How to un­lock your ‘iki­gai’

THE CON­CEPT OF IKI­GAI – LOOSELY TRANS­LATED AS ‘YOUR REA­SON FOR BE­ING’ – HOLDS THE KEY TO HEALTH, HAP­PI­NESS AND WELL­BE­ING. TRUDIE MCCONNOCHIE EX­PLAINS HOW TO FIND YOURS

Good Health Choices - - Be Content -

What is it that gets you out of bed in the morn­ing? Know­ing the an­swer to that ques­tion – other than the call of alarm clocks, bois­ter­ous pets and small chil­dren, that is – could sig­nif­i­cantly im­prove your well­be­ing, ex­perts say. The Ja­panese con­cept of iki­gai (pro­nounced ‘icky guy’), which roughly trans­lates as ‘a pur­pose in life’, is catch­ing on. And it’s not just psy­chob­a­b­ble – sci­ence backs up the idea that a sense of ful­fil­ment can boost the qual­ity, and the length, of your life.

It could be a pas­sion for pot­tery, a de­sire to share your song­writ­ing tal­ents on YouTube, a hunger to im­prove your com­pany’s sales fig­ures or a com­mit­ment to get your chil­dren flu­ent in Span­ish. Ex­actly what your iki­gai is doesn’t mat­ter, but hav­ing it could help you re­duce your like­li­hood of poor men­tal well­be­ing and chronic dis­ease.

In 2016, a Chi­nese study of more than 6000 teach­ers found those with a greater sense of pur­pose than their col­leagues were bet­ter at manag­ing stress. Mean­while, a 2014 Amer­i­can study pub­lished in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the

Na­tional Academy of Sciences found those with a pur­pose in life were more likely to em­brace pre­ven­ta­tive health­care, stay­ing on top of vi­tal health checks such as mam­mo­grams. And a study of more than 9000 peo­ple aged 65+, pub­lished in dis­tin­guished jour­nal The Lancet in 2014, found those who felt their life had mean­ing tended to out­live their less-ful­filled peers.

But per­haps the most in­trigu­ing il­lus­tra­tion of the power of pur­pose may be in Ok­i­nawa, an is­land south-west of the main Ja­panese isles, which boasts the high­est num­ber of healthy res­i­dents over the age of 100 in the world.

“Ok­i­nawa ac­tu­ally has no word for re­tire­ment – [they use] a dif­fer­ent word: iki­gai,” ex­plains au­thor Neil Pas­richa, who writes about iki­gai ex­ten­sively in his book The Hap­pi­ness Equa­tion. “In Ok­i­nawa they live an av­er­age of seven years longer than we do in the western world. Their iki­gai can be as sim­ple as tak­ing care of the grand­kids, teach­ing at the lo­cal school or vol­un­teer­ing at the hos­pi­tal. Iki­gai means you are part of a pur­pose big­ger than your­self.”

Psy­chol­o­gist Dr Marny Lish­man says iden­ti­fy­ing your iki­gai is an im­por­tant com­po­nent of

Your iki­gai may re­late to your work, but it can also have noth­ing to do with how you get your in­come. In a sur­vey of 2000 Ja­panese men and women car­ried out by Cen­tral Re­search Ser­vices in 2010, just 31% of par­tic­i­pants con­sid­ered work as their iki­gai.

emo­tional and men­tal well­ness.

“Pur­pose keeps you busy, it gives you some­thing to en­gage in, work to­wards and keep your mind ac­tive. It low­ers stress, anx­i­ety and keeps you men­tally strong,” she says, adding that an ab­sence of pur­pose is some­thing that comes up of­ten in her work.

“The ma­jor­ity of my clients see me be­cause they are stressed, de­pressed or anx­ious. They have ei­ther be­come over­whelmed in life be­cause of burnout, a neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ence or trauma of some sort and then re­treated away from what is mean­ing­ful in their lives.

“Some clients have even for­got­ten what is mean­ing­ful to them, be­cause real-life prob­lems or per­ceived prob­lems have taken over their thoughts,” Lish­man says.

