruled by bursts of intense hard work, followed by burnout or, at the very least, a TV or social media binge on the sofa as we tell ourselves: “I deserve this after so much work.”
The lesson we can draw from the people of Japan – and specifically the residents of Okinawa – is that we should do less when we are feeling overwhelmed, but keep busy when we feel like doing nothing. Don’t overwork, but don’t fritter those hours away either. The answer to longevity may well rely on a balance between the two.