Ikigai and Aging Well

Japan, along with many other countries in the developed world, is experiencing a marked increase in the percentage of its population that is over fifty. With this changing demographic comes and increased interest regarding what it takes to not only live longer but to live better. One of the most comprehensive research projects in this area was led by Dan Buettner and his group, Blue Zones, in cooperation with National Geographic. This group identified the five parts of the world where people live longest – and stay healthy as they age – and isolated nine key factors that contributed to aging well.

One of the key factors linked to increased longevity and wellbeing in these five “blue zones” was the Japanese concept of ikigai (ee key guy). Ikigai is translated as life + value or that which makes life worth living. In English this term is often translated as having a sense of purpose, but the Japanese concept of ikigai is much broader than this.

For some their ikigai can be what they are most interested in giving or how they most enjoy making a difference. For a grandmother it might be helping out with their grandchildren. For a retired professor it could be continuing to contribute to research in her field. A businessman might find purpose and fulfillment by continuing to mentor his successor even after he retires. To discover what type of giving will make your life feel valuable and worthwhile, ask yourself the following:

  • Who do I most enjoy helping? What do I most enjoy helping them with?
  • What would I like to be remembered for? What legacy would I like to leave in the minds and hearts of my friends, family, community, or industry?

For others their ikigai might center more on what they are most energized by doing. Whether it be driving, fishing, dancing, golfing, teaching, cleaning, or solving math problems a person who knows that their ikigai lies in doing certain things will do these things even if they do not get paid for them, or after they have formally retired. In fact, the healthiest people with the strongest sense of wellbeing have a difficult time relating to the concept of retirement. They simply plan to continue doing what they love to do as long as they are able. The following questions might provide some clues:

  • What kinds of task am I most energized by doing at work?
  • What activities am I most energized by at home?
  • What do I love learning, reading or talking about?
  • What do I love doing so much that I would do it for free?

For still others their sense of ikigai stems from how they most love being. It does not matter as much what they are doing as it does that they are able to be how they want to be while they are doing it. Whether they revel in being adventurous, analytical, whimsical, wacky, introspective, intense, intellectual, or eccentric, they derive joy and energy from expressing their unique personality in everything they do.

This one can be a bit more difficult to define as some people feel that they have many different sides of themselves they want to express. While people do have multi-faceted personalities, it is often the case that certain sides of their personality have been created because this is how they have been conditioned to think they have to be in order to be successful, to be liked, or to fit in. One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the coaching work I do is helping people to separate which aspects of their “being” are their authentic selves and which are simply manifestations of their need to be seen as competent and likeable. Here are a few questions to begin separating who you feel you should be from how you truly want to be:

  • What are the messages I received growing up about how I should be? Which of these feel like a “have to”? Which of these feel aligned with who I truly am and how I really want to be?
  • What is my natural style? How do I like to do things? Am I slow and steady or fast and furious? Am I quiet or social? Observe how you are being when you are feeling most “at home” with yourself and when you are feeling most like an imposter. Make note of the differences and consider how you might achieve the results you desire in ways that are more aligned with your authentic style of being.

The final element of ikigai that a person might focus on is what they are most excited about achieving or creating. From knitting a sweater to building their own cottage or working to end world hunger, these people are most energized by working towards their tangible vision of what they want to create. Regardless of whether their goals are large or small, this clear end point both focuses and energizes these people and gives them a reason to get up and go to “work” each day.

  • What tangible results would you be most excited to achieve? This might include running a marathon, starting a business, renovating your house, teaching yourself or others how to do something, travelling, reaching a certain status in your career or any other tangible goal. It doesn’t need to be big – just big enough to keep you focused, excited and geared up to take action towards it each and every day.
  • What goals do you keep setting for yourself but never seem to take action on? Examine these more closely to see if they are based on what others have said you “should” want or achieve or what you think you have to achieve in order to get where you really want to go. An example of this might be thinking you need a PhD to get to the next level in your chosen career. While this might sometimes be true, a majority of my clients who initially thought they needed additional education to get where they wanted to go, found alternate paths when they got clearer on the end destination and accepted that they had no desire to go back to school.

Research in Japan has shown that a lack of ikigai is related with poor general health, increased risk of intellectual dysfunction, and increased mortality in older people. Similar research in the west has also demonstrated significant health benefits for people of all ages related to having a sense of purpose and meaning. East or west, it is clear that discovering your ikigai is a crucial foundation not only for aging well, but for living well at any age.

Unfortunately acquiring this personal sense of what leads to a meaningful life is not something that you can just flip the switch on once you retire. The more years a person spends disconnected from that which brings them the greatest sense of joy, aliveness and fulfillment, the more difficult it will be to reconnect with this and begin to make it part of their everyday life as they age. Not only that, the connection with what makes life truly worthwhile is a key source of energy and wellbeing that can insulate people against stress and disease and act as a buffer against the inevitable challenges that life throws their way at any age.

While most people’s sense of ikigai centers in one of these four areas discussed above, it is usually expressed through a combination of all of them. Don’t worry if you don’t already know what gets you fired up to get out of bed in the morning – make it your ikigai to find out! (And if you don’t know how to go about figuring it out on your own, visit www.kyoseicoaching.com to find out more about how we can help.)

– Andrea Jacques (Kyosei Coaching)


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