It was the autumn of 1942 when Viktor Frankl, a Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist, was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Later, in 1944, he was transferred to Auschwitz. During the three years he spent in those hells he dedicated himself to comfort prisoners to prevent suicides. Thus he realized that people who were most likely to survive in those conditions of extreme suffering, were those who had a reason to live.
In 2008, researchers at the Tohoku University School of Medicine observed a similar phenomenon in a completely different context. They published what is known as the “Ohsaki Study”, in which they analyzed 43,391 people for seven years, during which occurred 3,048 deaths.
Thus they discovered that men and women with an “Ikigai” lived longer, and not only had a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular problems but also from external causes. A subsequent study conducted at the Medical University of Iwate, in which were followed more than 73,000 people for five years, came to the same conclusions.
What is Ikigai?
Everything seems to indicate that, besides diet, another of the secrets of Japanese longevity, in particular of the centenarians living in Okinawa, is precisely the Ikigai, a vital motivation, something that gives them the strength to get up every morning and continue to live.
The word Ikigai derives from the union of the words Ikiru and Kai. Ikiru means living and Kai refers to the materialization of what is desired. Therefore, this concept can be translated as “a reason for being”. According to this philosophy, we all have an Ikigai, but we do not all discover it because is required a deep research that involves an introspective journey to self-discovery.
Abraham Maslow referred to this reason for being when he wrote: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be.”
It’s not about looking for happiness, but about finding what we do well and passionately
The ultimate goal of Ikigai is not happiness. In fact, Japan is at the thirty-first place in the happiest countries in the world. It is an interesting detail because it has been seen that those who seek happiness have a greater risk of becoming obsessed with it and be unhappy. The pressure to be happy and the constant analysis of our emotional reactions usually generate the opposite effect and make us feel more dissatisfied and unhappy.
The goal of the Ikigai is to discover what we are really good at, which gives us pleasure when we realize it and can bring something to the world. When we find our place in the world and feel satisfied, happiness comes alone. In fact, a person can feel the Ikigai even in the darkest days because adversity does not take away the deep belief or his passion.
When we find the purpose everything becomes easier and more pleasant, we have fun doing our work and we feel useful because we bring something to the world. This generates a pleasant feeling of empowerment, as well as eliminates much of the stress.
In fact, several studies have shown that people who say they found a reason for living have a greater ability to integrate stressful life experiences by experiencing less conflict and uncertainty. This ability is expressed in a decrease in anxiety, as well as in a lower activation of the sympathetic nervous system during adverse events.
To find our Ikigai it is also important that we feel we are bringing something precious to those around us, because otherwise frustration may take over. Our contribution could go from a direct help to solve a specific problem to the transmission of knowledge, to give joy or peace in the midst of chaos.
How to find your Ikigai?
In everyday life, it is not always easy to find moments of introspection. Sometimes habits, social commitments and pressures, lead us on a path that is not the most appropriate. If this happens, it is not strange that we feel depressed, suffer from panic attacks or experience deep frustration or dissatisfaction with life.
In fact, those who for many years have done a job that they do not like or submit to social commitments that do not satisfy them, usually think they do not have an Ikigai, do not possess skills or special goals to pursue in life. This is because they have strayed too far from their innate abilities and have lost their connection with the sixth sense for happiness.
But it’s never too late to look for our place in the world. There are some key moments in life that make it easier to undertake this path of research, one of them is adolescence, when we are trying to find our place in the world and one reason that is worth living for. However, at this moment not everyone find easily their Ikigai because it is very easy to be influenced by the normative discourse of success.
Another important moment is when we are going through a crisis. For example, if we have lost our job or intend to change city or country, is the ideal moment to ask ourselves what we really want to do. In the worst crises, when everything seems dark, it may be easier to find the Ikigai as we have less to lose and social ties have weakened. We can take advantage of these seemingly negative situations to turn our lives into positive.
These questions can help us find our reason for living:
– What do you really feel comfortable with? There are people who feel comfortable interacting with others, others prefer more solitary activities. There are those who love risk, others fear it. The idea is that you find what you feel comfortable with, so comfortable that it makes you feel “you were born for this”.
– With which activities does your time fly? Answering this question will allow you to enter the “flow state” referred by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It is about looking for that activity in which you fully immerse yourself, in which you lose the notion of time because all your concentration is on what you are doing. And you enjoy doing it.
– What do you find easy to do? We all have different abilities, things we do better. It is about finding what is easy for us to do, no matter how small it may seem in the beginning. All skills can be channeled into useful activities that bring satisfaction.
– What did you like when you were a child? Growing up, we distance ourselves from the things we liked and gave us real satisfaction to bend us to duty and responsibility. However, all of us as children had “natural gifts”, things we were good at and gave us enormous happiness. Unfortunately, it happens that many of these talents have been silenced in adulthood. To find the Ikigai sometimes we have just to look back.
From “transcendental revelation” to worldly practice
In this research we must be aware that the Ikigai is not always a “great inner revelation” that motivates us to radically change our life, it can also consist in looking to our reality with different eyes, finding in it the reasons to feel full. In fact, for the Japanese the small daily joys are those that lead us to our ultimate goal in life.
A study conducted at the University of California confirms this idea. These psychologists have discovered how people with an Ikigai can adapt to circumstances, finding in every situation a way to show their best abilities to help others. In fact, sometimes the hardest thing is not to find the Ikigai but keep it during the vicissitudes of life.
The secret lies in connecting with yourself, finding what you are passionate about and how to put it into practice in your environment, bringing value to others. When you succeed in it, the rest of the things you want will come by itself.
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