I’ve been coming across the Japanese word ikigai lately, mostly from personal development coaches describing how your life can be more fulfilling when you do what you love, when your passion and your vocation intersect.
I wanted to learn more, so I checked out the book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles. According to the authors, ikigai refers to living a life of meaning and value, having a passion that makes life worthwhile. It is also described as “the art of staying young while growing old”, “the happiness of always being busy”, and “your raison d’etre” – your reason to live.
A natural result of ikigai is longevity. Garcia and Miralles spent time with supercentenarians in the Japanese village of Ogimi, also known as “the village of longevity” in the Okinawa Prefecture in Japan. This village has been recognized as a “blue zone”, a place with one of the highest life expectancies on earth. People who live here enjoy vibrant health, vitality and mental sharpness well into their 90s and beyond. They are trim, physically active, and have lower BMIs than average. Chronic diseases and conditions like dementia, diabetes, and high blood pressure are rare here.
While their high antioxidant diet of natural anti-aging super foods certainly contributes to their longevity, there’s more. These elders have close family connections and community ties. They support one another, enjoy social activities and experience a deep sense of belonging in their close knit communities. They take time to enjoy their hobbies, which include Japanese croquet, singing and dancing. They spend time outdoors, gardening, taking walks, and enjoying the natural beauty in the forests and fields around them.
Blue zones have been popularized by author Dan Buettner, whose books and TED talk examine the habits and practices of supercentenarians who live in these areas. Buettner has a documentary currently airing on Netflix, Live to 100 – Secrets of the Blue Zones, that takes viewers to five blue zones on the planet to discover how folks there maintain their abundant health, happiness and longevity.
Meaning in life
A central theme in Miralles and Garcia’s book that captures the core of ikigai relates to finding meaning or purpose in life. The authors discuss existentialism, positive psychology, medical and mental health research, cultural and spiritual traditions that incorporate various aspects of ikigai.
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, founder of logotherapy and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, is highlighted in the book. Frankl’s own experience as a holocaust survivor, and his research on how humans can find reasons to live even in the midst of extreme pain and suffering, exemplify the idea of ikigai.
Miralles and Garcia mention how Nietszche’s famous quote “one who has a why to live for can endure almost any how” inspired Frankl. He survived a Nazi concentration camp by shifting his mental state to focus on what he wanted to do with his life and his psychiatry practice if he survived, which, incredibly, he did. He got to live a productive life after Auschwitz, researching and publishing his work on logotherapy.
Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, known for his research in the area of flow states, is also mentioned in the book. Coincidentally, as I write this on 29th September 2023, a Google Doodle highlights Csíkszentmihályi’s achievements in the field of positive psychology and tells me that today would have been his 89th birthday.
Ikigai is related to Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of “flow”, a mental state where you’re immersed in an activity where you experience deep satisfaction and focus. Time flies, creativity flows, you’re super productive and nothing else seems to matter other than the task at hand. The authors mention Albert Einstein, Japanese filmaker Hayao Miyazaki and Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami as people whose creative work is enriched by flow states.
The authors also introduce readers to Morita therapy, developed by Japanese psychiatrist and Zen master Shoma Morita. It is a therapy where patients welcome whatever feelings are present without judging or fighting them. Garcia and Miralles draw similarities between Morita’s work and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Zen Buddhism, and mention that Morita was influenced by the Hanh’s work.
Find your ikigai
I remember being intrigued by the idea of being paid to do what I love as I was contemplating graduate school and career options decades ago. I read a book titled Do What you Love, the Money Will Follow by Marsha Sinetar, which inspired me to envision what I’d like my work day to look and feel like.
Looking back now, I see how my career as a teacher and psychotherapist, two professions that are deeply fulfilling for me, evolved from these reflections. I had been teaching for several years when I began part-time work as a psychotherapist in community mental health over a decade ago. This was at a non-profit organization in a small refugee community in Clarkston, GA.
Over the next few years, the refugee crisis exploded and the small refugee community became a refugee resettlement city. Then in 2020, national and global mental health was amplified by the COVID pandemic and racial unrest. Suddenly, everyone was talking about trauma, mental health and therapy. I transitioned from teaching into full time therapy, where I continue to work in both my private practice and in refugee mental health. I have a sense of being where I need to be, doing what I must do. This is my ikigai.
Do you have relationships that are nurturing and supportive, that make you feel connected and alive? How about that thing that you’re good at (or could be), that takes you a little out of your comfort zone, that challenges, excites and satisfies you, gets your passion and creativity flowing? Can the world use it and benefit in some way from it? That could be your ikigai.