Finding Ikigai: Your Path to Purpose and Meaning and 10 Ways to Get Yours

Since humans first put pen to papyrus, and then fingers to keyboard, countless words have been written on how best to live a good life. Often these investigations skew one of two ways, toward the mystical, emphasizing an inner search for meaning, or they go outward, as in, how to make it in the material world, witness the reams of books about achieving business success.

Recently, I’ve come across a traditional Japanese precept that for me combines the best of both worlds. It’s summed up in a single word, ikigai, itself a combination of two Japanese words, "iki" meaning life and "gai" meaning worth or value. At its core, it’s about discovering what gets you out of bed in the morning, your ‘raison d’etre. I find ikigai can be a valuable roadmap to help steer us toward a more joyful and purposeful life, and a healthier and longer one as well. As the longer days of summer approach, and you may have little more time to think about the path you’re on, I invite you to consider what ikigai might have to teach you. Here’s where to start:

The four questions

Modern interpreters of ikigai have distilled its message into a kind of self-discovery challenge. Ask yourself, they say, four very big questions. The first is about finding your passion in life, or put simply: “What do you love?” Maybe that sounds obvious, but I know too many people that grabbed an expedient life or career choice and never stopped to ask themselves if they really loved it, or whether they still love it a decade or three down the road. Some soul-searching is in order.

The second question is about identifying your talents, or “What are you good at?” If you can make an honest assessment here, you may save yourself from making choices that will ultimately lead only to frustration and disappointment.

I especially like the third question, about finding your mission, because it’s one that in our culture, so laser-focused on personal achievement, we often forget to ask: “How can you help others?” Frame that question however it’s most meaningful to you – maybe it’s about pursuing a career, or even a vocation on the side, that benefits people besides you, whether that’s a local community or society at large. Expand your sense of self.

And the final question is about looking for your profession, or, in most basic terms: “What can you get paid for?” That one always gives me a chuckle – the ikigai philosophy is nothing if not practical – but let’s face it, most of us do play some role in the larger economy and we do need to survive.

The Venn diagram of Ikigai.

Think of ikigai as a Venn diagram (I was tempted to say Zen diagram!), with a bunch of overlapping circles: Passion, Talent, Mission, Profession. The point in the center where all four circles meet is your ikigai sweet spot!  

Ikigai’s longevity link.

Why ikigai, and why now? There are several things going on, I think. We’ve seen a renewed interest in the search for purpose in a post-pandemic world, that plus a best-selling book, "Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life." The authors, Héctor García and Francesca Miralles, interviewed centenarians and long-living Blue Zone Okinawans for their insights into aging well. The connection between a good life and a long life is hard to miss. Take for example, Japan, home of ikigai, which has an extraordinary number of centenarians, more than 92,000 at last count. With one of the highest life expectancies world, and more that 10% of its population over the age of 80, Japan is a fascinating real-time case study on the relationship between ikigai and longevity.

Searching for – and finding balance.

At the heart of ikigai lies the pursuit of balance and harmony in life, which in turn encourages you to cultivate a sense of purpose that goes beyond material gain. Instead, your focus turns to the importance of finding joy and meaning in both the big and small things you do, whether it's work, relationships, hobbies, community involvement or all of the above.

Ikigai is not about navel gazing.

One key aspect of Ikigai? Work! It’s not about sitting on your duff – it’s about finding fulfillment through work. Unlike our Western habit of keeping work and personal life in two separate lanes, ikigai encourages you to integrate your passions with your professional endeavors. It’s about aligning your passion with your vocation, so work is a more joyful pursuit, a key factor which contributes to overall well-being and longevity. As well, ikigai recognizes the interconnectedness of mind, body, and spirit, and advocates for practices that nurture all aspects of one's being. From mindful eating to regular physical activity to spiritual reflection, individuals who embrace ikigai prioritize self-care as a means to leading a balanced and fulfilling life.

Community and connection add good years too.

