Unforgettable Life Lessons From the ‘Mermaids’ of Japan

Ultimately, as human beings, we’re all pursuing the same thing; happiness. As Anne Frank once said:

“We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.”

Most of us lead relatively conventional lives. Sure, we’re each unique, original, and have our own background — but if you live in the western world, the way you live is probably not disruptively dissimilar to the people around you. And if the answers you’re looking for could be found from your neighbor, you would have found them by now.

Sometimes, you need to look beyond the realm of what you imagine to be possible; to communities around the world that do things completely differently from you. It’s often in these places that you’ll find the answers you’re looking for. And it may come as a surprise when you do, that the solutions to your problems are a lot simpler than you think.

One of these communities can be found on the Ise Shima Peninsula in Japan, where the real-life mermaids of today keep some valuable secrets for a happy life.

I gaped in awe as I watched a documentary about Amasfreelance female divers from a small coastal town in Japan. At over 80 years old, these women dive over 16 feet deep (5m) in the Pacific Ocean, looking for abalone and turban snails to sell at the market. In just four hours, they make approximately 200 dives, and they do this exercise twice a day; once in the morning, and once in the afternoon.

They wore nothing but a white wet suit (to warn off sharks) and goggles that looked older than me. Their method of organization is adorable — The oldest Ama in the group wakes up at dawn and checks the sea conditions. If conditions are good, she raises a home-made flag put together from old rags, as a ‘thumbs-up’ to the others, who look out from their windows and rush outside. Within minutes, they’ve all congregated on the pier.

They looked elderly on land but moved with amazing grace in the water. Their stamina, their endurance, their strength, and their flexibility, is not only unparalleled by the great majority of people their age; it trumps the fitness levels of most people in their 20s!

As if it’s nothing, they repeat this exercise almost daily for six months every year. And don’t think for a minute that they think this it’s a hard life. Being an Ama is a proud tradition that these communities have worked hard to protect for generations. They love it. It’s been passed down from mothers to daughters for decades. It’s in their blood; it’s what little girls aspire to become. It’s their definition of success.

What was most endearing to me was their un-missable joyfulness. They radiated happiness. They seemed to have cracked the code for living a wholesome life; one filled with passion, joy, and good health.

That said, here are some of their valuable secrets.

1. Live in the Moment

For centuries, the Amas have known about the power of what we’ve more recently coined the state of flow. When they’re in the water, the abalone is the only thing on their mind. They have no worries, no fears, just the present moment in mind. They know that to perform at their best, they need to feel their best.

Research has recently shown that lower stress levels are linked with better health. Being stressed hinders our immune system and makes us more prone to getting sick. It has a major influence on your mood, your sense of well-being; both of which impact your overall health.

In response, studies have shown that practicing mindfulness reduces stress and enhances your ability to deal with illness. It can facilitate recovery, ease depressive symptoms, improve resilience, and even academic performance.

Executive Director at the Flow Research Collective, Steven Kotler explains that this is the stuff that evolution designed for us. It’s biological. There isn’t a person on the planet that can’t get into ‘flow’. This is why these truths have been obvious to Amas for generations. Originally, their survival depended on their ability to perform at their best. Entering into a state of flow was organic, natural, and necessary.

2. Embrace Laughter

Not only have the Amas mastered the art of mindfulness, these girls know how to have a good time. They spend all day together. They dive in the morning, and again in the afternoon. They eat together, dine together; they gossip, they laugh. They lead a simple and joyful existence.

Laughter isn’t superficial. It’s not a tool you can use to mask sadness. You can feel sad and laugh, but the act of laughing will make you feel ever so slightly better, even if you don’t notice the change.

Research indicates that the physical act of laughing, even without humor, is linked to chemical changes in the body that potentially reduce stress and increase pain tolerance. Scientists have also found small examples of laughter’s ability to increase the body’s natural killer cells (NKs), a type of lymphocyte that is easy to test for in the blood. And today, there’s even a form of therapy called ‘humor therapy’, which has been shown to reduce blood pressure.

It may sound strange, but, just as you would carve out time in your day to meditate perhaps, try to ensure you make time to laugh. Whether you do so by seeing friends, watching your favorite show, or setting a funny screensaver on your laptop, be mindful about including humor in your day.

