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
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.
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.”