Ikigai can describe having a sense of purpose in life, as well as being motivated.

The word consists of ‘Iki’ (to live) and ‘gai’ (reason).  The term ikigai compounds two Japanese words: iki (生き) meaning “life; alive” and kai (甲斐) meaning “(an) effect; (a) result; (a) fruit; (a) worth; (a) use; (a) benefit; (no, little) avail” (sequentially voiced as gai) to arrive at “a reason for living [being alive]; a meaning for [to] life; what [something that] makes life worth living; a raison d’etre”.

Psychologist Michiko Kumano describes Ikigai as eudaimonic well-being, as it “entails actions of devoting oneself to pursuits one enjoys and is associated with feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment”.

The word ikigai is also used to describe the inner self of an individual, and a mental state in which the individual feels at ease. Activities that allow one to feel ikigai are not forced on an individual; they are perceived as being spontaneous and undertaken willingly. National Geographic reporter Dan Buettner suggested ikigai may be one of the reasons for the longevity of the people of Okinawa. According to Buettner, Okinawans have less desire to retire, as people continue to do their favorite job as long as they remain healthy. Moai, the close-knit friend group is considered an important reason for the people of Okinawa to live long.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, ikigai was thought to be experienced towards either the betterment of society (“subordinating one’s own desires to others”) or improvement of oneself (“following one’s own path”). In the 21st century however, ikigai’s focus has shifted towards the self; instead of “self-sacrifice”, the focus is on developing oneself. According to anthropologist Chikako Ozawa-de Silva, for an older generation in Japan, their ikigai was to “fit this standard mold of company and family’”, whereas the younger generation reported their ikigai to be about “dreams of what they might become in the future”.

A 2012 study in the Global Journal of Health Science suggested that having the feeling of ikigai influenced the functioning of the prefrontal lobe. Some studies[vague] showed that people that don’t feel ikigai are more likely to experience cardiovascular diseases. However, there was no evidence of any co-relation with development of malignant tumors.

Examples of ikigai are often related to aspects of social identity — including work and family life — but it’s often explained as something more than that. It’s the idea of seeking a purpose in everything you do in life. Hobbies, friendships, community and travel all add to your ikigai. The end of last year saw a surge in books released about ikigai.

The most recent being a beautiful little hardback by Hector Garcia titled, “Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.” After learning about the concept, Garcia (a software engineer) and writer Frances Miralles set out to find out whether there was any causal effect between ikigai and longevity. They traveled to Ogima in Okinara — nicknamed the “Village of Longevity” — to interview its residents. The book is the result of their findings and certainly makes for compelling reading material.

According to Japanese culture, everyone has ikigai. It indicates the value that one finds in their life or the things that make someone feel like their life is valuable. It refers to both mental and spiritual circumstances that make one feel like their life has reason. What really sings for me about ikigai is that it’s interchangeable.

It’s unique to every individual and acknowledges that the idea of “happiness” is actually quite elusive. Ikigai, as a concept, is able to develop as you do. If one path of purpose ceases to exist, you can adapt, change and pursue new passions with purpose. Ikigai makes room for this. There are many different facets to ikigai, but there is one fundamental part to it that really stood out for me: Even if your present doesn’t feel right, if you don’t feel truly valuable in your current state but you have a strong goal you’re striving towards, then you will have found your ikigai.

Many sociologists, scientists, and journalists have researched and hypothesized the usefulness and truth behind this particular phenomenon, and they’ve come to a number of very interesting conclusions. One particular theory is that ikigai can make you live longer and with more direction. In September 2017, the popular Japanese TV program Takeshi no katei no igaku partnered with a group of scientists to conduct research in the small town of Kyotango in Kyoto, a place which prides itself in having a population that has three times more residents over the age of 100 compared to the average of the rest of the country.

The program wanted to know what commonalities these elderly happy people had in their daily lives and so followed seven people in their late 90s and early 100s around from morning ‘till dawn, doing blood tests and other health check-ups. What they found interesting was that all seven people had exceptionally high figures of DHEA, a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands that many believe may be the miracle “longevity hormone.”

Interestingly enough, as the program followed those men and women around, they found one single thing they all had in common: a hobby they practiced every day that they were really into. One woman in her late 90s was seen spending a few hours every day carving Japanese traditional masks, another man painted, another went fishing daily.

While the correlation between having a hobby you love and the increase of DHEA is yet to be proven scientifically, the program suggested that having this one thing that keeps you interested, focused, and gives you a sense of satisfaction in life may boost your youth DHEA hormone, thus leading to a longer and happier life. Okinawa, the southern island off of mainland Japan, is home to one of the highest ratios of centenarians to population.

Okinawa is also a hotbed of ikigai ideology. Here the mild weather, healthy diet, and low level of stress are also factors, but it’s the island’s active population of non-retiring, purpose-driven residents that links them to other long-living communities in Sardinia, Italy and Icaria, Greece. In 2010, writer Dan Buettner released a book titled Blue Zones: Lessons on Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, in which he studied areas in the world, home to the longest-living residents (including Okinawa). What he discovered was that though they may have a different word for it, ikigai, or having a “purpose in life” was a strong uniting link. “If you can find pleasure and satisfaction in what you do and you’re good at it, congratulations you have found your ikigai”

Hector Garcia, a writer who has released a number of books on this theory, including Ikigai: The Secret to a Long and Happy Life released in English last year, believes, however, that this ikigai shouldn’t just be linked to the elderly folks.

In fact, it’s currently more popular than ever with younger people both in and outside of Japan. “We found [releasing the book that] one of the keys of its success is the timing of the word ‘ikigai.’” He argues that it’s gaining more mainstream traction now, just when people need it, “especially in younger generations looking for more meaning in their lives.”

In his book, Garcia says that studying the ikigai ideology has changed the way he shapes his day. “I have improved my morning routine to start my days doing what is most important to me before getting busy with others.” In other words, he prioritizes the duties that give him purpose. “This means that I have a cup of green tea, do 15 minutes of easy yoga poses and then write for one hour. Before leaving home, I have dedicated time to my health and one of the activities that give ikigai to my life: which is writing books.” Though it may sound career-focused, ikigai is not always about financial endeavors. Having a hobby that you can dedicate your time to, raising a family, or being able to work and make steps towards diving deep into that passion project you’ve always fantasized about, are all ikigai.

If you’re feeling lost or unsure about what your ikigai is, there are a number of ways to refocus your mind and purpose. If you feel like you’re struggling, Garcia makes the suggestion that you “gain awareness of the current status of your life.” Start by putting together a note of the top 10 things you have spent your time on this week. After writing them down, ask yourself if those things are adding purpose to your life. You can subdivide by asking yourself four questions:

  • Is it something that I love doing?
  • Is it something the world needs?
  • Is it something I’m good at?
  • Is it something I can get paid for? If it’s not something you can get paid for, is what you can get paid for a good trade-off for really financially supporting your ikigai?

If this all feels a little too cemented and you have trouble committing, don’t sweat it, research has uncovered that just like music taste, fashion and, opinions, a person’s ikigai can change and morph with age, so chances are they need a semi-regular checkup.

The folks in Takeshi no katei no igaku had all picked on their new hobbies after retirement—and if that’s not showing that it’s never too late to start enjoying life, we don’t know what is. Maybe in 2020, it’s time to refocus your new year’s resolutions and embrace the larger picture: finding your ikigai.