Ikigai and aging well

By on September 2, 2017

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 an 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 well-being in these five “blue zones” was the Japanese concept of ikigai. 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 genki obasaan (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 salaryman might find purpose and fulfillment by continuing to mentor his successor even after he retires.

For some, 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 well-being 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.

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.

The final element of ikigai that might take precedence is what they are 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.

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 one can just flip the switch on once they retire and decide that they have time to think about such things. 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, this 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 our 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. So 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.

About Andrea Jacques

Andrea Jacques is the founder of Kyosei Consulting and the author of Wabi-Sabi Wisdom: Inspiration for an Authentic Life (available on Amazon.com). She has spent more than 20 years developing the potential of people and businesses worldwide, five of which were in Japan. A dynamic speaker, coach, and facilitator, her work integrates spiritual insight with top-tier leadership, wellness and sustainability consulting to help individuals and organizations build thriving, purpose-driven cultures where employees know their work truly matters. She can be contacted through her website at www.kyoseiconsulting.com

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