Search for mean­ing

Iki­gai isn’t the drive to earn enough money to pay your bills, feed your fam­ily and some­times treat your­self, which is prob­a­bly the ma­jor rea­son you show up to work each day – it’s more about a deeper-level de­sire of the soul. It doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily in­volve what hap­pens dur­ing work hours, ei­ther. Iki­gai is about ful­fil­ment and a sense your life is worth some­thing.

Pas­richa first be­came in­ter­ested in the in­ter­sec­tion of pur­pose and life sat­is­fac­tion when his beloved high-school guid­ance coun­sel­lor Mr Wil­son died of a heart at­tack just a week af­ter re­tir­ing from the job that had brought him such joy. Af­ter hear­ing anec­dotes about other peo­ple pass­ing away or suc­cumb­ing to ill­ness soon af­ter re­tire­ment, Pas­richa won­dered if there was a cor­re­la­tion.

While re­search­ing dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to re­tire­ment he came across a Na­tional Geo­graphic study about Ok­i­nawa, and was struck by the ab­sence of re­tire­ment in a com­mu­nity so abun­dant with health and longevity. He’s been writ­ing and giv­ing sem­i­nars on hap­pi­ness and iki­gai ever since.

“When peo­ple say, ‘What do I need in life?’ I say you don’t need money, nec­es­sar­ily, but you need what I call the three ‘S’s,” the Cana­dian-based hap­pi­ness ex­pert says. “They are: so­cial – so­cial in­ter­ac­tions and friend­ships; stim­u­la­tion – which comes from learn­ing some­thing

‘Pur­pose low­ers stress, anx­i­ety and keeps you men­tally strong’

each day; and story – the lesser word I’ve adopted for iki­gai, which means you are part of a pur­pose big­ger than your­self.”

Ac­cord­ing to Lish­man, hu­man be­ings are wired to seek out pur­pose.

“If we don’t have a pur­pose, we suf­fer psy­cho­log­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties and can of­ten be­have in de­struc­tive ways,” she says. “The brain craves stim­u­la­tion, and if we’re not stim­u­lat­ing it by do­ing things we choose, on pur­pose, to keep our mind en­gaged and ac­tive, then our brain will find some­thing else to stim­u­late it­self with, like neg­a­tive thoughts, sab­o­tag­ing re­la­tion­ships or ad­dic­tive-type be­hav­iours, for ex­am­ple.

“Of­ten, hav­ing no pur­pose con­trib­utes to the start of ad­dic­tions; gam­ing, gam­bling, al­co­hol, sex, drugs and what­ever else peo­ple use to al­le­vi­ate bore­dom and pain,” she says.

Mod­ern liv­ing

Those are worst-case sce­nar­ios, of course, but Lish­man’s point – that hav­ing a de­fined iki­gai could be a help­ful way to in­su­late against de­vel­op­ing self-de­struc­tive per­sonal is­sues – is a be­lief Pas­richa shares. Un­for­tu­nately, he ad­mits, there have never been more dis­trac­tions in­hibit­ing us from ex­plor­ing our pur­pose.

“Our world is so abun­dant right now,” he says. “We have the high­est-ever level of longevity, lit­er­acy, tech­nol­ogy, mo­bil­ity and wealth. But we also have the high­est-ever lev­els of de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety and sui­cide. Life is so full of end­less op­por­tu­ni­ties that it’s hard to find a pur­pose. It used to be: ‘I have to take care of the horses’ or ‘I have to sew my kids’ clothes’. Now we’ve got all that stuff; now the hard part is fig­ur­ing out what you can do that helps ev­ery­body else. It’s hard to do that be­cause it’s too easy to just go and watch TV – the world is con­spir­ing to en­ter­tain us.”

Pas­richa, whose own iki­gai is “to help peo­ple build happy lives”, says time spent iden­ti­fy­ing and hon­our­ing your iki­gai is time well spent.

“There’s a fa­mous quote in Alice in Won­der­land – and I’m para­phras­ing this – where Alice bumps into the Cheshire Cat and she says, ‘Can you tell me which way to go?’ and he says, ‘Where are you go­ing?’ Then she says, ‘I don’t know!’ and he says, ‘Well, any road will take you there’,” Pas­richa says. “Iki­gai gives you a sense of pur­pose and di­rec­tion.”

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