Héctor García, Francesc Miralles - “Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life”

This book contains some insights but they’re shamelessly spread out over the pages of the book, or the minutes of the audiobook. It’s a surprising thing to say given that it’s a super-short book anyway at just 150 pages where each page is around 20 lines with copious margins. The unabridged audiobook version runs at barely over 3 hours. I’m not recommending it, you’ve heard it all before.


Google Translate tells me “ikigai, n.” is a Japanese word that means “the reason to live”. In the framework of the book, it’s a rehash of concepts known from elsewhere, in particular the concept of raison d’être. The book explains it as an activity that combines what you love with what you are good at and what the world needs that you can be paid for.

Importantly, other sources online on ikigai seem to disagree with the notion that it’s somehow a Venn diagram with its origins on Okinawa that is the Japanese secret to a long and happy life. Instead, they point to it being a common Japanese word about “the value one finds in day-to-day living”. It has nothing to do with getting paid. Noriyuki Nakashi from Osaka University writes:

Ikigai, which is the highest level of desire, may be considered to be essentially the process of cultivating one’s inner potential and that which makes one’s life significant, a universal human experience we all wish to achieve. Ikigai is personal: it reflects the inner self of an individual and expresses that faithfully.

In fact, the Venn diagram was created by a Spanish astrologer, Andrés Zuzunaga. That’s the real secret of this book.

“The best of self-help”

There’s not really much to say about the power of having a reason to live, even though the authors do try by providing many “case studies” and focusing on Okinawa. Despite their efforts, that would end up being barely a blog post, so instead they touch on various popular contemporary self-help topics:

  • logotherapy vs psychoanalysis
  • finding and cultivating flow
  • anti-aging through diet, exercise, community, and good humour
  • intermittent fasting and anti-cancer foods
  • yoga, taiji, and raising your arms over your head
  • antifragility and resilience
  • "ichi-go ichi-e", a Japanese idiom on treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment

Each of those topics is given at most 20 minutes of discussion, which in the end sounds like a series of shallow book summaries. Some of those are quite peculiar as the exercise chapter literally contains a few written directions on how to perform some basic yoga poses or qigong movements. This is so out of place in this kind of high-level book that I laughed out loud when I first heard it. Coincidentally, I was just walking home from the gym, and still this was a bad place and time for such a detail. But I’m sure it filled pages!

Yeah, I don’t know. It’s hard not to be cynical at such an obvious money grab, especially that there’s already been a follow-up to this book. Apparently there’s more material to milk out of this.

The gist of the book

Summary in the last chapter

  1. Stay active, never retire.
  2. Take it slow.
  3. Don’t fill your stomach.
  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.

Flow: the optimal experience

  1. Know what to do.
  2. Know how to do it.
  3. Know how you’re doing.
  4. Know where to go.
  5. Perceive significant challenges.
  6. Perceive significant skills.
  7. Be free from distractions.

To how achieve flow

  1. Add a little extra: make it challenging.
  2. Know your objective.
  3. Focus on process, not detailed pre-planning.
  4. Rituals over results.

Summing up the book

“Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life” was a cheap audiobook and I still felt cheated after reading it. The gist above is really everything this book’s got to offer. Sure, there’s “case studies” of anecdotal evidence and plenty of repeated pop culture myths like whether a glass of wine per day is good for your heart (spoiler alert: there’s no conclusive evidence). Skip the book.

Other perspectives on Ikigai

The pillars of Ikigai

Those are from a different book on ikigai but they’re relevant to the subject:

  1. Start small → take small steps but do them very well; focus on the details
  2. Release yourself → accept who you are, listen to your inner child, and open yourself to your place in the greater community
  3. Harmony and sustainability → get along with others so you can rely on them
  4. Find joy in the little things → appreciate the sensory pleasures
  5. Be in the Here and Now → find your flow

Another look on Ikigai from a different Japanese native

The quotes below are from Yohei Nakajima’s What Is Your Ikigai? post from 2011. They are, again, not really compatible with what Garcia’s and Miralles’ book says about the topic.

Ikigai isn’t something unachievable, like Buddhist Enlightenment. It’s something that comes and goes.

The secret trick to finding your Ikigai is to find your role within a community, your community. When I say your community, I mean the people around you that define who you are, every person you regularly interact with. (…) Finding your Ikigai is honorable, because in order to find your Ikigai, you must identify your role within your community. This means to find and actively pursue what you enjoy providing for your community.