IKIGAI: The True Meaning of a Long & Happy Life

Feb 12, 2024

The Japanese Secret of Ikigai

We all want to live long, healthy and happy lives, but for most of us, our modern lives encourage us to do the opposite

But there are some special places on earth where people seem to be defying the odds. 

You might of heard of them — they’re called Blue Zones.

There are several Blue Zones around the world, including Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California, USA, where people tend to live long and happy lives.

Another one is Okinawa, Japan.

Here, residents commonly celebrate their 100th birthdays — and beyond!

So, what’s their secret?

The Japanese Concept of Ikigai

Well, it’s something called ‘ikigai’, or 生きがい in Japanese.

The  Japanese word ikigai combines two words: “iki” (生き), which means “life,” and “gai” (がい), which means “value” or “worth.”

Together, “ikigai” is often translated as “a reason for being” or “a reason to live.”

Centenarians in Okinawa not only know about it, they embrace it —  and swear by it.

And that’s good enough for me. 

A Life Purpose

In Japan, there isn’t a specific word for “retirement” like we have in the West.

Many older Japanese people there stay active as long as they can, not because they have to work a lot, but because of they are motivated and passionate about what they do.

Even if they stop working, they stay socially active through groups of friends called “moai”, who come together to help each other out in tough times. 

Finding purpose in our lives and valuing the pursuit of purpose over material happiness is something that we can embrace, regardless of who or where we are. 

But to do that, we need to find our OWN ikigai.

Finding Your Ikigai. . .

Let’s explore four basic questions that can lead you to you to your ikigai:

  1. What you love 
  2. What you’re good at 
  3. What you can be paid for 
  4. What the world needs 

Whatever lies at the intersection of these four things is your ikigai. 

Magnifying glass

1. Uncover Your Passion

What do you love doing? Ikigai is about finding you are passionate about, something that brings you joy and fulfillment.

It might be a hobby, volunteering, or something else entirely that adds value to yourself and others; it doesn’t necessarily have to be your main job. 

Ikigai means doing something meaningful that resonates with your heart — something that you can see yourself doing for the rest of you life.

Perhaps ask yourself this:

If money wasn’t an issue at al, what would I spend my time doing?

Answer THAT and you’ve probably found your mission.

2. Uncover Your Strengths & Skills

Sometimes it’s difficult to know your own strengths or skills; if that’s the case, think about taking a free online strength test.

Once you’ve recognized your talents, you can think about how they might align best with your passion.

3. Uncover Your ‘Income’

Ikigai acknowledges the importance of sustaining yourself financially, but it’s obviously not just about making money; it’s about finding a way to support yourself while also doing what you love. 

Some people find it in their day-to-day job, which also helps them make money. Great.

But for others, an ‘income’ or ‘payment’ might come from the feeling they get from doing something they personally love, or from doing things that help their community.

For example, many older people in Japan who are already financially stable still follow their ikigai but don’t ask for any financial reward.

The value lies in doing something of value for others

4. Uncover Your Contribution

Think about something the world needs and how you, through your passion and skills, can contribute.

That’s not an easy thing to do, though, right?!

There are some pretty obvious issues in the world that you can’t solve (famine, war, to name a couple), so perhaps think about your own values and what you believe in. 

Think about how you can make a meaningful contribution to those around you.

Three Real-Life Examples

Japanese man smiling

The whole idea of ikigai can seem a little abstract, so it might help to look at three simple real-life examples

Here are three real-life examples that illustrate how important finding your ikigai is.

Example 1

Meet 62-year-old Tom, in his 60s.

He’s always been known as a bit grumpy and edgy.

Throughout his life, he’s followed the conventional path, studying hard to enter Law School and eventually becoming a lawyer just for the sake of a well-paying job.

But despite his professional success, he’s never experienced true happiness.

His free time has been consumed by activities like drinking, smoking, partying and gambling, which were all just attempts to distract himself from the stress and monotony of his daily life. 

Since Tom has reached retirement — with a limited pension and declining health — he’s found himself with fewer choices to distract himself and without any real purpose in his life at all. 

Lately, he’s been considering ending it all. . .


Example 2

In contrast, let’s take a look at Malee, now in her 70s.

From a young age, she knew she wanted to be a teacher.

Despite facing challenges in her career, she persevered, finding joy in teaching and witnessing her students’ progress. 

Now that’s she finally retired, Malee continues to utilize her teaching skills through part-time work and volunteering in a local village school. 

Every morning, she wakes up feeling refreshed, reinvigorated and with a sense of purpose. 

She has no plans to stop teaching and couldn’t think of doing anything else.


Example 3

Finally, there’s Khalid, a 57-year-old senior accountant who, despite disliking his job, can’t leave it due as he needed the money to support his family. 

And that’s okay, because a few years ago he remembered something meaningful that he can do to smooth the edges of the stresses he feels.

Reflecting on his youth, Khalid remembered his love for birdwatching and photography.

Eight years ago, he began taking photography classes and joined a bird-watching club.

Over the past five years, his skills have significantly improved, and he’s started working part-time some weekends as a nature photographer and bird-watching tour guide.

 With plans to transition to this passion full-time upon retirement, Khalid now wakes up energized and excited for his future.

Start Finding YOUR Purpose

You don’t have to be Okinawan to find your ikigai. . .

By discovering the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, what you can be ‘paid’ for, and what the world needs, you can unlock the secret to many of the ingredients that make a purposeful, fulfilling and happy life — a life worth living. 

I guess all I’d say to finish is this:

If you don’t know what you want, you’ll spend you life doing what you know you DON’T want. 

And there’s very little happiness, or sense, in doing that.

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