A group of elderly Japanese women sits around a long table, its surface covered with sheets of paper and stacks of pressed flowers. The atmosphere is cheerful, full of friendly banter. An energetic 84-year-old, Michiko, shuffles through the supplies, picking up petals, then carefully arranges them into an artful composition. She likes coming here, to this senior center in one of Tokyo’s many suburbs, and does so on a regular basis — with flower arrangement class being one of the top attractions. She says that the hobby and resulting friendships provide her with ikigai, a reason for living. As such, it may be at least in part responsible for Michiko’s enviable health and vitality.
Ikigai is a word you hear a lot in Japan. People will readily tell you that “my children are my ikigai,” “my work is my ikigai,” or “volunteering for my neighborhood is my ikigai.” The word does not translate easily into English, but roughly it means “the reason to be living.” The top dictionary in Japan defines ikigai as “joy and a sense of well-being from being alive” and “realizing the value of being alive.” No matter the exact definition, however, many Japanese people believe that a culture of cultivating ikigai is one of the reasons for the population’s longevity. With an average Japanese person outliving an average American by over half a decade, there may be some important lessons to be learned here.
Research certainly supports the notion that ikigai can boost health and add years to our lives. One particularly large study that followed over 70,000 Japanese people for about 12 years found that those who said they had ikigai had a 26% lower risk of death for men and 33% for women — that’s comparable to the effects of following the famed Mediterranean diet. Having ikigai also translates into a lower risk for strokes, and less cardiovascular disease. Although Western scientists find it challenging to study ikigai directly, since the idea is not easily translatable from one culture to the other, a very close concept — that of having a calling or purpose in life — has been well examined in the U.S. and across Europe. And the findings are also very encouraging, health-wise.