In Japanese, 生 き (iki) refers to life and 甲 斐 (kai) refers to value, result, reward or profit … Ikigai evokes the path of a “rich life” in the deep sense of the term. Let’s go at the discovery of this Japanese philosophy of life which promises happiness and longevity at anyone who will find their own “ikigai”!
In 2018, the World Economic Forum published information on the countries with the longest life expectancy. In the resulting ranking, France is unsurprisingly placed in the top 10 countries with a life expectancy of 82.7. She only said 7th… At the top of the list, we find Hong Kong with a life expectancy of 84.3 years, followed closely by Japan in 2th position with 83.8 years, then by Italy (3th 83.5 years). Our research aimed at understanding the secrets of such a long longevity led us to discover a philosophy of life very different from ours: theIkigai.
An astonishing progression
If we compare Japan with a “rich” country where eating habits are completely different, for example with the United States, we see that life expectancy at birth has changed significantly, and this constantly, from 1960 to today. To give you an idea, life expectancy was 73.61 years for the USA in 1980, against 76.09 for Japan, and 78.54 years for the USA against 82.84 years for Japan in 2010. If since 2012 we can note a trend towards stagnation in life expectancy at birth for Americans, or even a slight decline, that of the Japanese continues to increase (as shown in this graph).
This increasing life expectancy could easily be explained by the progress of research in the medical field, as well as a better diet. We know for a fact that eating well and practicing regular physical activity is necessary, but can we really conceive that the absence of a deep philosophy of life has no influence on our life expectancy. Serious studies have shown that feeling anxious, stressed or sad constantly could be harmful to our health. Therefore, how can we not imagine that a true philosophy of life could not increase our life expectancy?
Where it all began
If you know a little about the japanese islands, you have probably already heard of that ofOkinawa. This is where many centenarians live and also where you can find some of the healthiest diets in the world. In this context, you will certainly not be surprised to learn that the Ikigai was born there too. Appreciated for its tropical climate and its large beaches, the island really does not have anything to inspire us with a paradisiacal environment (but then really not….!).
No pun intended, Ikigai is actually a portmanteau word made up of “iki” (生 き) which denotes life and “kai” (甲 斐) which refers to outcome / benefit / reward. In short, the whole of these two parts gives us the ikigai, that is to say the “joy of living” or the “reason for being”. It’s a catchy philosophy, one that provides the motivation to get people up in the morning, despite everything that happened to them yesterday and could happen to them tomorrow. Theikigai gives meaning to life and lets be happy in the life we have.
Almost forgotten, he returns to the spotlight
The ikigai would have been invented during the Heian period (“peace” in Japanese), that is to say between 794 and 1185. This philosophy of life is not yet all the rage. It was only later, when Westerners took a keen interest in its meaning, that the concept regained importance in the eyes of many Japanese. It must be said that in the West, the loss of values, the feeling of never being able to find one’s inner peace and to catch happiness are popular concerns. It did not take more for some to propose to settle everything and bring the joy of living into homes by advocating the almost miraculous effectiveness of ikigai.
The anthropology professor at the University of Hong Kong Gordon mathews however, warns those concerned: according to him, this concept should not be considered by a solitary search for its purpose, but rather to forge links, to communicate with people who have a similar ikigai. Likewise, he advocates punctually question his ikigai to make sure it hasn’t changed.
On the island of Okinawa, here are the common points that unite the centenarians:
-They follow a plant-based diet
-They adopt multiple strategies to avoid overeating (preparing plates in the kitchen and storing food before serving at the table, followed by a 3000-year-old adage from Confucius (pronounced Hara, Hatchi, Bu to remember stop eating when the stomach is 80% full))
-They have at least 5-6 friends from birth to cross the ages and trials together. They are therefore never alone. They call this principle the Moai.
-They stay active and motivated. The expression “to retire” does not exist on the island because the centenarians still practice physical activities. We are far from the image of the grandfather who settles in his chair.
How to find your ikigai?
Here are some ideas to try to find your reason for being. First, take a sheet of paper and draw 4 columns entitled respectively “what I like”, “what I’m good at”, “what I’m paid for” and “what the world needs ”.
It is then that the serious things begin because you will need time, a certain maturity and to do some introspection to fill this table.
If you love something and are good at it, then you have found a passion. If, in addition, this activity meets a need of the community, then you will feel joy and satisfaction in exercising it, but, it is very possible that you live in precariousness.
If you love something, are good at it, and get paid to do it as well, you will be doing some kind of passionate job, but, you might very quickly feel like you are useless to society.
If you are good at something and get paid to do it, then you have found a profession. And if, on top of that, that something fulfills a societal need, then you will live a comfortable life, but, you will feel that you are missing something, that little thing that you love to do.
If you get paid to do something that satisfies a community need, then you will find a mission. If, in addition, you like to do this something, then you will undoubtedly feel a sense of complacency, but, you will have doubts about your capacities. Are you really good at such an activity?
So the key to finding ikigai is finding something that you both love to do, that you are good at, that you can get paid to do it while also meeting a societal need. It is therefore not that simple and the research can be long. It will then be necessary to take action to apply the findings of this investigation in real life and adopt a philosophy that allows you to know why you get up in the morning.
To conclude, discovering your Ikigai is not always easy, but it is the start of a long journey that could change your life. Living happily, in harmony with yourself by satisfying a common need may not make you live to 100 years, but will allow you to age better and in good health and that is priceless. So, are you ready to search for your ikigai?
Some references to continue on the subject:
Gordon Mathews’ book: What Makes Life Worth Living? How Japanase and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds, University of California Press, 1996
The book by Christie Vanbremeersch, Find your Ikigai, First editions, 2018
The TED conference “How to live to be 100 years old and over?” By Dan Buettner