Centenarian Wellbeing: Living My Life the Okinawan Way Part 2

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In part one of ‘Living My Life the Okinawan Way’, I spoke about my own nutrition journey and of how I take inspiration from the Okinawan diet, to better my health and the health of my family. Healthy food is without doubt a prominent component of Okinawan life, but Okinawan food culture ‘is intimately linked with an enduring belief of the system and highly developed social structure and network.’ Okinawan longevity, it seems, is attributable not only to a healthy diet, but to a multitude of influences, as well as a sense of devotion to tradition. I’m curious to learn about how the complexity of this social web influences the health and wellbeing of Okinawans.

I reflect back on the TED talk by Dan Buettner, in which he shares his findings on Okinawan longevity. Buettner amounts Okinawan longevity not only to healthy dietary habits, but also to the tradition of Moai, a ‘system where you automatically have half a dozen friends with whom you travel through life’. A Moai is a social and financial support group within every generation, which Okinawans enter into during childhood years, described as ‘social networks that nourish and heal’. It is a support system that exists outside of the family circle. Within a moai, ‘you always have somebody who has your back’.

As individuals, how often do we keep things from our own friends so as not to overburden them, only to overburden ourselves with worry? Within a moai, members experience ‘life’s ups and downs together’. It gives Okinawans a sense of belonging and of social security, both emotionally and financially. In a week where the world has been talking about the importance of kindness, the concept of a moai seems quite fitting. I wonder how this sense of emotional and financial generosity influences wellbeing? As Emma Seppala from Stanford Medical School professes, ‘acts of compassion uplift others and make them happy’ and ‘by uplifting others we are also helping ourselves’. I suspect being a member of a moai gives Okinawans an immense feeling of fulfilment.

The concept of a moai encourages me to reflect on my own social circles. I’m fortunate to have very loyal friends, but over the years we have all moved further apart, with one of my dearest friends now living in Thailand.  As we have moved through life, our circumstances have changed, our priorities have changed. I know I can turn to any one of those friends for emotional support, but have we retained a sense of commitment over the years, to really connect as one cohesive group? Sadly not. We do meet up from time to time to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions, but, for the most part, our friendship group now exists as an online social network, devoid of regular face-to-face communication.  A recent study examining the positive effects of social interaction found that ‘interaction involving touch and psychological support may be health-promoting’. I suspect this is why Okinawans are so content.

Buettner also discusses the Okinawan concept of ikigai, ‘the reason for which you wake up in the morning’. For how many of us is the answer to that very question an alarm clock or simply to go to work? Having a sense of purpose, other than the latter, is so incredibly important for all Okinawans. It gives them a zest for life. Being ‘active members of their community well into their 80s and 90s’, I suspect, gives Okinawans a real sense of purpose, a ‘reason for living’. What is your ikigai? I imagine to truly answer this question, it requires some soul searching and is not an answer you’ll likely find in a library book. After all, a concept that is so intertwined in Japanese tradition is unlikely to come to you overnight. That said, simply engaging in this thought process may give you, at the very least, a better sense of mental clarity.

Amongst the chaos and pressures of modern life, our sense of purpose can become distorted by expectations of society, by an overpowering urge to conform to the status quo and occasionally by situations beyond our control. Looking back to a period of my life, about ten years ago, my own sense of purpose had become very distorted, to a point where I was unrecognisable to myself. Severe anxiety was masking my ikigai. It’s a hard feeling to put across in words, but I can only describe it as a feeling of being utterly lost, one of looking into the future and seeing nothing but a clouded vision. I knew deep down that I had so much more to give, but I just couldn’t identify what that was. From personal experience, until you resolve what it is that is clouding your vision, that vision will never become clear. You have to rip the plaster off before the skin can breathe. For me, mindfulness really helped me to address my own anxieties and allowed me to rediscover myself and my sense of purpose, something I’ve spoken about in previous articles.

Discovering my ikigai was like standing at a crossroads and knowing exactly which route I was going to take, knowing why I’d chosen that route, where it could lead me and what I could achieve in taking that path. It was knowing what my strengths were, where my passion lied and how I could use that passion to enhance my own life and the lives of others. My ikigai has evolved through the deep connection I now have with myself and by my ability to listen to my own voice.  My ikigai is the passion I have to support others on their journeys towards better health, both physically and mentally. It’s the sense of satisfaction that I get from helping others to change their own lives and the immense feeling of contribution and of fulfilment that that brings.  It’s the ability to channel what I love most into a direction that influences positive change. Discovering that passion has bridged the gap between living my life and merely existing.

My desire to lead a more fulfilled life encourages me to consider how my own community compares to that of Okinawan tradition. Do we have the capacity for longevity? I meet with my local priest, Fr. Mark McIntyre, an individual who is incredibly active within my community. I’m intrigued to find out how he feels community has enriched his own life, as well as those around him. He informs me that ‘being part of a community takes us beyond ourselves and our own self-centredness, particularly true when a community is culturally and religiously diverse. Self-obsession means that small problems take on a bigger focus I suspect. However, when there is greater community interaction, problems and issues can be kept in focus.’ Fr. McIntyre’s words mirror the simple notion of a problem shared, a problem halved, the very same notion conveyed by Dan Buettner during his TED talk on Okinawan moai.

With Fr. McIntyre’s words in mind, I think about the concept of belonging to a religious group. For several hours every week (sometimes multiple times each week), aside of work, family commitments and hobbies, people from all social settings and of all different ages and personalities convene together to focus on their religion. They gather for refreshments, engage in friendly conversation and they pray for each other during times of sickness and hardship. At the church from which Fr. McIntyre practices, a variety of non-religious activities are offered to the whole community, including a brunch club and a men’s discussion group. Religion aside (though a strong foundation that upholds a sense of community), the idea of coming together regularly, as one cohesive unit, helps to form a support network for everyone. It gives those involved a sense of belonging and of purpose.

Within my own region, it seems that community is a choice. You have a choice to be a part of it. In regions like Okinawa however, community is part of their culture, it’s a built-in tradition that gets passed on from generation to generation. I suspect that’s where we differ. Perhaps I’ve been somewhat naive in looking at longevity as the ultimate goal. What is the advantage of living to one hundred if our lives are not fulfilling beforehand? Living a long life is great, but living a fulfilled life is surely better. Connecting with friends and our local community is something we can all aspire to do more often. It’s something that we can all incorporate into our daily routines to enrich both our own lives and the lives of those isolated around us.

 

As a Nutritional Therapist, Caroline is extremely passionate about health and wellbeing, a passion that she endeavours to reflect in her writing. As well as being a Journalist for Sentient Life, Caroline is the Retreat Director at The Nutrition Retreat Ltd, a 5-night residential nutrition retreat at Sheepdrove Organic Farm in Berkshire. She is also the nutrition columnist for the ‘Journal’ magazine. Caroline is thrilled to be writing for Sentient Life, to be able to share with you all her own knowledge and experiences.

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