Finding Your Ikigai

Written by Jeanne Rosner, M.D.

Ikigai (pronounced "ic-kee-guy") is a Japanese word that quite literally means your “reason for being,” (iki means life and gai means worth → life’s worth). Said differently, it means “what motivates you when you get up in the morning.” Studies have shown that when one lives with a sense of purpose and meaning, one can live significantly longer with less chronic disease, lower levels of heart disease and cancer.  Evidence also supports that having a sense of purpose is very important to keeping your long-term brain health. In fact, researchers found that participants from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, with higher levels of purpose in life reduced the dangerous effects of Alzheimer’s disease pathologic changes on cognition in advanced age. A sense of purpose helps one live with more energy, satisfaction, fulfillment, peace, gratitude and resilience. And living with purpose encourages other behaviors for a healthy lifestyle. 

Ikigai originated on the island of Okinawa, Japan, which boasts one of the longest-lived populations in the world. There are more centenarians there (people living to 100 years or greater) than anywhere else. Many Okinawans live by the firmly ensconced culture of ikigai 

During these times when things can be uncertain, many people have feelings of anxiety and overwhelm. Consider using ikigai as a guide—it may help you discover new balance and focus. I have found the concept of ikigai to be a helpful guide for me. I use it often as a tool to help assess and reassess where I am and where I am going. I offer you these tools in your own journey, in whatever way they may be helpful. 

Ikigai Venn Diagram: What you love, what the world needs, what you are good at, what you can be rewarded for

There are four principal tenets or questions to address in relation to Ikigai:

  1. What do I love? 
  2. Where do my strengths lie, where do I excel? 
  3. What does the world need? What social good can I contribute to? What is my mission? 
  4. What services can I do and get rewarded for? What is my profession? 

When these four tenets overlap, that is ikigai. Let’s consider each one.  

What do I love, what is my passion?

What would your ideal day look like to you? What activities bring you the most joy? What inspires you and sparks your sense of curiosity? There are many books that can help you delve deeper into these questions. One that I have enjoyed is My Little Ikigai Journal 

Perhaps try making a vision board. It is a super easy and fun activity. You simply take a piece of poster board, cut out words, pictures and phrases that speak to you from magazines or newspapers and then adhere them on the board. A vision board may help you see things that mean something to you that you hadn’t thought about before. I created my first vision board eleven years ago when working with a friend and life coach, Kathy. The result was incredibly eye-opening for me. 

Vision Board Example

You will see that I mention teaching, eating healthy, living authentically, living my best life. At the time, I was working as a pediatric anesthesiologist. I enjoyed my work, my colleagues and my patients. I was constantly challenged and continually learning, yet it was also very stressful – too stressful for my health and peace of mind. While working with Kathy, we spent time evaluating my vision board and what it was saying to me. We came up with some ideas on how I could implement what I envisioned. I decided to approach my son’s then-fifth-grade science teacher and ask if I could begin teaching some health and wellness classes in his class. She consented, and that set me off on the path I am currently on today. I have thoroughly enjoyed my new journey and have never looked back.  

Where do my strengths lie?

Where are your strongest talents? Are you more creative, more analytical or more strategic? Do you like to work more with your hands or use your brain to figure out difficult questions? Do you prefer to work alone or with groups of colleagues?  

I believe one of my strengths is that I am a doer. I like progressing toward a goal. However, I don’t mind or fear failing. Instead, I try to learn from each experience. I love learning new things, and in turn, I enjoy sharing and inspiring others with these teachings.  

I began the venture of SOUL Food Salon (SFS) with the idea of educating and empowering us all to be healthier. When I had my first event, I didn’t know if anyone would attend. I figured that if one person showed up, I would be educating one person (I had a very low bar!). As it turned out, more and more people kept showing up – for the salons and on social media. SFS has been a wonderful learning experience for me. I am eternally grateful for the journey.  

What does the world need?  What social good can you contribute to?  What change do you want to see in the world?

It doesn’t matter what the problem or issue is that you want to focus on – that is a very personal matter. There are so many problems in the world today: big and small, local and global. Think about what and who you would like to impact. Spending time on an issue important to you will give you a strong sense of purpose and a deep feeling of satisfaction, and you will likely develop amazing relationships along the journey.

I have used the SOUL Food Salon platform to raise awareness of many local non-profits that share SFS' mission of educating and empowering us all to live healthier lives. We have partnered with The Edible Schoolyard Project, The Teaching Kitchen Course at Stanford Medical School, FoodCorps, The St. Francis Center and their community gardens and Off Their Plate. This year we are collaborating with Fresh Approach and supporting a mobile farmers’ market which is helping to bring healthy, affordable, locally grown produce to food-insecure households. 

What services can I do and get rewarded for?

How can I be rewarded for my work? It’s important for your sense of satisfaction to earn some reward, however you define that. It could be financial, and that is just fine because we all have to use our skills and energy to support our families. Or you could ask that your services be rewarded through voluntary contributions to worthwhile non-profits. Or you might benefit most from the psychic reward of knowing that others value and appreciate your work.   

Some ways of cultivating Ikigai daily are: 

  1. Living in the present, with no regrets about the past and no worries about the future 
  2. Finding flow where you are and experiencing life fully every day
  3. Nurturing meaningful existing and new relationships
  4. Living without personal ego
  5. Being optimistic — smiling and laughing every day
  6. Feeling and expressing gratitude for all of the good things in your life
  7. Exercising daily
  8. Cultivating healthy habits around nutrition 
  9. Thinking less and living with a clear and open mind
  10. Being in nature, living life slowly 

Famed psychiatrist David Viscott said, “The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The work of life is to develop it. The meaning of life is to give your gift away.”  I wish you all a happy journey as you explore your own ikigai. My hope for you is that it will serve as a roadmap to a long, happy and meaningful life. 

Written by Jeanne Rosner, M.D.


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