The secret to happiness? Staying busy, according to this Japanese philosophy


Too little time and so much to do translates to a helluva lot of stress. Between work, relationships and trying to stay healthy (the farmers’ market followed by a spin class means Saturday’s a wash), it’s fair to say that we’ve got a lot on our plates. If only we could chill out a little more, then we’d be happier, nicer and all around better people, right? Well, according to our Japanese friends, this might not be the case.

Introducing ikigai (pronounced aki-gay-aai). It’s a Japanese concept that roughly translates to “finding your purpose” or “a reason to get up in the morning.” The term comes from the words iki (life) and kai (the realization of hopes and expectations). The theory is that by finding your ikigai and keeping busy with your purpose, you will enjoy a long and happy life.

RELATED: World's happiest countries 

Happiest Countries in the world
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Happiest Countries in the world

40. Mexico, positive experience score: 76

photo: Jeremy Woodhouse 

39. Mauritius, positive experience score: 76

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38. Ireland, positive experience score: 76

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37. France, positive experience score: 76

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36. Belgium, positive experience score: 76

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35. Kenya, positive experience score: 77

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34. Germany, positive experience score: 77

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33. Bolivia, positive experience score: 77

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32. Uzbekistan, positive experience score: 78

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31. Taiwan, positive experience score: 78

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30. Puerto Rico, positive experience score: 78

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29. Luxembourg, positive experience score: 78

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28. Indonesia, positive experience score: 78

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27. Finland, positive experience score: 78

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26. Denmark, positive experience score: 78

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25. United States, positive experience score: 79

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24. Sweden, positive experience score: 79

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23. Rwanda, positive experience score: 79

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22. Norway, positive experience score: 79

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21. New Zealand, positive experience score: 79

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20. Netherlands, positive experience score: 79

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19. Dominican Republic, positive experience score: 79

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18. Chile, positive experience score: 79

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17. Canada, positive experience score: 79

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16. Bhutan, positive experience score: 79

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15. Argentina, positive experience score: 79

14. Uruguay, positive experience score: 80

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13. Switzerland, positive experience score: 80

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12. Singapore, positive experience score: 80

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11. Philippines, positive experience score: 80

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10. Nicaragua, positive experience score: 81

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9. El Salvador, positive experience score: 81

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8. Costa Rica, positive experience score: 81

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7. Venezuela, positive experience score: 82

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6. Panama, positive experience score: 82

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5. Honduras, positive experience score: 82

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4. Guatemala, positive experience score: 84

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3. Ecuador, positive experience score: 84

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2. Colombia, positive experience score: 84

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1. Paraguay, positive experience score: 89

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Sounds a little New-Agey, but it turns out that science backs this idea up. In a seven-year longitudinal study of more than 43,000 adults, researchers found that participants who identified as having ikigai were more likely to be alive seven years later, even after taking other factors (like smoking, disease and exercise) into account.

So how does one achieve this elusive ikigai? It takes time and reflection. To find it, try asking yourself questions like: What are you passionate about? What are you good at? What does the world need from you?

Those with a strong sense of ikigai report finding it through work, hobbies or relationships. Which is kind of shocking, since we’ve always thought relaxing by the pool would translate into long-lasting contentment. But on the island of Okinawa (where residents are renowned for their longevity), there’s no such thing as retirement. People stay active throughout all stages of their lives, and it's thought that the accompanying sense of responsibility and being needed contributes to a healthy, happy life.

Related: How successful people stay happy 

15 highly successful people on how they stay happy and healthy
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15 highly successful people on how they stay happy and healthy

Warren Buffett
Reading and spending time alone

There's no denying that Warren Buffett, commonly known as the "Oracle of Omaha," is one of the most successful people alive. In fact, Forbes ranked Buffett as the third-wealthiest man in America in October 2017. Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett is also a highly successful investor and well-known philanthropist.

So, how does he stay so happy and healthy (and wealthy)?

