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Finding Your Purpose: Review of “Ikigai, the Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life”

by Suzanne Wentley

A picture of blocks with letters that spell the word "purpose"

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What is your purpose for living? If you can’t answer this question right away, don’t worry. I suspect most people struggle to understand what life is all about. I sure do.

Some people credit relationships to keep them going: They need to get the kids off to school. Or maybe it’s a job that keeps us waking up in the morning. I mean, someone’s gotta write this blog. But eventually, the kids grow up and the work gets done. Then what?

These existential questions are central in the book “Ikigai, the Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.” I first read it last year, back when I worked with a medical researcher who told me something mind-blowing: He said people were “addicted to dying.” That stuck with me for a while.

book cover

I started to consider the concept that maybe I would never die. It created a long-term perspective, and I realized it was my responsibility to forge my own legacy. I had to decide what could keep me going … and going. I thought about the activities I wanted to fill my days. Where did I see myself in, oh, 100 years?

The idea of living a long, happy life starts with being healthy. Few want to be kept alive for decades while bedridden or with mashed potatoes for brains. Thankfully, modern-day science and medicine have come a long way. David Sinclair, the director of the center of aging research at Harvard Medical School, famously said that the person who will live to 150 “has already been born.

Just recently, the world’s oldest living person, a 118-year-old French nun, died. She even had COVID and didn’t realize it. If you’re like me, you are living your life as if you’ll die in your 80s, if you’re lucky. We could be selling this opportunity 70 years short.

How to extend life, then, gets back to this question of purpose. According to the book, your reason for living is exactly how you can live a very long time. We can learn what the Japanese call “ikigai,” which can translate into the happiness of always being busy. In French, this concept is called a “raison d’être,” or a reason to be.

Finding Purpose

In the book about ikigai, authors Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles share how there is no word for retirement in the Japanese language. It reminds me of something an older gentleman once told me: “You’re either retiring from something or towards something. If you are retiring from something, then you’re on your way to dying.

I realized then that I should always be considering my next project or adventure. To decide what exactly that “next big thing” should be, I look for things that put me in a state of flow. That’s when time becomes meaningless because whatever I do is so enjoyable. I flow when I play the ukulele, write, cook a yummy meal from scratch, dance, and practice yoga — among other things.

In the book, Garcia and Miralles write that flow requires:

  • Knowing what to do

  • Knowing how to do it

  • Knowing how well you’re doing it

  • Understanding where to go with it

  • Perceiving new challenges with whatever it is

  • Recognizing new skills that you can learn to improve

Most importantly, being in the flow requires being free from distractions. You’re not going to be in a state of flow, reach your goals, or find your purpose if you’re constantly shifting gears to look at social media, check your email, and reply to texts. We must train our minds to be present.

Tips for Long Living*

In the book, the authors talk to many super-centenarians, the term for people who have celebrated their 110th birthday. They had a lot of advice, but my favorite was from a woman who said her secret was laughing every day. True fun is a great ikigai.

To find purpose, the authors recommend creating goals. After all, we won’t reach our goals if we don’t have any. Goals can be big and maybe a little overwhelming, so we need to break them down into actionable behaviors. The only way to eat an elephant, it’s said, is one bite at a time.

For example, I want to publish a book about my five years of solo international travels. But I don’t have the luxury of working exclusively on this project. Instead, I implemented a daily habit of writing at least one page a day. I’m now almost done with the 250-page first draft — and darn it, I’m going to finish it before I die! That’s my ikigai.

There are other tips the authors of the book discovered by visiting the world’s blue zones, or the places where people live the longest. Here are some behaviors I’ve integrated into my life.

Nurture Friendships

There was a time in my life when I had 3,500 Facebook friends but barely a handful of people who I could call to talk out a problem. I made the mistake of presuming that people didn’t care about me because they didn’t reach out to me. But once I started letting people know that I cared about them, I realized they probably once felt the same way about me.

To foster deeper connection, I added parental limits for my social media apps on my smartphone to time out after 15 minutes. It’s nice to stay current with acquaintances on Facebook, but comments and likes aren’t substantial socializing.

I then created a micro-goal of connecting with a friend in a meaningful way once a day. This meant scheduling phone calls in advance and making plans for lunch. As a result, I now feel loved, supported, and part of a community. Plus, I’m there for my friends. That’s part of my ikigai.

Eat Light

Of course, diet plays an important role in living longer and healthier. I already eat a vegetarian, whole foods diet, which mimics the habits of those elderly people living in Okinawa, Japan who were interviewed for the book. But it’s not just what we eat, but how much.

To live long, a body can’t waste energy with constant digestion. The book shares research about the importance of eating just 80% of your capacity. This is known in Japanese as “hara hachi bu.”

You can just stop eating when you still have a little room. But that’s not easy in a “clean your plate” culture. To reduce my caloric intake, I follow intermittent fasting protocols, such as the 5:2 way of eating.

Get Regular Exercise and Rest

Picture of woman stretching her leg using a chair
Photo by Miriam Alonso

The good news is we don’t have to complete a marathon to live beyond 100 years. The book offers all kinds of popular exercises accessible as we age, including Tai Chi and chair yoga. Whatever we do, we can’t be sedentary and expect to live 100 years.

However, it’s also not healthy to work out day and night. We must ensure we get enough rest, preferably following natural circadian rhythms. For most people, this means turning off the screen and getting into bed early enough to get six to eight hours of sleep each night.

I also enjoy non-sleep deep rest, or NSDR; that’s a fancy term for a guided meditation, which is a nice alternative to a simple 20-minute nap.

Maintain a Fun Attitude

Life gets challenging, but that’s part of the joy of it. If we adopt a flexible and resilient attitude about getting through the hard times, as the book’s authors advise, we’ll have a lot more fun — and likely enjoy a longer, happier life, too. None of the very old folks they interviewed said they were worried about being late or what other people thought about them or what would happen if their garden didn’t grow.

I think having a positive outlook on the future is perhaps the most important element of fostering one’s ikigai. Many people take life so seriously that they forget that the littlest things can make us smile. I’m grateful for so much, and this abundance helps me find pleasure in the time I do have here in this lifetime.

There is a spiritual component here that can’t be overlooked: The world around us is beautiful in so many ways. We express our divinity through our creativity, however that looks. When we pursue our individual purpose and create lives rich in happiness, we make our world even more enjoyable.

And that’s the kind of place where I wouldn’t mind having fun for another 110 years!

*Note: this article is educational and is not intended as medical advice.



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