Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Reaching and Reveling in a Ripe Old Age

What’s your ikigai? In Okinawa, Japan, ikigai is that which gets you out of bed in the morning, that which makes life worth living. Being able to articulate your ikigai is associated with adding years—maybe even a decade—to your lifespan according to a team of academics and Dan Buettner, an adventurer, author and TED-talker. This National Geographic writer traveled the world to document communities where people tend to live longer, healthier lives than most everyone else. From Okinawa, Japan, to Ikaria, Greece (see The Island Where People forget to Die), Buettner, in collaboration with demographers and gerontologists highlight nine lifestyle characteristics of people who live a really long time.  

Genetics plays a surprisingly small role in longevity; genes dictate ~25% of how long we live. Rather, a web of lifestyle characteristics woven together with cultural threads explains much of why people in certain communities live longer than others.

What else did I glean from their insights?  Not only can I happily relish a glass or two of wine (or sake) every night, but I should embrace napping when I need it.

The vigorous centenarians interviewed in this research don’t run or pump iron or do exercise as most urban folk think of exercise. Rather, they live in places that nudge them to move. In many of their communities, people have little choice but to walk up and down hills to visit friends and do the shopping. Most tend large gardens full of fruits, vegetables and herbs that sustain their health. Dieting, as promoted by the diet industry, does not work in the long term. Instead, longevity studies reinforce Michael Pollan’s simple food guideline: “eat food, mostly plants, not too much.”

Stamatis Moraitis tends his crops.
According to official records, he’s 97
but Moraitis thinks he’s 102 years old. 
Photo by Andrea Frazzetta, New York Times

Communities where people tend to live 90 to 100+ years have routines or rituals that shed stress including meditation, prayer, napping or happy hour. Most belong to a faith-based community. Critically, these folks live in social circles that support and reinforce their lifestyles. Multiple generations tend to live in one house or close to each other. With their bright eyes and tanned skin, I want to look like these 90+ year olds when I’m that age (perhaps without the plaid shorts, pictured left). 

As I mentioned, consciously recognizing and giving voice to your ikigai is strongly associated with living to a century-long age. What’s my ikigai? As a graduate student in a sustainability program, my ikigai is figuring out how to enhance human well-being while also supporting the rest of life on this planet (marine renewable energy is my current focus). In my personal and professional life, I want to be part of creating places where people have ample life-enhancing food, love, purpose and a sense of humor (as evidenced in this priceless anecdote about Moraitis, pictured above, who outlived his American doctors after moving back to his Greek island from the US where he got sick).

One of the most encouraging findings of this research is the overlap of living sustainably, living well and living for a long time.  These food-secure communities are in developed countries with functioning public health and sanitation systems. They have a basic but adequate standard of living. When I read about these vigorous centenarians, I was struck by what I see as the relatively low environmental impact of their lifestyles. Buettner’s case studies give us insight on potential ways to refocus and redefine quality of life, and re-create our lives and communities accordingly in ways that are better for our minds, hearts and the planet:
  • We can improve our transit systems. Many of the elders interviewed have primarily walked or cycled to get around rather than fully relying on motorized vehicles. We need to make the walking or cycling options easier and more convenient. 
  • We can design better food systems. The elders in these studies consume mostly locally-grown food and grow much of it themselves. I’m getting more involved in community gardening and farmer’s markets with my friends, especially since I think it’s associated with living longer!
  • We can consume less. Large houses, expensive health care products and procedures, non-essentials like fancy gadgets and other forms of conspicuous consumption are largely absent from their way of life. Enjoying modest, secure, and stable lives does not require high levels of consumption.
  • We can help others and ourselves experience a greater sense of belonging. These 90+ year olds prioritize time with family and friends, who live near them and take care of them when they need it. I have no doubt that prioritizing relationships over accumulating material things is better for my happiness and the planet. Time to plan more neighborhood potlucks. 
Although I lack quantitative data to support this speculation, I bet these elders have very small carbon footprints over the course of their lives. I speculate their carbon footprints are likely considerably smaller than the average North American’s, so, despite living longer, the average environmental impact of their lives is likely less than the shorter-lived average impact of a North American’s.  If we want to stabilize our climate and also help more people live longer, satisfied, healthy lives, we have a lot to learn from their communities and lifestyles.

Sarah Klain, a PhD Student at University of British Columbia, hopes that her fondness for pragmatic idealism, friends, family, cycling, gardening and red wine will help her live to at least 90 years old. 


  1. There's so much talk about facilitative environments for supporting pro-environmental behaviour that I find the link made here between longevity and quality of life to eco-footprint really inspiring. So many benefits from a few simple ingredients. Thanks for the summary Sarah!

  2. Testing the connection between longevity and modest living quantitatively could be quite a PhD project.