Buffett, according to MarketWatch, likes to spend at least six hours a day reading newspapers and annual reports. Buffett also tends to keep to himself, opting to spend time alone or with a close inner circle of friends and family.

Founder and president of My Mom Knows Best, Josephine Geraci, notes that success hasn't affected Buffett's core values. "Warren Buffett always lived within his means, never cared what other people thought about him, followed his gut and found his happiness in life's simple pleasures — family, a modest home and an honest living."

Elon Musk
Books and video games

Elon Musk is a gifted engineer and successful inventor. CEO of SpaceX and the visionary architect behind Tesla Motors, Musk has always been an avid reader, according to an article by Inc. In fact, as a child, he sometimes read two books in a single weekend.

While his commitment to self-education has certainly paid off, Musk admits his eating habits are not always so admirable.

In a video interview by AUTO BILD TV, Musk said, "I think it's probably true that having a good breakfast is a good idea, but usually I don't have time for that. I'll have a coffee or something like that … and a Mars bar, sure. But I'm trying to cut down on sweet stuff." Musk also admitted to drinking eight cans of Diet Coke and several large cups of coffee a day.

Additionally, Musk confessed to being something of a workaholic: "For a while there, I was just doing constant 100-hour weeks [in order to be the CEO of both Tesla Motors and SpaceX], and that's definitely wearing. And now I'm kind of in the 80 to 90 [hours-per-week range], which is more manageable."

Despite his hectic schedule, Musk does save time for leisure activities. According to his Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), Musk enjoys video games such as "Bioshock," "Fallout" and "Mass Effect," as well as classics like "Civilization" and "Warcraft."

Tony Robbins
Mental and physical exercise

Tony Robbins, the No. 1 life and business strategist and The New York Times best-selling author, is an example of a highly successful individual who prizes routine.

In a GOBankingRates interview conducted in February 2017, Robbins emphasized doing over talking. "Focus on execution rather than just the idea," he said. While the tip was directed primarily at entrepreneurs, it's advice that can easily be applied to many other aspects of life, such as health.

Robbins shares his commitment to a healthy life in his many YouTube videos, believing that physical strength is as crucial as mental wellness. He talks about "feeding your body" through exercise, and pushing past limits until you realize you can achieve more.

Additionally, Robbins believes that individuals should watch what goes into their minds just as they would monitor how much sugar goes into their coffee. He suggests feeding your mind nutritiously by "reading, listening and re-tap[ping] into your ability to thrive."

Jim Cramer
Pre-dawn training sessions

A former hedge fund manager and current host of the TV show "Mad Money," Jim Cramer is known for his unconventional approach and fiery personality. Baron describes this highly successful individual as a "high-energy, out-of-the-box" personality.

According to Business Insider, Cramer is also an early riser who gets up at 3:45 a.m. or earlier on the days he sees his personal trainer. He writes his first story for after his hour-long workout session and has a chauffeur drive him to and from work. At home in the evening, he has dinner and watches TV — either football or Netflix.

Cramer confesses that his schedule is intense, and it's not uncommon for him to skip dinner and lose up to a pound a week during earnings season. However, he believes his lifestyle is what allows him to be successful.

"If I slept more, I wouldn't be able to do it," said Cramer.

Mark Cuban
Listening to his body

Well known for his role on the popular TV show "Shark Tank," Mark Cuban is a businessman, investor, film producer, author, television personality, philanthropist and perhaps even a potential presidential candidate.

According to Baron, Cuban is an "early bird" who loves lists and exercises regularly. Still, when it comes to pushing himself physically, Cuban believes in listening to his body. In a video interview with Business Insider, Cuban shares his belief in tuning into one's own body to maximize potential.

"I go with how my body feels," said Cuban. "I get to make my own schedule, so if I'm tired I take a nap. I've met some guys who don't need sleep; I've met others who if they think they haven't got their 10 hours, I don't want to be anywhere near them. Everybody's body is wired differently; it's a math equation. I don't think there is any one size that fits all for anybody."

