Discovering Ikigai The Japanese Formula For Longevity - By Christina Elia
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Discovering Ikigai: The Japanese Formula For Longevity

By Christina Elia for The J-Pop Exchange

The Japanese believe Ikigai is the secret to a harmonious existence. The concept literally means “a reason for being,” but it has also grown to represent a certain lifestyle followed in Japan. Ikigai allows us to pursue sincere fulfilment. It keeps us motivated in times of disarray, a kind of existential fuel that makes waking up in the morning less of a chore, and more a voluntary action. Contingent on finding significance through unwavering passion, Ikigai often begins with a fixed purpose. From there, we must each possess the bravery necessary to determine where this objective will lead us.

Ikigai originated in Okinawa, a small and sparsely populated island just south of Japan’s mainland. According to Akihiro Asegawa, a professor at Toyo Eiwa University, Ikigai dates back to Japan’s Heian period (794-1185). Dubbed a “Blue Zone” by National Geographic in 2017, Okinawa is now famous for its long life expectancy and exemplary philosophies: moai (life long friends), hara hachi bu (healthy eating), and ikigai (“thing that you live for”). The combination of the three has produced a population focused on inner stability and purposefulness. Okinawans usually live to over 100 years old, causing them to retire later in order to seek a state of mental and spiritual bliss. What surprises many, however, is that these “centenarians” are still emotionally and physically adept.

Okinawans believe the first step to achieving Ikigai is to materialize its central elements. The actual word stems from the Japanese root iki, meaning life, and kai, which roughly translates to “the realization of what one hopes and expects.” Together, they demonstrate the confluence of four primary components: passion, mission, profession, and vocation. Thus, Ikigai happens at the intersection of talent, and the understanding of how those abilities could better benefit society. Ikigai requires a delicate balance of each element, nonetheless prioritizing intrinsic worth over monetary incentive. Once all four are taken into consideration, a natural overlap occurs.

But the quest for satisfaction isn’t unique to Japan. Other cultures have similar terms that signify this search for a sense of direction. In French, it’s called raison d'etre, a reason for living; in Sweden it’s lagom, or “just the right amount.” The Danish believe in hygge, an intangible coziness which results in contentment. Although these trends have been recently introduced to the English-speaking world, Ikigai has witnessed a particular resurgence in popularity. In 2017, reporter Dan Buettner gave a TED Talk on “How To Live To 100+,” citing Ikigai as one of his inspirations. Authors Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles wrote an entire book dedicated to the topic, titled Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. There’s even a co-working space in Kenya modeled on Ikigai’s principles of wellness and inclusion.

According to Japanese tradition, every person has an Ikigai. It’s up to the individual to embark on the lengthy journey of introspection required to discover it, ultimately finding gratification in the process. Still, Ikigai can’t be forced. It requires immersion in one’s environment, a social consciousness that expands beyond familial or work obligations. The difference between Ikigai and simply searching for well-being can be found in the intent. Spontaneity lies at Ikigai’s core, and allows partakers to feel a genuine connection to life, rather than complacency subsequent the pursuit of a pretense. Value can be found in the everyday moments that shape our reality, or the extraordinary instances that make us pause and reflect on what it means to be human.

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