How to find true meaning and satisfaction in life? It’s a question that most of us face at one time or another. For the Japanese, this is known as the search for ikigai - literally, the value of life, or raison d'être. Recently popularised in the 2017 book, Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, ikigai is more than just a dinner party buzzword; behind it lies a tried and tested formula that is deeply embedded in Japanese culture, which evidence indicates is part of the reason that Japanese people have the highest life expectancy of any nation.
The essence of ikigai is an active life, focused on the right thing. To discover the right thing, you must reflect on a few simple questions:
- What makes you happy?
- What are you good at?
- What does the world need?
- What can you make money doing?
Find the confluence of these four areas, and you have found your passion, your mission, your vocation and your profession all rolled into one. That is your ikigai.
Once you have found your ikigai, the key is to actively pursue it, giving yourself a constant focus and source of satisfaction. In this sense, ikigai emphasises remaining active throughout life. So deeply rooted in Japanese culture is this notion, that Japanese language has no equivalent for the English word ‘to retire’.
In Japan, average life expectancy is 83.7 years, the highest in the world. Research has pinpointed a number of influential factors, one of which is presence of ikigai. One study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine asked a group of more than 40,000 Japanese adults the question, “Do you have ikigai in your life?” Tracking the participants over the following seven years, the study found that "subjects who did not find a sense of ikigai were associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality."
In the southern Japanese region of Okinawa lies the village of Ōgimi, one of the world’s ‘Blue Zones’ of high longevity, which has the highest percentage of centenarians in Japan. In the research for their book, García and Miralles interviewed residents of Ōgimi to discover their secret. A low-calorie, plant-based diet, regular low-intensity exercise and close social bonds were all found to be factors, but the influence of ikigai is also evident. The people of Ōgimi find their ikigai and pursue it until the very end.