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. A sense of purpose helps one live with more energy, satisfaction, fulfillment, peace, gratitude and resilience. 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 strongly ensconced culture of ikigai. I wanted to launch this season's SOULFUL Insights with this topic because I, like many, approach September like a new year. Kids are starting back to school; it is the end of summer and the start of our next, new chapter. This time of change can be exciting, yet it can also come with feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Many parents are facing the fact of their children’s increasing independence, and some kids are leaving for college. As parents, we may feel sadness and a sense that we aren’t needed as keenly as before. I have found the concept of ikigai to be a useful guide for my own efforts to find balance and focus. I use it often as a tool to help reassess where I am and where I am going. I offer you these tools in your own journey, in whatever way they may be useful.
There are four principal tenets or questions to address in relation to ikigai: What do I love? Where do my strengths lie, where do I excel? What does the world need? What social good can I contribute to? What is my mission? 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 to see things that mean something to you that you hadn’t thought about before. I created my first vision board nine years ago when I was working with a friend and life coach, Kathy. The result was incredibly eye-opening for me.
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 I was 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 that I would 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?
For me, 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. Rather, 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 an idea of educating and empowering us all to be healthier. When I had my first event, I didn’t know if anyone would be interested in attending. I figured that if one person showed up then at least 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 this 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 be healthier. We have partnered with The Edible Schoolyard Project, The Teaching Kitchen Course at Stanford Medical School, FoodCorps and, this year, we are collaborating with the St. Francis Center in Redwood City. Through the community gardens at the St Francis Center, we plan to help raise money for their irrigation system and help promote gardening and nutrition classes to the local community.
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 totally experiencing life, every day
3. Nurturing important 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.
Alimujiang A, Wiensch A, Boss J, et al. "Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years." JAMA Netw Open. Published online May 24, 20192(5):e194270. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.4270. jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2734064
Kathy Weinkle, Career Coach: kathyweinkle.com/
Kudo, Amanda. My Little Ikigai Journal: A Journey into the Japanese Secret to Living a Long, Happy, Purpose-Filled Life. St. Martin's Press, 2018. amazon.com/gp/product/1250199816/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o01_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
Jeanne Rosner, MD
Jeanne Rosner is a board-certified anesthesiologist who practiced pediatric anesthesia at Stanford Medical Center for nearly 20 years. In 2011, she began teaching nutrition classes in her son’s 5th-grade science class. It was an “aha” moment for her. She realized that learning and teaching about nutrition, health and wellness in her community was her destiny.
Since retiring from anesthesia, she has been a nutrition educator at local middle and high schools throughout the Bay Area. She teaches students about the importance of eating food closest to the source, making good food choices and eating in a balanced and moderate way.
Jeanne started SOUL (seasonal, organic, unprocessed, local) Food Salon in 2014. SOUL Food Salon’s mission is to educate and empower people to be healthier. She holds small gatherings (salons) at which experts in the health and wellness community share their knowledge on how to lead a healthier life.
To subscribe to the SOULFUL Insights health and wellness newsletter click here.