Have you found your Ikigai?
Does the idea of living longer by merely doing what you love to do most sound attractive to you? It sure does to me. Well, read on to find out more about the Japanese philosophy of Ikigai, which means roughly “that which makes life worth living” or the reason somebody gets up in the morning, although there are other translations as well. Iki means “life,” whereas gai means “value” or “worth.” Gai comes from the word kai meaning “shell,” which goes back to the days when shells were considered valuable. Ikigai caught my attention because we all seem to be searching for the meaning of life. It’s a wonderful combination of what we are good at, what we get paid to do and what the world needs. Who wouldn’t want to find that? Ikigai often shows up in “flow states, i.e.,” when you’ve been so caught up doing something that you forgot to drink and eat and had no conception of the passage of time.
Activities with purpose and meaning
The residents of Ogimi (a.k.a. the “Village of Longevity”), a small village on the Japanese island of Okinawa, have the highest life expectancy in the world. Why? Well, you could point to their community gatherings, personal gardens, the slow pace of life and their smiling, laughing and joking. But that doesn’t capture the entire picture. Ogimi residents are devoted to Ikigai and stay busy with activities that hold purpose and meaning for them. And how has that worked out for them? Many of them live to 100 and beyond; their rate of chronic illnesses (heart disease, cancer, etc.) is far less than that of most people; and their rate of dementia is far below that of other communities (http://okicent.org/ ).
New studies have shown that people who felt purposeless in life tended to die earlier from cardiovascular and digestive tract causes, possibly due to elevated and chronic inflammation resulting from having a low sense of well-being. But are mortality and purpose in life really connected and if so, how? Since higher levels of inflammatory proteins like cortisol are associated with increased mortality (https://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(99)00066-2/fulltext). Consequently, researchers believe that having no purpose in life could lead to higher levels of inflammation.
“Doing what you love”
While numerous books have been written to explain their longevity, the answer is most likely a combination of several factors that we find in other communities around the world where people have long lifespans (“blue zones”): staying active, having friends, getting the right amount of sleep, eating healthily and living a simple life. But when it comes to Ogimi, you have to add ikigai to the mix. It’s doing what you love! It’s doing what motivates you! It’s doing whatever it is that gets you up in the morning! Ok, fair enough, but how can we find our ikigai? There are many ways, and it will likely be different for each person.
What do you love?
One way is to draw a Venn diagram, i.e., a diagram that shows all possible logical relations between a finite collection of different sets after asking yourself the following questions: “What do you love? What are you good at? What can you be paid for? What does the world need?” The area of the Venn diagram in which your answers to these four questions overlap is your ikigai. It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But how many take the time to do this? And how many of us act on our findings? My guess is very few of us. Some say therapy will help you find your ikigai, but that’s kind of expensive. Why not ask yourself “what is the meaning of my life?” and then strive to find activities that support your answer. Or maybe just ask yourself the simple question “what do I love doing most?” Or how about asking yourself “what would I do if money was no issue?” Maybe you can find your ikigai in that sought-after state of “flow?”
“Follow your bliss”
There’s no single right way to find your ikigai. You could find it in anything! As with most things, it’s best to start small and work your way up. Once you’ve found it, you’ll find yourself not only living a healthier life and enjoying more social activities, you’ll become a life-long learner. Remember: just find the activity you love, surround yourself with people you love, and follow your internal compass. I think the great mythology teacher Joseph Campbell sums it up best: “Follow your bliss.” It’s never too late to find your ikigai!