Bill Gates
Philanthropy and spending time with his family

Co-founder of Microsoft Bill Gates boasts a net worth of more than $89 billion. Although no longer the chair for Microsoft, Gates continues in his role of chief technology adviser while focusing on his family and philanthropic works through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Worth approximately $41.3 billion, the organization provides funding to reduce global health problems and education inequality in the U.S.

As part of his philanthropy, Gates takes his children on visits to locales such as garbage dumps, power plants and missile silos. However, he also saves time for relaxation.

Along with reading and playing tennis, Gates is reported by MyFirstClassLife to enjoy indulging in exotic vacations to Rome, Belize, Croatia and even Antarctica.

Mark Zuckerberg
Reading one book a week

Yet another avid reader and reflector is Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and CEO of Facebook, computer programmer, internet entrepreneur and philanthropist.

According to an Inc. article, Mark Zuckerberg's tries to read a new book every other week, focusing on those exploring different cultures and belief systems, such as "The End of Power" by Moises Naim.

"I take a lot of time just to read and think about things by myself," he said. However, Zuckerberg might struggle to find the time to do all this reading, as a CNN Money article reported that the billionaire works 50 to 60 hours a week. He does save time deciding what to wear by donning the same T-shirt every day, the Muse reported.

Larry Page
Modest living and personal challenges

Larry Page is one of the two brilliant mathematicians who co-founded Google. According to The Viral Hub, Page lives modestly, driving a Toyota Prius — when he's not cruising around in his Tesla Roadster, that is — and predominantly wears T-shirts and jeans.

In an interview with the Academy of Achievement, Page revealed his desire for balance in life.

"You can only work so many hours, and I try to have some balance," said Page. "At some point, you want to have a family. You want to have more time to do other things."

Page also believes in challenging himself and others on a daily basis. He told Fortune magazine that he makes do without a computer for much of his day, takes only his phone to meetings and encourages engineers and product managers to work only on their mobile devices at least one day a week. It's all part of his effort to keep the company's focus on mobile and to keep pushing people further.

Tim Cook
Early starts

Tim Cook took over for Steve Jobs as the CEO of Apple in 2011. He succeeds in this high-stress position, in part, by getting an early start.

After rising at 3:45 a.m. each day, Cook straps on his Apple Watch so he can measure all of his activities, according to an article in The Telegraph. He arrives at the gym at 5 a.m. and is in the office by 6:30 a.m. While he retires early, generally between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., Cook frequently works weekends, holding Sunday evening phone meetings to discuss the upcoming week.

The Wall Street Journal noted Cook's discipline while he was still working under Jobs. "His stamina was inhuman," the article said. "He could fly to Asia, spend three days there, fly back, land at 7 a.m. at the airport and be in the office by 8:30 a.m., interrogating someone about some numbers."

Oprah Winfrey
Transcendental meditation

Billionaire Oprah Winfrey is most famous for her hugely successful TV show, which ran from 1986 to 2011. However, she is also an actress, producer, publisher and philanthropist, and has accumulated a massive fortune over the course of her career.

How does Winfrey stay happy and healthy? In an article on her website, Winfrey acknowledged she was a huge proponent of Transcendental Meditation.

"I give myself a healthy dose of quiet time at least once (and when I'm on point, twice) a day," said Winfrey. "Twenty minutes in the morning, 20 in the evening."

Winfrey also arranged for teachers to instruct interested employees at her company in the practice of meditation.

"The results have been awesome," said Winfrey. "Better sleep, improved relationships with spouses, children, coworkers. Some people who once suffered migraines don't anymore. Greater productivity and creativity all around."

Arianna Huffington
Weekend time to decompress

Arianna Huffington is an author, syndicated columnist, co-founder of The Huffington Post and creator of Thrive Global. While Huffington works hard all week, her weekends are spent relaxing.