Beyond the self though, community and social connection also play a vital role in the pursuit of Ikigai. Japanese society places great value on relationships and communal bonds, which serve as sources of support, belonging, and purpose. Whether through family gatherings, neighborhood associations, or shared cultural traditions, these social connections enrich people's lives and contribute to their overall sense of fulfillment and well-being. And, with that meaningful living, connection and positive energy, longevity becomes the natural byproduct of all those good vibes – while also going a long way towards aging and disease-makers like stress and burnout.

In short, Ikigai serves as an eternal reminder that a life lived with purpose and meaning is not only worth living but also holds the key to longevity, fulfillment, balance and joy in a stressful world.

Achieving your ikigai – even everything isn’t perfectly aligned.

Working towards finding your ikigai sweet spot shouldn’t be a burden – it’s not just one more task on the to-do list to cross off in a day or two. It’s an ongoing journey, and while it may seem like a lot to take on, the process can be as large or as small as you’d like to make it. Mostly, learning to find and ultimately live your purpose takes thinking, reflection and self-examination, so give yourself the time you need to get where you need to go.

Most importantly: Absolutely no guilt-tripping or negative self-talk as you find your way. For example, if your work is less than ideal, or your relationships need upgrading, start to work on finding ikigai in things that are working well and ease into the tougher stuff as time goes on. Remember it’s a process and a practice – ikigai, like Rome, isn’t built in a day.

10 ways to start weaving ikigai into your day.

In their book, authors García and Miralles outline ways to help get yourself closer to the idea of living your purpose – and share a few pearls of wisdom from the 100+ set. Though there may be bumps in the road, along the way, the opportunity to learn more about yourself, your place in the world and possibly lengthening the time you get to spend in it, is well worth the effort. Where to start? Here are a few in-a-nutshell ways the authors suggest brushing up your skills and get the ikigai ball rolling:

  1. Maybe don’t retire early or at all: Many of the world's longest-living individuals remain engaged in work well into their 80s and 90s or choose not to retire at all. They stay in the mix, and relevant.
  2. Embrace a slower pace: While hustling and bustling through a long daily to-do list may feel normal, it can have a negative impact on your quality of life, creating stress and anxiety as you try to cross off as many tasks as possible as quickly as possible. García and Miralles suggest that taking your time is the way to go (and I agree!), as a slower pace, adds depth and significance to your experiences.
  3. Practice mindful eating: Japanese culture and centenarians often recommend consuming only 80% of what's on your plate, resisting unnecessary snacks or indulgences. Opting out of momentary pleasures like extra servings or desserts can lead to less anxiety, frustration and guilt overall, and ultimately greater long-term happiness.
  4. Cultivate meaningful relationships: Research, such as the 85-year Harvard study, underscores the correlation between happiness, longevity, and strong social connections. A case in point: the centenarians in the Blue Zone of Okinawa prioritize communal activities, fostering bonds that enrich their lives.
  5. Keep it moving: When it comes to cultivating longevity, exercise is really non-negotiable. Even brief daily walks and gentle stretching, particularly in older folks, help keep joints lubricated, contribute to overall health and vitality.
  6. Keep your outlook upbeat: García and Miralles emphasize the importance of acknowledging life's challenges while appreciating the good stuff too. Cultivating gratitude and optimism is a major well-being enhancer.
  7. Reconnect with nature: Even if you are a city dweller, get out there. Carve out time for rejuvenating with outdoor walks and fresh air both of which have a profoundly positive impact on mood, productivity, and cognitive function.
  8. Grow your gratitude: Being grateful for the blessings in your life, whether it be loved ones, friendships, or personal achievements, fosters a sense of contentment and fulfillment – not to mention heartfelt joy, which is great for longevity and well-being.
  9. Be here now: As in live in the present. Release past regrets and future anxieties, focusing instead on making each day meaningful and memorable. Embrace the present moment as the only certainty, seizing its potential for growth and joy.
  10. Pursue your passion: Discover and pursue your ikigai, your reason for being. Aligning your actions with your deepest passions provides purpose and fulfillment, enriching every aspect of your life. Keep in mind though that your persuit should combine the answers to the four essential questions of “What do you love?” + “What are you good at?” + “How can I help others?” and “What can you get paid for?”

Longevity Reading