Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.
What if you could live longer just by doing more of what you love to do most?
It’s an attractive theory that finds its evidence in a community on the island of Okinawa that’s nicknamed the Village of Longevity because its residents have the highest life expectancy in the world. They also largely share a devotion to a Japanese philosophy known as ikigai, over-simply translated as the happiness derived from being busy at some activity that holds meaning and purpose for them.
Ogimi, the friendly village of 3,000 of the world’s longest-living people, is known for its slow pace, ocean views, community gatherings, personal vegetable gardens and residents who smile, laugh and joke incessantly. They also take great pride in living to 100 and beyond. They have fewer chronic illnesses than most people, including cancer and heart disease, and their rate of dementia is well below the global average.
The question then is, how? Books have been written to explain the phenomenon, including Dan Buettner’s bestselling “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” and volumes just on ikigai, such as Héctor García and Francesc Miralles’ compact “Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.”
The answer is probably a combination of factors that include the usual suspects: diet, movement/exercise and having friends and community. What these “blue zone” areas of longevity and happiness around the world have in common are residents who curate a simple life with few possessions, plenty of time outdoors, staying active with friends, getting enough sleep, and eating lightly and healthily.
What the long-lived Japanese add to this list is ikigai, a concept that is, at times, used synonymously with purpose, passion, meaning, mission, vocation and drive. If you brew all those notions together and distill its contents, you get ikigai.
Finding your ikigai
Ikigai has been drawn in books and articles as the center of a Venn diagram in which your answers to these questions all overlap: What do you love? What are you good at? What can you be paid for? What does the world need? When you find the answer that fits all four questions, that’s your ikigai.
Another way of defining your own ikigai is to simply ask yourself: Why do you get up in the morning? Or, what motivates you?
Or as Viktor Frankl put it, “Why do you not commit suicide?” Frankl, a psychiatrist and neurologist, is the creator of a type of therapy infused with spiritual themes known as logotherapy. He was also the author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” about how his experience surviving the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz taught him that a purpose-driven life is the answer to overcoming obstacles and sorrows.
The search for better health
Ken Mogi, a Japanese neuroscientist and author of “Awakening Your Ikigai: How the Japanese Wake Up to Joy and Purpose Every Day” equates the ethos for ikigai to the famous British government slogan from World War II posters: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
Frankl’s logotherapy aims to help patients find their purpose in life. (“Logos” is the Greek word for “meaning.”) If you feel anxious or empty, it’s because you are having an existential crisis, Frankl argued. Logotherapy tends to be more forward looking rather than, say, looking for roots of discontent in your childhood.
Therapy is one way to find your ikigai, which is the “existential fuel” that motivates us to live long and happy, as García and Miralles put it. Less expensive than therapy is asking yourself the question “what is the meaning of my life?” and pursuing activities that support your answer.
Even more simple is the question “what do I love doing most?” Your ikigai may lie in the activities that tend to induce a state of being fully and delightfully immersed in that action, what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow” and Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences.”
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, suggested another question to get at your ikigai: “If money were no object … what would I regret not having done with my life?”
There’s no single way to learn your ikigai, and the individual answers are even more varied. Your ikigai may be devotion to friends, cooking, being a good parent, writing, scientific inquiry, fighting climate change, drawing, helping your neighbors and on and on.
García and Miralles interviewed elderly residents of Ogimi, Japan, about their individual ikigai, and their answers included, “I plant my own vegetables and cook them myself,” “getting together with my friends” and “making things with wicker.” Ikigai doesn’t need to be lofty or complicated, and it’s better not to stress about it. Ikigai is largely just the activity that will blissfully keep you busy until the end of your days. (And by pursuing it, you’ll probably have more of those days.)
“You need to find your ikigai in the little things. You’ve got to start small. You need to be here and now,” Mogi writes. “Most crucially, you cannot and should not blame the environment for a lack of ikigai. After all, it is up to you to find your own ikigai, in your own way.”
Once you do that, even if you don’t live to age 100, your life may feel longer because you are more fully engaged with it while you are here.
And living with purpose will encourage other behavior that promotes longevity. “Having ikigai would induce you to lead a healthier lifestyle, with more exercise, increased social activities, and life-long learning,” Mogi wrote to me in an email.
I also asked Mogi about his own personal ikigai. “I used to chase butterflies and study them as a kid. Now, going for a run in the morning is my ikigai. Connecting to people of different backgrounds, going over the borders of language, ethnicity, and nationality, is probably the greatest ikigai of my life now,” he wrote. “So ikigai can be small and big, both of them equally important in one’s life. Ikigai is a spectrum.”
As I think of my own ikigai, the activities that give me the most flow are creative ones, mostly writing (you are reading my ikigai!), storytelling and sharing experiences with my wife and kids. I like to think that these pursuits will have a wider impact on the world, too. If I could spend every day for the rest of life pursuing those activities, I’d die very happy and apparently very old.
You and your ikigai: Till delayed death do you part
Once you find your ikigai, there is really no reason to ever retire from it. The Japanese apparently don’t even have a word for “retire.” It’s the not retiring from your purpose-driven life that seems to be the key factor of longevity and happiness on Okinawa.
It’s not as easy as that sounds, of course. “Modern life estranges us more and more from our true nature, making it very easy for us to lead lives lacking in meaning,” García and Miralles write. “Powerful forces and incentives (money, power, attention, success) distract us on a daily basis; don’t let them take over your life.”
Subscribe to this column
Instead, they advise, follow your curiosity and intuition, which are the paths back to ikigai, as is self-awareness. Find the activity you love, surround yourself with people you love, and stay true to that internal compass.
Mogi has more advice on keeping your ikigai engine running smoothly. His five points boil down to: focus on the details, accept yourself, rely on others, enjoy pleasure and stay present.
“There is a passion inside you, a unique talent that gives meaning to your days and drives you to share the best of yourself until the very end,” García and Miralles write.
Or, great mythology teacher Joseph Campbell summed the more than 1,000 words of advice in this story into just three: “Follow your bliss.”