Find Your Way – And Your Why

The Ja­panese phi­los­o­phy iki­gai will have you re­think­ing your pur­pose in life

Women's Health (South Africa) - - JAN / FEB 2019 - By Anna Davies

If you had asked me to de­scribe my life five years ago, I would have cited a tri­fecta like “driven, full and fun.” I was 30, work­ing a cool job and moon­light­ing as a youn­gadult nov­el­ist. Not to men­tion train­ing for a marathon, rais­ing funds for char­ity and go­ing on at least three dates a week. If I had any free time, I’d slip in a yoga class, at­tend a lec­ture, read a book – any­thing to get smarter, faster, bet­ter.

Be­neath this im­pres­sive flurry of achieve­ment, though, I some­times asked my­self if I was on a tread­mill to nowhere. Rather than feel­ing sat­is­fied and ac­com­plished, I se­cretly felt stressed and burnt out. Some­thing was miss­ing and I only re­cently found a name for it: iki­gai (pro­nounced EE­kee-guy). A Ja­panese term that roughly trans­lates as “rea­son to live”, iki­gai is about hav­ing a sense of pur­pose in life – some­thing that pro­pels you out of bed each morn­ing “ready to live fully,” says Héc­tor Gar­cía, co-au­thor of Iki­gai: The Ja­panese Se­cret to a Long and Happy Life. Not co­in­ci­den­tally, grow­ing re­search has found that hav­ing that feel­ing can ex­tend and en­rich your life: it cuts the risk for heart dis­ease, stroke, Alzheimer’s dis­ease and de­pres­sion and the re­sult­ing stress re­duc­tion has even been shown to im­prove your sleep qual­ity and sex life. Ja­pan, where iki­gai is a revered tra­di­tion, has long boasted the high­est aver­age life ex­pectancy in the world. One way of get­ting at iki­gai, says Gar­cía, is to pic­ture a Venn di­a­gram: one cir­cle is what you love, one is what you’re good at, the third is what the world needs and the last is what you can be paid for. In the cen­tre, at the in­ter­sec­tion of all four? Your iki­gai. It’s telling that just one-fourth of the con­cept is di­rectly about work. In a Ja­panese sur­vey, only 31 per­cent con­sid­ered their job their iki­gai. That’s why I didn’t know what was wrong with my piled-high life: I kept look­ing at ac­com­plish­ments, aim­ing for the next one. But while writ­ing a book might

be a wor­thy as­pi­ra­tion, Gar­cía says, it isn’t iki­gai. “It’s a goal. Iki­gai is: I want to write the best I can so my ideas can change the world.” Meld­ing what I’m good at and love – com­mu­ni­cat­ing – with the world’s needs and be­ing paid brings me full cir­cle, right to the cen­tre. You don’t just wake up one day with iki­gai, though. In­her­ent in the term is the idea of ac­tively seek­ing it out. To find yours, ask your­self these ques­tions.

When do you feel most pas­sion­ate?

Think about mo­ments when you feel the most free and “in the flow.” For one per­son, it might be while gar­den­ing; for an­other, while singing or en­gag­ing in grass­roots po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy. It could be con­nected to what you do for a liv­ing or not at all, says psy­chol­o­gist Dr Chloe Carmichael. “If you look for pur­pose in work, you need to un­der­stand the rea­son it gives pur­pose,” she ex­plains. “Are you com­mu­ni­cat­ing, ed­u­cat­ing, in­spir­ing or help­ing to cre­ate a prod­uct that makes peo­ple’s lives bet­ter?” Or, from an­other an­gle, is your work lead­ing to some­thing big­ger for the peo­ple around you – for ex­am­ple, pro­vid­ing a home, sta­bil­ity and re­sources for your fam­ily? That can be a source of iki­gai as well.

What are your val­ues?

Ex­am­ine what you re­spect and ad­mire. It can be sur­pris­ingly sim­ple to get to the heart of what mat­ters most, says life coach Cort­ney McDer­mott, au­thor of Change Starts Within You. One idea: write down the names of four peo­ple you hold in high re­gard – it could be your mom or Oprah – and list five traits for each. “The traits you men­tion, things like kind­ness, pa­tience or a strong work ethic, are likely the ones you de­sire in your­self,” says McDer­mott. Let these val­ues lead your think­ing and your ac­tions. When you live up to these – say, by con­sciously be­ing pa­tient when train­ing a new per­son at work – you get closer to your iki­gai.

Can you see pat­terns?

For most peo­ple, iki­gai isn’t static, but grows and changes through­out life, says Gar­cía. “Some may find it in hav­ing kids. When the chil­dren grow up, they need to shift that en­ergy.” What does stay more con­stant: re­cur­ring themes, things that crop up re­peat­edly and give you plea­sure. These can lead to your iki­gai. Danielle Di­neen (34) was suc­cess­ful, but burnt out in her in­dus­try. She be­gan notic­ing that her favourite mo­ments hap­pened out­side of work, of­ten at happy hour with col­leagues who would spill their prob­lems to her. “I loved lis­ten­ing to peo­ple and I was good at get­ting them to open up and fig­ure out how to be hap­pier or make bet­ter de­ci­sions.” It re­minded her of high school, when she was her friends’ “ad­vice giver”. That prompted Di­neen to get a master’s de­gree in so­cial work. Now, as a ther­a­pist, she uses her lis­ten­ing and em­pa­thy skills (the “what you are good at” and “what you love” cir­cles) in her ca­reer (the “what the world needs” and “what you can be paid for” cir­cles). Boom: iki­gai.

Do you have a com­mu­nity?

Your pas­sions, val­ues and pat­terns are also con­nected to peo­ple around you. “We think of hap­pi­ness as some­thing we should pur­sue on our own – say, by read­ing a self-help book,” says Ruth Whipp­man, au­thor of Amer­ica the Anx­ious. “But re­search shows the big­gest source of hap­pi­ness is good so­cial con­nec­tion.” And while find­ing your iki­gai does en­tail some deep, solo self-re­flec­tion, other peo­ple are also in­te­gral to the process – af­ter all, one cir­cle out of four is all about your place in the world at large. Look again at that di­a­gram: ev­ery­thing is con­nected, in the best pos­si­ble way.

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