3. Engage in Regular Physical Activity

It’s harder to be happy when you’re in poor health. It goes without saying that the Amas are in great physical health; they’re athletes. And there is irrefutable evidence of the effectiveness of regular physical activity on our health.

Physical activity is crucial for the prevention of multiple chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, obesity, depression, osteoporosis, and ultimately, premature death. So this lesson is short and sweet — just keep moving.

4. Cultivate a Sense of Community

When the reporter asked one of the Amas what her secret to happiness was, she responded: “living in a close community”. That’s her secret to a happy life, above all else.

In most western societies, depression rates are increasing, and The World Health Organization has pointed to social isolation as a likely cause. It has signaled that smaller countries with stronger family ties and economies that rely more on farming than industry, as is the case for the Amas, have lower depression rates.

Generally, cultures that emphasize collectivism as opposed to individualism have lower rates of depression. So perhaps it’s time we took a page from the Amas and worked to cultivate a sense of community.

5. Reconnect With the Earth

One of the Amas said: “The ocean is like heaven”

They treasure nature. And instinctively, they protect it. They fish sustainably and conscientiously. If they catch an abalone that measures under 10cm, they deem it too young to fish and return it to the sea. They segregate certain ‘no-take zones’ and define seasons during which it is prohibited to fish.

They know there is better equipment they could use; suits that would keep their bodies warm for longer, goggles that would allow them to see better, flippers that would allow them to swim faster. But they’re uninterested. They don’t want to make the practice too easy, because they want to ensure they don’t over-fish. They also use leaves to wipe their goggles to ensure they don’t litter the oceans.

To them, the ocean is a living thing. It’s their version of heaven. Their connectedness to nature makes them feel alive, it gives them energy. And it’s not something they take for granted.

6. Get Excited

Another Ama explained, that to them, “it is as if we are treasure hunting. When we catch a big abalone, it is so rewarding to be Ama”.

Their excitement was visible. As they walked the pier, you could almost sense the energy. The kind of energy you might have felt the first time you flew in a plane; the excitement right before you took off.

Even though they dive most days, they approach every morning with excitement. They want to see what the seabed looks like today; whether they’ll be able to catch more than yesterday; whether they’ll find something new.

This excitement is a positive emotion that has been linked to good health. Having something to look forward to and feeling excited about it could literally improve your health and make it easier to be happy. So plan something every day that makes you excited; however small. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate plan or a lavish reward. What matters isn’t the event itself, it’s how you feel about it; get excited by the small things in life.

“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” — Socrates, 400 BC., Greece

7. Develop a Sense of Purpose

Being an Ama is more than a job for these women. It’s their identity. It’s their purpose in life; they’ve become the best that they can be.

American psychologist Abraham Maslow devised a hierarchy of needs, which simplifies human needs and motivations into a five-tier model, typically depicted as a pyramid. At the top, is self-actualization, ‘becoming the most that one can be’. But to get the top, he explained that every individual must satisfy the other stages:

  • Our physiological needs (air, water, food, sleep…)
  • Our safety needs (personal security, employment, resources, health)
  • Love & belonging (family, friendship, intimacy, a sense of connection)
  • Esteem (respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, freedom)

Seemingly, the Amas have these covered. They live off the land and sea to satisfy their physiological needs. Their work keeps them in good health, they spend their whole day with family and friends, and their pride to be Amas gives them high self-esteem.

I can’t conclude that Maslow’s hierarchy applies to everyone. But it seems to apply to the Amas, and it appears to be working wonders for them. So perhaps consider checking it out; consider whether there are any gaps in your pyramid that are holding you back from real fulfillment.

Final Thoughts

The world that we live in is vast, and at the same time, it’s so small. We’re all so far apart and we lead completely different lives, but we’re also fundamentally the same; we want to be happy, we want to be loved, we want to be healthy.

Ultimately, we all have the answers to the questions we seek; they’re simple. But we often can’t see them in practice. Sometimes we need to turn a few rocks; to consider other parts of the world so that we can see them more clearly.

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