"I love wearing no makeup and sweatpants," Huffington told Into the Gloss. "I get to have a complete break from the week, which for me is intense."

Like Winfrey, Huffington is a strong proponent of meditation and encourages the practice at work. In a TED Talk, Huffington said that her employees enjoy "weekly breathing exercises, yoga classes, meditation, two nap rooms." Additionally, she shared her commitment to exercising regularly and getting a good night's sleep. In fact, Huffington avoids charging her phone in her bedroom at night.

A relaxing shower also does wonders, Huffington told Into the Gloss. "I also have a bench in my shower because it's a steam shower. This way, you can sit down and have a steam; it's just so detoxifying."

Richard Branson
A morning routine and lots of tea

Richard Branson is worth an estimated $5.1 billion, according to Forbes, thanks to his conglomerate of businesses under the Virgin umbrella, which include Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic.

With major businesses under his watch, Branson makes the most of his day by getting an early start. In an April 2017 blog post on the Virgin website, Branson wrote that one of his secrets to success is that he usually wakes up at 5 a.m. and begins his day with a workout, which can be tennis, walking or running, biking or kite-surfing.

After exercising, he eats breakfast and spends time with his family. "Exercise and family time put me in a great mind frame before getting down to business," he said.

Branson doesn't usually go to bed until 11 p.m. As for how he stays energized for his long day, Branson credits drinking tea — and lots of it. "I'm talking 20 cups a day," he said. "Don't tell my doctor."

Barack Obama
Exercise, alone time and seven almonds

Former President Barack Obama made sure to carve out time for exercise and relaxation, even when he held arguably the most stressful job in the world.

Obama told Men's Health that he typically worked out for 45 minutes a day, six days a week while heading up the Oval Office. "I'll lift one day and do cardio the next," he said of his usual routine.

He also made sure to carve out alone time, which he used to stay productive, but also to relax. According to a 2016 profile in The New York Times, Obama would spend four to five hours at the end of each day by himself, preparing speeches and reading briefing papers, but also watching ESPN, reading novels or playing Words With Friends on his iPad.

In addition, he does not consume caffeine or alcohol, and his go-to nighttime snack is a very specific and health-conscious seven almonds.

Jeff Bezos
Eight hours of sleep

Jeff Bezos is now the richest person in the world, according to Forbes, which estimates his net worth at $98.1 billion. And even though he runs Amazon, one of the most successful companies in the world, he still makes sure to get a good night's sleep.

Bezos told Thrive Global that he aims to get eight hours of sleep every night. "I try hard to make that a priority," he said. "For me, that's the needed amount to feel energized and excited."

He also said having a good work-life balance — or "harmony," in his words — helps him to be more productive in both worlds. "If I'm happy at work, I'm better at home — a better husband and better father," Bezos said. "And if I'm happy at home, I come into work more energized — a better employee and a better colleague."

Bob Iger
VersaClimber and long flights

Disney CEO Bob Iger swears by the VersaClimber cardio machine to stay fit. According to Variety, Iger wakes up every work day at 4:15 a.m. and gets on his climbing machine by 4:25 a.m. for an intense 45-minute workout.

And while some business professionals might see work travel time as a drag, Iger makes the most of all the hours he spends on his company's corporate jet. "I can catch up on things," he told Variety. "I can screen things. I can read things. I can satisfy my curiosity. I like it. It's peaceful."

Getting organized, Transcendental Meditation, voracious reading and other quiet, reflective practices are just a few characteristics shared by leading business professionals. Consider copying a few of these helpful habits to give yourself the best shot at success.


But here’s the catch: There’s a difference between being busy and being stressed. Juggling a million deadlines and struggling to keep up with your workload? Not very ikigai. Waking up in the morning with plenty of energy and excited about the day’s work ahead? Oh, so ikigai.

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