Tag Archives: Japan

Read of the month: a trip around the world through ‘The Atlas of Happiness’

2020 is not a year to travel wide and far around the world. Instead, I took a trip through my last happiness read of the month. ‘Atlas of Happiness’ by Helen Russell discusses ideas about happiness from 30 countries. Although I consider myself somewhat of a connaisseur of happiness around the world, to my surprise only two of the concepts figured on the blog before: Pura Vida (Costa Rica) and the obvious one – Gross National Happiness in Bhutan.

The ideas in the book look at happiness in a broad sense, ranging from the melancholic Saudade in Brazil/Portugal to the Danish happiness at work, arbejdsglaede. A few cultures emphasis the good life – joie de vivre in Canada/France, even by simply doing nothing – dolce far niente in Italy. Others are about dedication to an activity, like the Greek meraki, or about life in a community – ubuntu in South Africa and aloha in Hawaii. Oh, and some are just outright crazy – like kalsarikannit in Finland. Apparently, some Finns experience happiness in getting way too drunk, home alone, dressed in nothing but underwear…

The book should not be seen as a serious or academic exploration of what makes country happy. Do not expect deeper analysis of cultural features that explain why these ideas of happiness arise in certain contexts. Instead, it should be seen as an anecdotal exploration of stories people tell themselves about happiness, through the coffee chats Helen Russell has with individuals from the 30 countries she discusses. Let me share my three favourite stories…

Smultronställe: Sweden

‘Smultronställe’ literally means ‘wild strawberry place’. The term originates in a children book in the early 20th century, and further gained prominence by a Ingmar Bergman movie from 1957. In that movie, an old grumpy man opened a door to get back to the world he knew from his youth: indeed, the figurative meaning of the term is a pleasant place with sentimental and personal value.

According to Russell, a smultronställe combines two things: a sense of nostalgia, and an escape from the world. It bring back memories from earlier in life, to a simpler time. But it can also simply relate to a place where we can flee our daily concerns, often in nature.

Of course I asked myself whay my smultronställe is. I have to admit that I can’t really pick a place that meets all the requirements of the Swedish concept. Rather than going for a place from my youth that combines nostalgia and refuge, I’d pick the beach in The Hague, where I live since only one year. But we always go to the same spot; in the summer, we spent great moments with family and friends at the beach club; in the winter, we simply went for walks. Walking near the sea always helps to forget worries, and I think that helps to qualify as a smultronställe.

Wabi-sabi (侘寂): Japan

We all strive for perfection. The idea of Wabi-sabi (Japan) counters this dominant philosophy of what constitutes a good life: it is about appreciating the imperfections that we inevitably face. Wabi-sabi can be about appreciating that with age come both wrinkles and wisdom.

The concept even notes how imperfection adds an additional layer of meaning: apparently, in Japan it is a thing to repair broken ceramics with through kintsugi: ‘golden joinery’ or ‘golden repair’. Instead of throwing away the shards of a broken plate, joining them together with gold where the shards broke creates a beautiful ‘new’ object.

A great idea – we often believe something has to be new, and beautiful, to be worthwhile. But sometimes imperfections are just as pretty, and what is old and imperfect carries a lot more value than something new and spotless.

Kintsugi (golden joinery), the Japanese art to make items prettier through repair with gold or other precious material. Image found here.

Tarab (طرب): Syria

Given its troubled recent history, Syria is not the first place I’d think to find new thinking about happiness. But according to Russell’s research, the Arabic concept of ‘tarab’ can be found there.

Tarab relates to the feeling you can achieve when deeply engaging in music – be it as a player, as a listener, or through the interaction between a musician and their audience. It is the trance you can achieve when there is a strong connection. (Traditional) Arabic music is different than Western music, with a prominent role for the oud, an Arabic type of lute). Songs also can last for minutes and minutes, depending on how the performer feels and how the audience responds.

Say Arabic music and the first name that comes up – in the Arabic world itself and by those initiated to it in the West – is Umm Kulthum, a singer from Egypt from the 1960s and 1970s who’s still incredibly popular today. If you’re open to it, I am sure that listening for half an hour will drag you into it as well – that is experiencing tarab!

Three new ideas about happiness! If you want to let me know which one resonates most with you, write me @ jasper [at] forastateofhappiness.com.

Ikigai: the happiness of always being busy in Japan

Only staying active will make you want to live a hundred years

The proverb comes from Japan, the origin of the concept of ‘Ikigai‘. Ikigai is now the subject of a new book, and writers Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles claim the idea has a great promise. They say ikigai – meaning ‘purpose’ or ‘raison d’etre’ – is the Japanese secret to a long and happy life.

Japan is indeed a good place to look for longevity. At 74.9, it has the highest healthy life expectation at birth. A Japanese person that is 60 years old can be expected to still live 21.1 years in good health. And the share of centenarians is far above the global average. In the region of Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost region with a subtropic climate, there are even about 50 in 100,000 people who are older than 100 years.

The happiness of always being busy

Ikigai, say Garcia and Miralles, is what makes people reach one hundred years. Putting it more poetically than purpose, they refer to Ikigai as ‘the happiness of always being busy’.

In Japanese, it is written as 生き甲斐. It can be broken down in 生き, life, and 甲斐, to be worthwhile.

Everybody has an ikigai. If we know what it is, it shapes our days. If we are unsure what our raison d’etre is, we still carry it in ourself. And it’s broader than our passion or desire. Instead, ikigai combines four elements: what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

The four dimensions of Ikigai. Source: Toronto Star, diagram by Mark Winn.

The four dimensions of Ikigai. Source: Toronto Star, diagram by Mark Winn.

