Longevity expert Dan Buettner explains how the Japanese concept of ikigai can steer you towards a life of fulfillment.
Working out what your purpose is in life might not seem like the best way to relax after a long day at work or studying. But if the ancient Japanese concept if ‘ikigai’ is anything to go by, it might just add years to your life.
Roughly translated as “a reason for being”, your ikigai is in essence the meeting point of what you love, what you’re good at and what enables you to express your morals and values. In fact, clearly establishing your ikigai has been scientifically proven to help people live a longer, happier life.
To find out more, we spoke to Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow, New York Times-bestselling author and leading researcher in longevity, and discussed ways to find and channel your ikigai, and how doing so could bring greater fulfillment to our everyday lives.
What is ikigai?
“Ikigai is the reason why you wake up in the morning,” explains Dan.
“You don’t want to wake up when you’re 60-years-old, look back on your life and say ‘what did it all mean?’. If you don’t know where you’re going in life then you’re never going to get there. Ikigai – and being able to articulate your ikigai – gives you a destination.”
In 2005, he wrote a cover story for National Geographic on the secrets of longevity centred around the ‘Blue Zones’. A Blue Zone is a region where people are healthier and live longer than anywhere else in the world. There are currently five identified on earth: Sardinia in Italy; Loma Linda in California; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; Icaria in Greece; and the Okinawa Islands in Japan.
As Buettner travelled from region to region to validate and investigate why centenarians – people who live to 100 or older – were more common in these zones, he noticed a trend, amongst others, that was prominent in each – the presence of what was called ‘ikigai’ in Okinawa. The term itself comes from a combination of two Japanese words – ‘iki’, meaning the state of being alive, and ‘kai’, meaning to reward, value or do something worthwhile. While not always named in the other zones, the concept was present in those who lived there.
“I’m a big believer that you need to have it clear in your mind what your sense of purpose is,” says Dan. “You need to be able to sum it up in one sentence, and for me, my ikigai is going into cultures and distilling the lessons that the rest of us can learn from them.”
Unlike the latest lifestyle trends that you’ll find on the self-help section of Waterstones’ bookshelves, ikigai also demands a commitment to give back to the community around you. “It’s about having a sense of purpose,” Dan continues. “But it’s not just going out and doing something that selfishly indulges your adrenaline glands or your passion – there’s also a thread of responsibility to it.”
How can you find your ikigai?
Finding your reason for being in life may seem easier said than done of course, but Dan has a simple route for anyone who wants to centre in on their ikigai.
“Sit down with a piece of paper, or at a computer screen, and make three columns,” he says. “At the top of the first column write ‘what I love to do’. The second column should read ‘what I’m good at’, and “Let’s say your passion is animals. You love dogs and taking care of them. That could be your ikigai and your outlet could be volunteering at a dog centre. Or your passion could be skiing – yes, you ski big mountains, but then you could also teach kids. That’s true ikigai."the third column should say ‘what allows me to live my values’. Make a longlist for each of those. [Your ikigai is] the cross-section between all three, and you want to make sure you have an outlet for that in your life.”
Everyone's ikigai is different. It is a reflection and expression of your true inner self. It cannot be forced upon you, coming instead from within, and as such, when you put your ikigai to work it should create an affirming mental state in which you feel comfortable and fulfilled.
“Very few people actually get to implement their ikigai through their job. But you want to make sure you’re doing it through your hobby, and again there should be an element in ikigai of giving back and not just indulging in your own passions.
Let’s say your passion is animals. You love dogs and taking care of them. That could be your ikigai and your outlet could be volunteering at a dog centre. Or your passion could be skiing – yes, you ski big mountains, but then you could also teach kids. That’s true ikigai."
How ikigai can change your life
In Buettner’s book, also titled The Blue Zones, he describes how people in Okinawa enjoy "what may be the highest life expectancy” in the world.
