senior greeting sunrise

What’s Your Ikigai?

by Don Fausel

It’s never been easy to be a human being! We have always had to wrestle with strong and painful fears. Now if we face ourselves honestly, or if we merely eavesdrop on the secret murmurings of our heart, isn’t this what we discover—that one of our basic fears, the fear beneath many fears is the dread of being nothing, of having no real importance, no lasting worth, no purpose in life.

It is precisely to this fear of being nobody, having no worth, that our Judeo-Christian-Humanitarian ethic reminds us that our basic value is not something we achieve in competition with everyone else, but something we gratefully accept along with everyone else. We need not become important, we are important. We need not become somebody, we are somebody. No matter what others may say or think about us, or do to us, we are somebody.

As we grow older and become less able to function physically or mentally as we did in our younger years, we need to remind ourselves, that we are still somebody, with the same dignity and worth, with the same God-given inalienable rights. Sometimes when we’re not able to do a lot of the things we used to do, when our body is failing us and our short term memory is not as good as our long term memory, it’s hard for us to accept the fact that we are somebody worthwhile. That’s why it’s particularly important for us Elders to periodically ask ourselves, what is my purpose in life?

Several years ago I discovered a Japanese word that captures the importance of having a positive attitude and purpose in our life. The word is Ikigai, (pronounced ee-ki-guy) the Japanese word used to describe why I get up in the morning, what my sense of purpose is. I love the word Ikigai! I like saying it! I like writing it! Ikigai, Ikigai! I think it was the beginning of my interest in happiness. I realized if you don’t have an Ikigai, you’re not going to be happy. But more about that in another blog.

I was even more impressed with the origin of the word and its application for us elders. Researchers have identified what they call Blue Zones. These are areas throughout the world with a high percentage of centenarians; places where people enjoy remarkably long full lives. Their lives are not only longer but physically and mentally, they are more active than elders in other areas of the world. National Geographic’s Dan Buettner has traveled the globe to uncover the best strategies for longevity found in these Blue Zones. One of those areas is the Japanese island of Okinawa. It was there that he discovered that one of the characteristics for a long healthy life was having an Ikigai. To a resident of Okinawa, Ikigai can be anything from tending their vegetable garden, taking care of great grandchildren, to walking and exercising every day. Whatever it is that motivated them to remain involved, they give credit to their Ikigai. After years of research Dan Buettner concludes:

One of the biggest revolutions in thought in our time is the changing of emphasis from physical health to mental health in connection to longevity. The effects of negative stress and ‘inflammation’ are cited more and more frequently as the cause of early death and lowered quality of life. One of the most important methods for counteracting that is Ikigai, a sense of purpose. … Ikigai is something that brings joy and contentment. It fills a person with resolve and a sense of satisfaction in what they are doing. Most of all, it brings happiness.”

Here’s a TED TALK by Dan Buettner titled Okinawa, Ikigai, and the Secrets of Longevity . As usual, one TED TALK is worth pages of my words.

Finally, I’d like to introduce you to one of my all time heroes, who exemplifies what it means to have an Ikigai. She was known as Granny D. If you don’t remember her, she was a social activist,  whose real name was Doris Haddock, from Dublin, New Hampshire. In 1999, at the age of ninety, Granny D. walked 3,200 miles across America to raise awareness about a campaign for political finance reform. She walked ten miles a day for 14 months. She is widely credited for galvanizing the public support that helped pass the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act in 2002.

In 2003 at the age of 94, she drove around the country on a 22,000 mile voter registration effort targeting working women and minorities. She cut her tour short to challenge the incumbent New Hampshire senator, Judd Gregg, in the 2004 election. Her grassroots campaign earned her 34% of the vote. In her later years she published a book entitled, You’re Never Too Old to Raise a Little Hell. She died peacefully in her home six weeks after she turned 100 in 2010. Former president Jimmy Carter described her as “…a true patriot, and our nation has been blessed by her remarkable life. Her story will inspire people of all ages for generations to come.”

I’m not suggesting that we all need to follow in Granny D’s footsteps, by walking 3,200 miles for a righteous cause, or running for the Senate. But we can all be motivated by the spirit she modeled by following her Ikigai, and in our own way, seriously consider identifying our own Ikigai. We need to know and follow our values, passions and talents–and to share them by example on a regular basis. It might be by living our lives, with our physical and mental restrictions, as a legacy for our grandchildren or great grandchildren, or showing compassion for those in need, who are less fortunate than we are. Whatever we choose to do, it’s our Ikigai. So what is it that gives your life a sense of worth? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Since I retired, my major Ikigai for the past five years or so has been writing. To paraphrase the French philosopher, Descartes, “I write, therefore I am!” What’s your Ikigai?