Long lives in Okinawa

All good so far. Now we know what ikigai is, let’s turn to Garcia and Miralles to find out how Okinawans live to a hundred years and more, and how we can find our personal purpose following their lead.

The authors map a few factors that explain the high age reached by Okinawans:

  • healthy diet, based on a lot of green tea, large amounts of vegetables and fruits, soy products such as tofu, and low sugar consumption. Also, people tend to eat from smaller plates, and until their stomach is 80% full. No all-you-can-eat buffets!
  • closely tied communities. Individuals are part of a moai, or a support group of people with similar interests who look out for each other.
  • a good dose of daily activity of low to moderate intensity: Lots of walking around, and people spend time to tend their gardens.
  • regularly sports activity. Again, these tend to be low to moderate in intensity, like yoga, tai chi or qigong.

Finding your purpose

One of the promises the book makes is that it helps find our purpose. To this end, they share a few stories of what made the life of the eldest residents of Ogimi, Okinawa worth living. A few stories they shared:

The secret to a long life is not to worry. And to keep your heart young – don’t let it grow old. Open your heart to people with a nice smile on your face. If you smile and open your heart, your grandchildren and everyone else will want to see you.

I plant my own vegetables and cook them myself. That’s my ikigai.

Chatting and drinking tea with my neighbours. That’s the best thing in life. And singing together.

Do smiles, vegetables and tea really provide purpose to a life?

While these stories are nice to read, they come from a different origin than ours. Of course we can feel inspired by Japanese 90- or 100-year-olds to do tai chi or qi gong, and to replace our third cup of coffee by a green or white tea (I am trying!), but helping me to find the purpose in my daily life here in Europe is a bigger feat.

Rather than spending a few dozen pages on explaining all tai chi postures, the book could have expanded to offer insights from, say, Japanese philosophy or global psychology on where people find purpose, to inspire the reader to apply these in daily life. Is it really as simple as smiling, growing vegetables, and drinking tea with neighbours. These are sure moments that provide happiness, but does this mundane enjoyment of life really provide purpose? Is it all we need to come to terms with the negative sides of busy lives in the West?

The book also doesn’t dispel another myth. While concrete data on Okinawa itself are hard to come by, as a country, Japan is not too happy. It has indeed the highest Healthy Life Expectancy worth wide, but isn’t scoring as high in the World Happiness Report. In the 2018 edition, it ranks 54th, just below Latvia and just ahead the happiest country of Africa. Asia’s happiest country – Taiwan, is far ahead at spot 26 in the ranking.

Having an ikigai helps, but might be more of an ideal picture than a story representing society at large.

Summer, time of darkness

Happiness is always a good thing, right? At least, all over my life I’ve assumed that happiness is something pretty and beautiful, and always worth pursuing for its own sake.

A recent TEDx talk by Meik Wiking of the Danish Happiness Research Institute has opened my eyes. Everything in life has a dark side, and that even applies to happiness.

800,000 suicides per year

Wiking starts his talk on The Dark Side of Happiness by pointing out that around 500 Danes commit suicide every year, although they live in the country that tops the World Happiness Report as happiest country of the world. Some people think that suicide rates are particularly high in Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland and Denmark, with long and dark winters (sometimes it is even thought that happiness rates remain high, because unhappy people filter themselves out by suicide!).

This is not the case, and many countries in Eastern Europe and across the East of Africa rank worse, as the WHO data show. To some extent, suicide rates might be affected by cultural factors, such as the high pressure to perform and strong shame notions in Korea and Japan. Lower levels in a country like Mexico may also be a result of strong social support. Either way, every year around 800,000 commit suicide. That figure is massive, especially when you consider that the death toll of one the most bloody conflicts and biggest human tragedies always in our headlines, the Syrian civil war, is estimated at around 400,000 in the last five years.


Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016


Social positions matter… a lot! 

But is there any correlation between happiness levels in society and the suicide? Wiking suggests that there could be a link. He claims that it is more difficult to be unhappy in a happy society. Imagine that Stine is unemployed and that she has had trouble in finding a job for some months. At the same time, most of her friends have great jobs, and excitedly tell her about their promotions or new cool projects when they meet for drinks together. Sounds sad, right? Now imagine the case of Jaime. He has also been looking for a job some time, but some of his friends are in the same boat. When they meet up, they exchange funny stories about failed job applications, or  share tips on how to land a dream job.

All things equal, Jaime will likely be happier than Stine. Our peer group, and the people who we compare to, matter for how we feel. Hence, it’s tougher to be unhappy in a country like Denmark, which scores a 7.526 in the World Happiness Report, than say in Spain, which scores 6.361. Our social position counts!

Wiking shares a couple of interesting experiments that reinforce that feeling. For instance, tests with social media show that when people are not exposed to other people’s seemingly perfect online lives for a week, happiness rates go up. Similarly, imagine asking hundred people if they’d rather earn €50,000 when everybody else earns half that amount, or €100,00 when everybody earns double. Typically, around 50% would prefer to earn less in absolute terms, but be richer than others.

Summer, a time of darkness

But one of the most shocking pieces of evidence are the quotes from depressed people. Contrasting what you might think, it is not Christmas that is the most difficult of the time for lonely people. In the survey that Wiking cites, spring and summer are worse: “Summer is a nightmare.” Everybody is sitting in parks, holding picknicks and barbecues with friends. For lonely people, this is the hardest time of the year. Other’s people happiness can generate a lot of unhappiness. And the impact of loneliness or happiness inequality is likely a lot bigger than the economic inequality.

Happiness also has a dark side, and summer may be a time of darkness. That truth is worth taking into account when we are thinking about happiness and public policies shaping quality of life.