The Japanese have a beautiful concept called ikigai, aka a “reason to live.” Finding your Ikigai can definitely improve your life and- according to some studies- may actually help you live longer. Read on to learn more about it and get some tips on discovering your own life’s purpose.
Just what is “ikigai” all about?
The concept of ikigai- pronounced pretty much like “Icky guy”- originated in Okinawa, Japan. It combines two Japanese words into one wonderful concept. “Iki” means “to live” and “gai” means “reason.” Put them together and it means “reason to live.” However, ikigai is about more than just about the things that get you out of bed in the morning, it’s about finding your true purpose for being, discovering what motivates you and about creating a life worth living.
While Japan gets credit for creating ikigai, the concept exists in different forms across many cultures, including right here in the Western hemisphere. Take a self-help course or listen to any motivational speaker, and you’ll hear all about finding your “raison d’être,” as the French call it. You may even see a Venn diagram like this one:
Honestly, this is a very over-simplified way of explaining it. Ikigai isn’t something that you can sum up into four neat little circles, but again, it’s a start. We’ll take a closer look at the meaning behind each circle in a few minutes. For now, let’s look at how finding your purpose can actually help you live longer.
Having “Ikigai” may actually help you live longer
Researchers have spent generations trying to figure out the answer to one question- “what can we do to live longer lives?” Since Japan usually dominates the “oldest people alive” lists, the answers may lie in looking closer at how they live those long lives.
A 2015 report published in the Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine pooled data from across numerous different sources. The authors found that, “people who have a higher sense of purpose in life are at lower risk of death and cardiovascular disease.”
An earlier study done in 2008 by Tohoku University seems to agree, In that one, scientists looked at over 50,000 people from ages 40-79. They discovered that those with ikigai experienced less heart disease and lower mortality rates. As CNBC contributor Ken Mogi explains, “Put another way, 95% of respondents who had ikigai were still alive seven years after the initial survey compared to the 83% who didn’t.”
It really makes sense if you think about it. We’re more likely to take care of ourselves if we truly believe that our lives have purpose. We’ve accepted that we’re important in some way (because we all are), and that we belong here. We want to continue living for that purpose, which ultimately makes it easier to stay strong even in the face of great adversity. Not easy, necessarily, but easier.
Even if finding your ikigai doesn’t help you live to see your 100th birthday, like I said earlier, it can help improve the years that you do have on this planet. There’s no argument against it, that’s for sure. The big question becomes how do you find your reason for being, especially if you can barely find the energy to get out of bed these days?
How to find your ikigai
The answer to finding your ikigai lies- at least in large part- within the four circles on that Venn diagram, so let’s break each one down. Right now (well, after you finish reading this), grab a sheet of paper and divide it into four columns. Label them something like “passions,” “talents,” “potential for income,” and “world needs.”
What you love to do
Start with the “passions” column by making a list of everything that you really love to do. Maybe you truly love cooking healthy meals for your family, writing stories, or working with animals. Perhaps you’re at your happiest when you’re doing yoga, playing tennis, or even just while hiking through the woods on a breezy summer’s day.
Don’t filter yourself; write down literally everything that truly brings you great joy. I mean, I’d skip the random hobbies that only bring me momentary joy and help pass time, but this is your list. Anything goes here. If it pops into your head as a “passion,” toss it on the list.
What you’re good at
Unfortunately, not everything that you love to do will intersect with what you’re actually good at. Maybe you love painting, but your masterpieces tend to look more like abstract art when you were going for realism. Perhaps you adore baking for your family, but you’re nowhere near ready to change your name to Martha Stewart any time soon.
On the other hand, what you’re good at isn’t always what you love, either. Perhaps you’re amazing with numbers, but you don’t exactly love sitting down to work on your budget. Maybe you’re an incredible attorney, but you’re doing it more because it pays the bills and less because it drives your passion. Again, no filters. If you’re good at it, write it down, even if you can’t imagine spending your life doing it.
What pays your bills
In a perfect world, money wouldn’t matter at all. We could just stick with the “do what you love” list and call it a day. Sadly, money does matter. Humans have very real needs that are non-negotiable, like food and shelter, and none of those things are free. It’s weird that we’re the only animal to capitalize on basic survival needs, but I don’t see that changing anytime soon, so let’s get to making this list.
Basically, you’ll need to take a good hard (and realistic) look at the items from columns A & B to figure out which passions and talents will translate into an income. I recommend breaking this column into two sections, actually. One for short-term income and one for long-term income.
Say you love taking artistic nature photos and you’re actually good at it. Theoretically, you can actually make a living doing that, but it’s going to take time. Put that under your long-term income. Now, look at how that passion and talent can create immediate income. Maybe you can do wedding photography or film events, or even photograph houses for realtors. Do this with every item on your first two lists, asking “How can I make a living with this?”
What the world needs from you
Anyone can find a way to do something they like and pay the bills at the same time, but I wouldn’t really call that “finding your Ikigai.” To truly live a life full of purpose, we need to step outside ourselves and think about what we can contribute to creating a better world overall.
Sit there and really think about what our world needs most, both globally and locally. I can’t tell you what to put here, as what I think is important may be different from your opinion. Politics and religion tend to dictate our views on what we think matters most. I’d tell you to try to separate yourself from them for this exercise, but that’s not realistic. So, once again, write down your own unfiltered thoughts here.
Putting it all together to find your reason for being
Once you’ve completed your columns, grab a new sheet of paper and label it “Ikigai.” Now, look down each column and write down things that appeared on all four lists in one form or another. For example, you love dolphins, you’re good at biology, you can make money being a vet or scientist, and the world needs someone to take better care of the oceans. Perhaps your reason for being is to become a marine biologist that helps creatures affected by pollution or oceanic disasters.
Another example: you both love and are good at writing. The world needs more people to advocate for the hungry. Your reason for being may be to write articles that shed light on the situation and inspire others to give. Meanwhile, you can pay the bills by freelancing for magazines and blogs that align with your ideals.
Need one more? You love kids, you’re good at teaching (which can also pay the bills), and you think the world needs to improve literacy. Your reason for being could be to become an English teacher and create a passion for reading in your students.
Basically, your Ikigai exists where all of the circles come together and intersect with each other.
Ikigai is more than just lists and diagrams
Now, like I said earlier, the Venn diagram is a total oversimplification of the concept. Here’s the thing- it’s not something easily defined in Western terms, at least not in under 2,000 words. Ikigai has existed in Japan since around 800 AD, give or take. It’s only just starting to catch on here, so we’re way behind in truly embracing the concept. We Westerners love our diagrams and lists, so even if they’re not a flawless representation, they help put Ikigai into context that we can understand.
Before we say goodbye, I have a few book and journal recommendations that I think will help you learn more about what Ikigai means and how to find your own reason for being. They are affiliate links, so I do earn a small commission at no extra charge to you.
It’s hard to sum up a concept that’s existed for over a millennium, but this should give you a great start to your own Ikigai journey and hep you find your reason for being. Doing so may just help you live longer. It’ll definitely help you live a happier life, though, no matter how many years you have left.
Last update on 2021-02-18 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API