In Japanese culture, it is said that each person has an ikigai (生き甲斐, pronounced ee-kee-guy), or “path to life fulfilment” or “purpose for being.”
Four foundational life components come together to create ikigai: passion, vocation, profession, and mission. In short, where “what you love” and “what you’re good at” meet “what you’re paid for” … all because it is needed in the world (or in your community). All four components need to be present.
Studies have shown that those who actively seek to find their ikigai show higher self-esteem and a feeling their presence in the world is justified. Psychologists explain that when people find their ikigai, everything is easier and more pleasant because they’re operating in sync with their capabilities.
All that sounds good, but perhaps the strongest selling point is that recent studies on philosophy have shown that life fulfillment through Japanese ikigai as a key component to longevity – a point demonstrated by Japan’s average life expectancy of 83.7 years – one of the world’s longest.
A look into the 50-year history behind ikigai
Although the concept may be a bit vague due to its subjectivity, the term ikigai is unique to Japan and has been commonly used since the latter half of the 20th century, when Japan achieved economic prosperity.
As early as 1970, Sousuka Mita (1970) listed four conditions that constituted a life worth living:
(1) Freedom from extreme poverty
(2) Meaningfulness of one’s present life in relation to the future
(3) Meaningfulness of one’s life in relation to others
(4) Having a job as a medium of “connection” and “future”
In 1972, Tokietsu Fujiwara discussed ikigai as a state of being open to the future and close to the center of the ego, of having a desire related to value, and of containing a sense of mission.
Over 20 years later, in 1998, Hiroshi Shibata considered ikigai to be an important concept when considering quality of life (QOL) among the aging population. He proposed a framework for the purpose of life as follows: “The purpose of life is the conventional QOL plus awareness and sense of accomplishment of doing something for others, or of being useful to society.”
The Kojien Dictionary (the most authoritative dictionary in the Japanese firmament, equivalent to our Oxfords’ or Webster’s) describes it as “the motivation to live; something that makes you happy to be alive.”
Some translations have suggested the English “going beyond self,” “Samaritans,” and even “altruism” to represent the meaning of ikigai. However since the term ikigai is unique to Japan culture and values, the term now is used internationally as it is – ikigai.
Okay – so what are the benefits of ikigai?
There are many longevity science studies that have examined the relationship between psychological factors such as motivation and life expectancy, and researchers believe that people who have ikigai live longer.
For example, a study that followed about 3,000 people aged 40-80 years for over seven years found that the risk of death from cardiovascular disease was increased in those who did not feel motivated, stressed, or dependent, compared with those who did. These results were stable even after adjusting for age, smoking, alcohol consumption, and history of hypertension.
Another seven-year study followed 1,000 people aged 60-75 and found that in addition to walking habits and sleep duration, having a sense of purpose in life had an important impact on the life expectancy of the aging. As the Japanese saying goes, “sickness begins in the mind” (or more positively put, “the mind controls the body”). So the thinking is that when there is something enjoyable and worth living for, the mind becomes energetic and daily life becomes more active, contributing to better physical health as well. In addition to exercising and eating well for health, Japanese wisdom considers that finding enjoyment and purpose in life to energize the mind is one preventive measure for ensuring a long and healthy life.
Yet another study found that people who have a sense of purpose in life have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and lower mortality rates (Ken Mogi, 2019). Being aware of meaning and productivity – and sharing it with others – may help avoid social isolation and may also bring a sense of well-being (Dawn Carr, 2013).
What elements are necessary for ikigai?
As with so many states of mind, the first step is to have an intention, or desire to feel satisfied, fulfilled and accomplished. Next, identifying something to do or to aim for is in order. And finally, devoting oneself to an activity and finding value and meaning in life because of that.
How is ikigai different for those who are aging?
The concept of ikigai among those who are aging has two aspects: “the meaning and value we find in life” and “the positive feelings we find in ourselves” (such as a sense of fulfillment, accomplishment, and satisfaction in life). This can change over time throughout one’s lifespan.
Middle-aged and older salarymen in particular (when they’ve considered their work to be their purpose in life), tend to lose their purpose in life upon retirement. The same can happen for middle-aged female homemakers who’ve made raising children and making a home for their families their purpose in life. They may lose their purpose in life when their children leave the nest or when they say goodbye to their partners.
Since ikigai is the meaning and value that a person seeks in order to live, and is something that gives people a sense of satisfaction and happiness, it can vary greatly from person to person.
In order to live a vibrant life while aging, many see maintaining good health and a sense of purpose in life as being critical. That is why many Japanese acknowledge the importance of participating in society and having connections with your community, of having hobbies and leisure time, and of being interested in and experiencing things that you can find value in – even before one officially stops working.
How do those who are aging feel about their own possession of ikigai?
Eighty percent of those surveyed claimed to either “have much (37.2%)” or “have some (42.5%)” sense of purpose in life, according to the Cabinet Office’s Survey on the Participation of the Elderly in the Community (nationwide, among 1,755 Japanese aged 60+ in 2020).
Under what circumstances is ikigai strongest for those who are aging?
Looking at occasions when those who are aging feel a sense of ikigai, the most common response is “when spending time with grandchildren and other family members” (given by nearly half of respondents). On the other hand, compared to the results from five years earlier, the percentage of those who answered “I feel a sense of Ikigai when I am working” has decreased.
- Among aging male respondents, the highest percentage felt a sense of fulfillment when “absorbed in hobbies and sports (49.0%),” followed by “spending time with grandchildren and other family members(40.7%)” and “traveling (36.4%).”
- Among aging female respondents, women felt more motivated when “spending time with family members such as grandchildren (55.4%),” “eating or chatting with friends or acquaintances (50.9%),” and “eating delicious food” (44.4%).
The Ikigai Activity Center … Promoting a paradigm shift to a “community-based symbiotic society”
In order for the aging Japanese population to live a long and healthy life in this era of 100 years of life, the Ikigai Activity Center is a center that supports not only the development of health, but also the development of activities that lead to employment and social participation for the elderly.
A model for the establishment of a comprehensive community care system, the Ikigai Activity Center aspires to enable people to live as they choose, in communities that are familiar to them, and until the end of their lives – even if they become ill or require nursing care. This view is part and parcel of Japan evolving into a super-aged society, and expands to developing multi-generational living environments.