Finding your “why” at every age

May 2023

While diet, exercise, and other health-related behaviours impact your life expectancy, you may be surprised to learn that having a purpose—or a “why”—is a main factor in longevity.

On the Manulife podcast, Beyond Age, leading alternative medicine expert Bryce Wylde speaks about how centenarians across the globe have been found to have one thing in common—a purpose.

“Centenarians from various pockets around the world—Sardinia in Italy, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Ikaria in Greece, Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in California—they all have diet, and lifestyle, and a way of life that is healthier than most of us in North America,” explains Wylde.

“But the research shows that the most important common denominator of longevity is that all these Centenarians share a sense of purpose. This is very important to our mental faculties.” 

In Japanese culture, this is called ikigai—your reason for being. Wylde describes it as your “reason to get up in the morning.”

If a person is in touch with the core essence of their purpose, it fuels a routine of engaging in behaviours that support longevity. Centenarians’ who practice ikigai maintain a sense of value and continue to be a meaningful, contributing member of society, which fuels this individual sense of purpose.

The power of ikigai

The philosophy of ikigai dates back to the Heian period in Japan between 794 to 1185. Coincidentally, Japan also has the second highest life expectancy in the world, with women expected to live 88.09 years and men expected to live 81.91 years.

Not only do they live longer, but they live healthier lives with better physical health and less functional disability.

And while the Japanese diet does play a role, many Japanese people believe ikigai is the reason they live long and happy lives. They connect deeply to the reason they get up each morning and make it a core part of how they live their life—it touches their relationships, values, and outlook on life. This purpose-driven life gives them responsibility and a sense of being needed well into their 100s.

Ikigai in the Western world

As previously mentioned, other factors contribute to the longevity found in Japan—a mainly plant-based diet, a tight social network, getting outside, and staying active are all lifestyle behaviours that keep them living long healthy lives.

But when applying the theory of ikigai to the Western world, can the positive effects still be seen without the additional factors?

A study from the United Kingdom set out to answer this question. Researchers found that ikigai increases the likelihood of having a sense of overall well-being and decreases the chances of developing depression. Having a solid ikigai, even in the Western world, is associated with better mental health and well-being. Researchers concluded that the Western world has much to learn from Eastern cultures when exploring “purpose in life.”

The 4 components of ikigai

Everyone has an ikigai, and while it may shift throughout your life, it will always be with you— even if you don’t realize it! Discovering your ikigai can help you wake up happy and ready to tackle the day. So, how can you find your ikigai? Start by defining the four components of ikigai in your life.

Some of these components will be easy to define, but others may take more time and reflection to identify. Take the time to think through each element—once you’ve filled in the diagram, it will help you clarify not only what your ikigai is but may also bring to light some changes you need to make to find your why.

The key to defining each component is not considering the other four components. So, when determining what you love, you don’t need to consider whether you are great at it, if the world needs it, or if you can be paid or rewarded for it. Each component lives independently, and you work to find your sweet spot once you’ve defined them all.

1. You love it

What are you willing to do anytime? What brings you the most joy and makes you feel fulfilled? It could be anything that brings you happiness—exploring the wilderness, playing with your kids, reading romance novels, eating out with friends, collecting Russian nesting dolls, etc. Think about what you are passionate about, those things that you get excited to talk about and share with others. 

2. You are great at it

Is there something at which you naturally excel? Something that people always come to you for because you are considered the expert? This could be a hobby you’ve pursued, a skill you’ve honed over the years, or even a talent you’ve had since childhood. It could be anything from public speaking, marketing, being empathetic, or knitting. 

And if the thing you are good at also brings you joy, you’ve crossed #1 and #2 off your list in one go!

3. The world needs it

Knowing what we are doing helps the world—or our community—helps us feel good about what we are doing. This component is essential for developing a connection between a person and their community which is an impactful factor in ikigai. What does this look like in action? It can be taking part in anything that betters the world—advocating for pay transparency or clean water, volunteering at a blood donor clinic or an election campaign, or working towards living a sustainable life.

4. You are paid or rewarded for it

For us to survive, we need to be able to earn money to support ourselves and our families. It is not enough that you love what you do and are good at it—if you cannot be financially compensated for it, it cannot fulfill your ikigai.

This may seem at odds with “the world needs it” but there are ways to weave all four components together. It will look different for everyone, but finding a way to be paid or rewarded for your ikigai is essential. For example, if you are a financial expert who loves working with numbers and has a robust network in your industry, you can use your connections to start a charity close to your heart that fulfills the third category.

A final word on your ikigai, your why, your purpose

Searching for our purpose in life is something that most people already do, consciously or unconsciously. And while you may define your why differently than the definition of ikigai used here, there’s no denying that having a motivating purpose in life is connected to overall well-being, longevity, and happiness.

As a human, you are driven to pursue your passions, help others, earn a living, and develop your talents. Finding a way that all four elements can come together to create a fulfilled life requires self-reflection.

But the results speak for themselves—ikigai is a factor in living a long, healthy, fulfilled life. 

Related articles