Secrets to a Happy Life

Photograph by Takashi Owaki.

What can Okinawa teach us about well-being and longevity?

Japan has a relatively high standard of living and the world’s longest life expectancy, but according to Gallup, it ranks somewhere in the middle when it comes to happiness. The exception to that is found in Okinawa, an island archipelago that is home to a joyful and progressive population.
 
Official language: Japanese
Life expectancy: 84.46 years
Happiness claim to fame: Located in one of the famous “blue zones,” Okinawa is home to one of the oldest, happiest and healthiest populations on Earth.
 

 
Okinawa Prefecture has Japan’s highest birth rate, and residents have been recognized for centuries for their health and longevity.
 
In Okinawa, elderly women are respectfully called obah, or grandmother. Because residents of Okinawan communities feel deeply interconnected, an obah is everybody’s grandmother. A recent visit to Miyako Island revealed the secrets of three obahs’ long and joyful lives.

Dance and Work

Chikako Ikeda, 63, teaches traditional Okinawan dance. She divides her time between leisure, family time and work. From January to March, many families on the island help each other harvest sugarcane. Chikako works with her husband and daughter to prepare their sugarcane crops for sale.
 
“There were not a lot of big typhoons last year, so sugarcane has grown pretty well,” she says. “Harvesting is pretty tough work and many people use big machines nowadays, but we prefer harvesting by hand.”

A healthy diet

At the end of the day, the sugarcane is beautifully bundled and placed on the ground. At 5 p.m. they are back home and Chikako starts to prepare dinner while the others take baths. Eating well-balanced meals is one of the reasons for long life in Okinawan people. Meals include many kinds of green vegetables, seafood and pork with low salt content. Chikako says,
 
“Working hard and eating well are the two keys for good health.” While her family enjoys their meal, she leaves the house and goes next door. Four evenings a week she teaches dance class. Her 26 students are all housewives age 50 to 77. After the lesson, she smiles and says, “The most important thing in my life is family, of course. But when I am dancing with friends, I feel very happy.”
 

Tea with Friends

Kimiko Motomura is a charming 90-year-old. Kimiko shares a few details about her life as she drinks tea with her close friend Hatsue Nakama, who is 89.
 
“I am very happy to have family and good friends here in Nishihara town. I take a walk in my neighborhood every day to chat with people,” Kimiko says. She loves singing Okinawan folk songs and is the chairperson of a choral group. She volunteers with a group that cleans the town hall and around local monuments, and she also teaches the Miyako dialect to children to preserve the island’s culture and history. She has 18 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren. “I am at my happiest when family members come to see me, and we have a meal together,” Kimiko says.
 
“The key to happiness is to open your heart and be friendly with everyone,” she says. She smiles and keeps waving in front of the entrance to her beautiful house until her visitors vanish from sight.

Preserving the Past

On Miyako Island, there is a traditional hemp textile weaving called Miyakojofu. The cloth is known to last for three generations. To make it into f ne thread requires a high level of skill, and Yoshiko Akamine is one of the few people who can still do it. She is 94.
 
With three of her great-grandchildren playing in the living room, Yoshiko shows how she does it. “I make thread little by little each day. At the end of the year I will get some money for it, and I am very happy to give it to my grandchildren on New Year’s Day.”
 
People encountered on Miyako Island are cheerful, friendly, optimistic and kind. They advise an easygoing approach to life and promise good health and long life will follow.
 

Click here to read about happiness around the world.

From the April 2015 issue of Live Happy magazine.

 

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