“When I was researching that National Geographic story on longevity, it was pretty clear that for Okinawan centenarians, ikigai was central to what keeps them going day by day. It gets them out of bed, and keeps them active and engaged with the world.”
Longer and better all-round living
Dan points to statistics from other leading longevity researchers, saying: “Famously, a research scientist called Robert Butler retrospectively looked at seniors who could express their sense of purpose or their life meaning, which is a form of ikigai, and found that people who knew where they were going in life – and who knew their passions and purpose – lived about eight years longer than those who were rudderless.”
And finding your ikigai not only helps you channel your purpose, but also helps you focus on the more important aspects of life – healthy eating, spending time in nature, making time for friends and family, and ensuring you set aside appropriate time for yourself.
“People with a sense of purpose are the ones who are more likely to work out everyday, eat well, take their medicines and keep their brains engaged, so all of those things will play into it as well,” says Dan. He highlights how lifestyle – and not genes – is the chief determinant of how healthy we are, and emphasises how this has a lot to do with a sense of purpose.
It can take the pain out of Mondays...
In Buettner’s book, Dr. Makoto Suzuki, a pioneering geriatrician, is quoted as saying: “A sudden loss of a person’s traditional role can have a measurable effect on mortality. We see this particularly amongst teachers and police who die very soon after they quit working. [They] have very clear sense of purpose and relatively high status. Once they retire they lose both those qualities. I believe the reverse is true too. You function better if you feel needed.”
It is clear through the research that no matter what age you are, you will feel healthier and happier if you believe you have a purpose, and know where you are going in life. And although retirement is likely to be a long way off for most, finding your ikigai not only allows you to find your meaning in life, but as a result provides that sense of knowing that you’re on a journey and working towards something bigger – even when you’ve got post-weekend blues on a Monday morning at work.
It takes the focus off finances
If there’s one stress common to every era, it’s money. Of course, there are a lot of financial concerns now that didn’t exist before – the extra work needed to buy a house, to pay for education or just to pay bills while still doing whatever makes you passionate.
But Dan points out that those who practise ikigai don’t prioritise money, and as such don’t have a lot of the day-to-day stress that comes with it. “Ikigai is at the top of their mind,” he adds. “Where we might put financial goals at the forefront of our daily activities, they would put their passions. Financial goals may follow but they’re not number one.”
It can make you more selfless
If purposelessness is such a dangerous state, then what are the best next steps for those at a crossroads in their life? Perhaps they’re just out of university, hunting for a first graduate job and not sure if they’ve made the right life choices so far.
Dan doesn’t hesitate to answer: “I’m very clear on this. As counterintuitive as this may sound, the best thing they can do is volunteer. And it’s been proven. It takes the focus off your own problems and puts your ikigai to work helping others. Even if you don’t get paid, it will improve your mood and wellbeing.”
It can help you like life away from a phone screen
“The idea of ikigai is uniquely a ‘Blue Zones’ concept,” emphasises Dan. Blue Zones tend to be small areas based around community, ancestry and agriculture, where the culture has not moved with the progression of time and technology. So does the rise of tech, phones and individualism in Europe and beyond contradict the concept of ikigai?
To cut a long story short, yes. And most people would be lying if they didn’t already know that social media comes with addictive, stress-inducing consequences. “These are traditional cultures and their practises are lost in our world of social media and television,” says Dan. He adds that instead of embracing different values and cultures, the rise of a ‘me-first’ society is “contributing to an environment of selfishness that is anti-ikigai”.
In a Western world where the average person is more isolated from their neighbours than ever, social media is increasingly alienating generations, various mental and fiscal hurdles are leaving millenials at a crossroads and me-first politics is on the rise, ikigai is a potential anecdote; a reminder that you can have purpose and direction without being self-serving, and might just be a simple step towards living a more fulfilling life.
For more of Dan Buettner’s tips on longevity from the people who have lived the longest, head to the official Blue Zones website.