Positive Psychology and Japan

Positive psychology is not simply an export business.

Posted Aug 13, 2012

No, I won't be afraid, oh, I won't be afraid, Just as long as you stand, stand by me. — Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, & Mike Stoller

I recently visited Japan, for the first time, giving several invited talks, including a keynote address at the Japanese Society of Anti-Aging Medicine. I confess that the term anti-aging gave me a bit of a pause. I understand being anti-drugs, or anti-crime, or anti-war, but aging is not only inevitable but also — at least for some — a positive phenomenon, bringing equanimity, wisdom, and a sense of accomplishment. Maybe something was lost in translation, because it was soon obvious that the concern of the conference was with successful aging, a concept familiar to me as a positive psychologist (Vaillant & Mukamai, 2001).

Most of the people in attendance as the conference were physicians, and most of the presentations focused on contributors to successful aging such as diet and exercise. I learned a lot, like the benefits of the Okinawa diet (fewer calories and more vegetables) and the advantages of interval aerobic training. That is, aerobic exercise, like walking, is beneficial per se but especially when the pace or difficulty is varied every few minutes. Since my return to the US a short time ago, I have incorporated this strategy into my own treadmill regimen, and I can already tell that varying my pace provides a better workout than one done at constant speed.

I was not invited to speak at the conference because of what I might say about exercise or diet. Rather, I was invited to speak as a positive psychologist, given what is termed by some the Japanese paradox. The life expectancy of Japanese residents is the longest in the world. And the life satisfaction of Japanese residents, given the wealth of their country, is surprisingly low. Life satisfaction (happiness) is one of the predictors of good health and long life (Diener & Chan, 2011). So what’s going on in Japan?

The longevity of the Japanese, despite their relatively low life satisfaction, is not really a paradox. There are numerous determinants of longevity, including but certainly not limited to life satisfaction. Japan does a lot of things right vis-à-vis longevity, like diet and exercise and close social relationships among family members and coworkers. What they don’t do all that well is life satisfaction, and I framed my talk by saying, “What if Japanese people were more satisfied? Maybe they would live forever!”

I talked about what positive psychologists have learned about the contributors to a satisfied life and how to encourage them. What I said was well-received, and I was satisfied.

But one of the final points I made in my talk is that positive psychology is not simply an export business, from the United States to elsewhere. Every culture/nation has valuable insights about how to live well, and those of us in the United States (and elsewhere) can learn a lot from Japan.

Let me return to why the Japanese have such a long life expectancy. Among the reasons often cited is the Japanese concern with cleanliness. I saw this first-hand. Every restaurant, even the least expensive fast-food joint, started every meal by giving diners towels with which to wash their hands. I took several bullet trains, and towels were distributed on these as well. Goodness. I could not help but compare the Japanese trains to AMTRAK trains, where everything is sticky (and slow). In Japan, baths and hot springs are incredibly popular. And I could write an entire essay on Japanese toilets but choose not to elaborate here. Just enjoy them if you have the opportunity to visit Japan.

The Japanese walk more than Americans, but they also stand more. Standing is healthy. I assume standing puts one’s oblique muscles into action. Most Americans do not even know what oblique muscles are! These are abdominal muscles that help us stay upright. A sedentary lifestyle or even exercise that entails a stationary bike does not engage oblique muscles. In Japan, oblique muscles see constant use given the frequency of standing.

Indeed, at the conference I attended, there were two wonderful receptions at which food was served … to people who were standing. In the US, conferences that provide food do so to people who are sitting down. Think about the difference. If you are standing while eating, you are not only balancing your plate and yourself, you are also eating less. You are likely not drinking, because how many hands do you have? Interesting.

I was told that in Japan, food served at a conference is taxed differently by the government if it is a reception (where by definition people stand) versus a dinner (where by definition people sit down). The conference I attended may have been trying to say some money, but the point I wish to stress is that doing so ended up being healthier for those in attendance.

Stand by me.


Diener, E., & Chan, M. Y. (2011). Happy people live longer: Subjective well-being contributes to health and longevity. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3, 1-43.

Vaillant, G. E., & Mukamai, K. (2001). Successful aging. American Journal of Psychiatry, 158, 839-847.