What is “ikigai”? (a Japanese word)

In 2009, Dan Buettner gave a TEDx talk about the reasons people live beyond 100 years old. He studied different places in the world where he found the high population of 100+ years old people: Sardinia (Italy) and Okinawa (Japan). He also studied the high population of oldest people in USA, which he found among Seventh-Day Adventists living in Loma Linda, California.

The similarities among them:

  1. They don’t exercise, but their daily living is very active, like living on vertical houses (Sardinians), up and down sitting on the ground (Okinawans), and walking everywhere in town (Adventists).
  2. They eat mostly plant-based diet. Sardinians eat zucchini, beans, and unleavened whole wheat bread with hard cheese from grass-fed animals. Okinawans eat a lot of tofu, colorful vegetables, and occasional fish. Adventists are vegetarians following Genesis in the Bible. What is interesting, Okinawans also follow a Confucius rule “hara hatchi bu” that means to stop eating when the stomach is 80% full.
  3. They take a down-time instead of letting life swallow them in schedule after schedule (rushing and stress cause our body to respond with inflammation). Sardinians have daily happy hour, drinking wine containing very high antioxidant. Okinawans have prayers to their ancestors every morning. Adventists have the Sabbath, a 24-hour down-time once a week, where they pray, have social gathering, and take a walk in nature.
  4. They have a close-knit community. In Sardinia, older people are very respected and kept close to the family. In Okinawa, everyone grows up in a group of six of similar age, like a family. The Adventists tend to hang out with each other. To all of them, family is the center of everything.
  5. They have a sense of purpose, or what is called “ikigai” by Okinawans. It’s basically “why I wake up every morning”. A Sardinian man worked on the farm every morning and gathered his family every afternoon. An Okinawan woman met her friends and family daily. An Adventist woman volunteered at seven places.

The correlation between ikigai and mortality in Japan has been studied by scientists (the Ohsaki Study). In the paper published in 2008, the scientists reported 43391 Japanese adults asked whether they have ikigai in their life. Seven years later, 3048 of them died, and they did find a high correlation between not having ikigai and mortality.

However, what I found more interesting in the paper is the conditions that are correlated with not having ikigai. Based on the questionnaires distributed to these adults, it was found that those who don’t have ikigai are more likely to have (self-rated) bad health, have perceived high mental stress, have severe bodily pain, limited physical function, less likely to walk, and be unmarried, unemployed, and lower educated.

What does it mean? Although we cannot imply causation from correlation, we can still imply that having ikigai is correlated with good health, less stress, healthy and functional body, walk a lot, married, employed, and well educated. Now we know why the Sardinians, Okinawans, and Adventists have ikigai.

Let’s look back to Dan Buettner’s talk where he mentioned the two dangerous points (to our mortality) in our life. The first point is the year we’re born (high infant mortality rate), and the second point is the year we retire. With ikigai, we continue having a sense of purpose that you activate in life, beyond retirement age.

That is why I disagreed with a diagram that went viral a few years ago, because it puts “what you can be paid for” as a requirement for ikigai (note the use of Venn diagram). Indeed the person who made this diagram was inspired by Dan Buettner’s talk, but I understand where he came from as an entrepreneur. Getting paid is part of his ikigai.

The fact that the above diagram went viral tells that people really bought into the idea that having an employment is a requirement to have an ikigai. This might be true to their experience, so retirement will be a threat to their ikigai, leading to early mortality.

Someone responded by improving the diagram above, because he questioned the two missing intersections: “what the world needs” + “what you’re good at” and “what you love” + “what you can be paid for”. He created a diagram in order to visualize all intersections. It looks much better. See below.

The two diagrams above are complicating the definition of ikigai. It’s not true that ikigai is a combination of all four factors in the diagram. You can find ikigai with either or all of the factors mentioned in the Ohsaki Study discussed above.

Let me propose a diagram, too, but first I’d like to tell the story of my grandma. She died at the age of 82, and never had a job. Her profession was full-time housewife and mother. Her cooking ranged from simple breakfast, delicious cookies and cakes, to festival meals. She sewed her own clothes, baby clothes for her children, grandchildren, and a great-grandson, until she got too old, where she sewed only her own sleepwear. My grandpa died when she was only 61, after which she moved in with my aunt. She continued living 21 years without her husband, mostly with a lot of cooking and taking care of grandchildren. Not to mention her daily prayer. Her wish to have all six children having college education was fulfilled. Her ikigai is her dedication toward her family.

There are so many services that this world need. It is true that people mostly provide service toward their family or employer. Employment and marriage might be causal to having ikigai.

Pick some services that you’re good at. It is true that people find great ability in good education and good health. These, too, might be causal to having ikigai.

In addition, pick services that you love to do. It is true that people tend to get stressed out if they have to do what they hate to do. This is clearly causal to having ikigai.

Let’s not depend on a particular vehicle for serving the world, because it might make you lose your ikigai. Employment is just a vehicle. Just like family, club or community membership, volunteer arrangement, or any camaraderie of people.

Having an ikigai does not apply to only old people. And although it is correlated with living to a very old age, it doesn’t mean we do not need one. It’s actually been secretly wished by too many people (the viral diagram above). We just need to ensure that the ikigai we have is true to our core, lest we lose it to temporary things.

After all, our life in this world is also temporary :)



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