Is ikigai the secret to a long and happy life?
Across a grainy Skype call, journalist and co-author (with Héctor García) of Ikigai: The Japanese Secret To A Long And Happy Life, Francesc Miralles poses the ultimate existential question: If you had just 90 days to live, how would you spend them?
I am on the hunt for my ikigai, one of the latest imported lifestyle fads that’s crashed into the public consciousness via Miralles’ book and endless magazine features (including this one). The Japanese concept, roughly translated, means ‘reason for being’ or ‘reason to wake up in the morning’.
Unlike some that came before (here’s lookin’ at you, hygge), this one is backed by some heartening science (more on this later). In 2009, it also formed the backbone to writer and explorer Dan Buettner’s TED talk How to Live to be 100+.
In it, he draws a correlation between a societal belief that each person should have a defined life’s passion (an ikigai) and the longevity of that society’s citizens.
He points to Okinawa, in Japan, and the 102-year-old karate master who’s ikigai is carrying forth the martial art, and the fisherman, aged 100, who lives to catch fish for his family. What’s more, Buettner says, when researchers asked the centenarians what their ikigai was, ‘they instantly knew’.
Instantly. Even when I first saw the TED talk on YouTube two years ago, that word struck me. What would it be like to instantly know your life’s passion? I like my job, I love my friends, I don’t have any particular hobbies.
Your life’s passion, apparently, is that thing you would do if you had a free Sunday morning. The thing you become so absorbed in that the hours blink-by. I’m just not sure re-watching old episodes of Game of Thrones can (or should) count as anyone’s ultimate passion.
‘It’s OK not to know,’ says Miralles. ‘Because then you have a very clear purpose – to find the thing you’re passionate about.’ With Miralles as my sensei, I give myself a week to find mine.
DRINKING SWISS MISTS
Miralles’ own question is meant to be a didactic first step. What would I do with my final three months on earth? Probably get drunk with my pals, I admit.
‘Maybe your ikigai is being more in touch with your loved ones. Give them a priority you’re currently not giving them,’ he suggests.
The first evening of my quest, then, I spend drinking Swiss Mists with eight friends. The following day, I wake in the grip of an existential hangover.
In the years since Buettner’s TED Talk, which has now been watched 1.4m times, a number of studies have been published which point to profound links between neurological and physical wellbeing and the understanding of one’s purpose in life.
Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, followed, for a period of seven years, a group of 900 people who were deemed ‘at risk’ of developing dementia.
At the end of that time, she found those who had a high sense of purpose were 50% less likely to have developed the disease than those who’d expressed no particular passion or purpose.
Another study into the health benefits of ikigai followed almost 3,000 participants across 13 years.
‘A strong sense of purpose was associated with a 72% lower rate of death from stroke [and] a 44% lower rate of death from cardiovascular disease,’ says Dr Adam Kaplin, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine, Maryland.
While the exact reasons are unexplained, Kaplin theorises that having a lifelong passion, which gives you a sense of purpose, can regulate everything from the workings of your cardiovascular system to your immune system’s inflammatory responses.
From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense: for as long as you feel you’re needed to aid the community’s survival, your body fights to keep you fit, sharp and useful. As Nietzsche put it: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’
Still, I quickly realise that as much as I love it, if my ikigai is getting drunk three nights a week, I may as well kiss those purported health benefits goodbye.
WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS
Miralles points out that your purpose isn’t necessarily linked to happiness though.
‘People who have a defined passion – and therefore a strong purpose to continue that passion – have been shown to be happier,’ he says. ‘Their passion doesn’t necessarily have to make them feel constantly happy, just engaged and curious.’
He suggests listing activities that fit into the ikigai Venn diagram on page 35. For me, these include (rather lamely) ‘talking to new people’, ‘being creative’ and ‘writing’.
For a second I think maybe I’ve had it all along. Then, though, I remember the Sunday morning rule.
Give me a free Sunday morning and I certainly wouldn’t spend it at my laptop. Is there anything that’ll cure you of a passion quicker than doing it every single day, in order to draw a wage?
Miralles points out that perhaps what’s lacking within my writing is the sense of helping others. ‘Try different things – then see what has a bigger impact on the people around you,’ he suggests.
In the next week, I decide to volunteer with older residents at a community day centre, take a photography class (something I loved at school) and try a Japanese cookery workshop (just because).
In their self-help tome The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (£9.99, Penguin), Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica point out your passion needs to be something you both find easy and are good at.
As suspected, this immediately rules out the cooking, at which I show myself to be particularly inept.
The photography is nice, but my mind wanders off-topic. Chatting at the day centre though, two hours pass by, I make new friends, I feel at ease, engaged and useful. This, I think, is possibly as close as I’ll come to my ikigai in a week.
Like all western adaptations of foreign philosophies, it’s tricky to get right. It is a concept so deeply rooted in Japanese culture that for me to understand it would take a lifetime (or at the very least six months and some intensive soul searching).
Still, I enjoy the volunteering so much I go back a week later. On the second visit, I meet ‘Elsie’.
She’s lived in Hackney all her life. ‘Listen,’ she tells me when I explain why I’m there.
‘You’re not meant to have all the answers; do your best, work hard, find something that makes you smile and do that as often as you can.’
She pats me reassuringly on the arm. ‘Trust me, I’m 93.’
FIND YOUR IKIGAI
The ikigai Venn diagram explained by Francesc Miralles
What I love to do
Remember what you liked to do as a child? Uninhibited by the practicalities of life, children naturally tend towards some inner passion – this could be as simple as working in nature. Devise a way in which you can build this back into your life, even if it’s just gardening for a couple of hours a week.
What the world needs
There may be many things you love to do. One way to work out what will sustain your passion and curiosity for years to come is to look at what impact it’ll have on the people around you.
What I get paid to do
In a survey of 2,000 Japanese people, only around 30% said their job was their ikigai. Novelist Franz Kafka, for instance, was a lawyer in an insurance company but he wrote for four to five hours every evening. When you first start, it’s better to set time-related goals on your ikigai – like promising to spend every Sunday afternoon on it. With enough practice, it’s likely you’ll ultimately be able to draw some kind of income from it.
What I do well
Your ikigai is meant to promote a ‘flow state’. In psychology this refers to a mental state where all consciousness falls away and you’re acutely absorbed by your task (this has been shown to have the same kind of positive benefits as mindfulness). If you find it too difficult, it’s unlikely you’ll ever attain this.
FIND YOUR BALANCE
Ways to increase your chance of a long, happy life
Stand, walk. Long, daily stretches of walking and standing are more likely to result in a healthy life than an hour in the gym, three times a week. Some researchers suggest this may be because walking for long periods improves insulin sensitivity while others point out that it’s also less likely to result in wear and tear on the joints.
Eat to 80%. A common saying in Japan is ‘hara hachi bu’, which means ‘fill your belly to 80%’ and there’s some interesting science to back up the fact that a second helping isn’t always a good idea. In 2008, St Louis University researchers found that limiting your calories lowers the production of the T3 hormone, which among other things, speeds up the ageing process.
Develop your friendships. Loneliness has a number of negative effects on long-term health (it’s even been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease). But did you know that those of us who have a tight group of friends have been shown to live longer, healthier lives compared to those who have just their close knit family to fall back on? Maybe it’s time to un-mute those WhatsApp groups.