This tile discusses the scientifically demonstrated link between ikigai and one’s well-being and how ikigai can benefit people throughout the course of their lives.
Political recognition of ikigai
Ikigai is not only about the joy for living that Japanese people find in their daily lives, it is also the subject of substantive research and has even received political recognition.
As Japan’s population has grown older, matters of healthy aging have become the focus of the Japanese government and a prominent topic in many newspapers, popular books, and academic journals.
The effects of ikigai on the well-being of the elderly have been studied extensively in Japan. The results align with prior findings from similar studies on the meaning or purpose in life, demonstrating that ikigai contributes to better health and active aging. At the same time, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare introduced several National Health Promotion Measures to address the demographic challenges posed by a rapidly aging population[71, 72]. The national health plans aim to promote a healthier lifestyle and provide support for the quality of life for the elderly, thus validating ikigai’s indispensable value in well-being.
Physical activity and ikigai
Research on the impact of ikigai on the well-being of aging adults indicates a positive correlation between physical activity and ikigai. For example, a cross-sectional study on physical activity in the rural area of Uonuma suggests that physical activity can enhance a person’s ikigai.
The study also identified a notable difference in the type of physical activity, gender, and perception of ikigai. Based on the results, men had a stronger sense of ikigai as they engaged more frequently in snow-removal activities, while women tended to experience a loss of ikigai. However, both men and women reported higher ikigai when engaging in farming activities.
The researchers believe this may happen when the additional task of removing snow becomes a burden in women’s daily lives and on their well-being, but they found no explanation for the gender differences in physical activity and ikigai.
Conversely, other studies suggest that a higher degree of ikigai increases one’s willingness to participate in physical activity and other health-promoting practices.[75, 76]
Ikigai’s impact on longevity
Based on the results of several longitudinal studies undertaken by Japanese researchers who specialize in geriatrics, having a sense of ikigai has been associated with lower mortality risks due to cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease as well as reduced chances of functional disability.
Researchers suggest three potential mechanisms through which ikigai helps people live longer and healthier lives.
First, by diminishing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and improving parasympathetic activity, ikigai allows one to perceive stressors as less stressful and to emotionally recover more quickly from adverse events.
Second, ikigai may lower cortisol levels and stress-induced elevation of fibrinogen and interleukin 6, inflammatory factors associated with hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and immune reactions.
Third, ikigai creates a positive psychological state in which one feels needed and has a purpose of serving their communities, resulting in greater engagement in productive activities and reduced risk of dementia and physical disability.
Psychological benefits of ikigai
The proven benefits of ikigai extend beyond better physical health outcomes in aging adults. A dimension of mental health, ikigai reflects a positive psychological factor that has been confirmed to alleviate depressive symptoms, anxiety, sadness, and hopelessness. Moreover, ikigai fosters self-acceptance, problem-solving skills, and positive relationships with others.
Additionally, some Japanese studies have found ikigai to be effective in cognitive protection. For example, while working as a clinical psychologist at a psychiatric hospital, Hasegawa observed significant differences in the progression of dementia in patients. As he described in a 2019 podcast, his observations revealed that people who had a strong sense of ikigai could delay their dementia, while those who did not have ikigai progressed at a faster pace.
Other studies have also identified Hasegawa’s correlation between ikigai and cognitive protection. The researchers suggest that by creating a positive psychological state, ikigai may enhance the regulation of physiological systems, resulting in a lower risk of dementia.
Ikigai and resilience
Life comes with many difficulties and suffering, prompting humankind to seek what makes life enjoyable and worth living. Although ikigai provides Japanese people with the ‘joy and benefit of being alive,’ it is not always felt in favorable situations. In fact, the most vivid experiences of ikigai happen when individuals are facing some form of life crisis.
Interestingly, many authors and researchers, from Kamiya to Yasuhiro Kotera and Hasegawa, began their lifelong study of ikigai after observing its impact on people who were facing complex challenges. In line with existential psychology, ikigai helps one find meaning in suffering while at the same time empowering one with the resilience to overcome life’s challenges.
However, having ikigai does not ensure a life without pain. Instead, it motivates people to engage in meaningful activities and push forward even in life’s hardest moments. Mogi, the Japanese neuroscientist and author of The Little Book of Ikigai, concludes that ikigai “gives your life a purpose while giving you the grit to carry on.”
The power of community
Being part of a community and maintaining interpersonal relationships are indispensable for enhancing the well-being of aging adults. While people can experience loneliness at any age, loneliness and social isolation in older adults can significantly reduce life expectancy. Studies indicate that elderly people who lack close friendships are more likely to suffer from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and depression.
Engagement in social activities—such as being part of a club, providing social contributions, or regularly seeing lifelong friends—allows aging adults to feel ikigai and live long, happy, and healthy lives.
It is no surprise that the long-lived Okinawan community is based on strong social networks called Moai. A Moai is a lifelong circle of friends that the Okinawans form in childhood and that serves as a support group throughout life. More than simply gathering to gossip and laugh, members of a Moai can rely on each other for help in dire times.
Similarly, author Iza Kavedzija, who studied the interactions of a small group of elderly people in Osaka, found that as a group, they were able to make sense of the events in their lives and find the balance between isolation and demanding social connections.
The ikigai of Japanese university students
The benefits of ikigai for young adults may have less to do with physical health and more with the sense that life is enjoyable and worth living. Interestingly, young adults typically report lower levels of ikigai, with some survey results indicating that ikigai perception rises in ones 30s remaining steady until it rises again in ones 60s. Although having ikigai is important at any life stage, research suggests that finding one’s reason for being in earlier life stages is the most beneficial.
According to a mixed-methods study examining the pursuit of ikigai among Japanese university students, ikigai provides young adults with several positive outcomes. These include goal achievement, self-enhancement, higher self-esteem, and the sense that their everyday lives are exciting and full of vibrancy and worth.
In some cases, a strong sense of ikigai even leads to the pursuit of transformative experiences, such as living abroad. Moreover, the study also found that ikigai motivated students to persevere in meaningful activities, which resulted in personal or academic accomplishments that further enriched their lives.
What ikigai can bring to your life
In Japan, ikigai is an essential factor contributing to a person’s well-being. Studies[98, 99] consistently demonstrate that ikigai can improve health, increase longevity, and reduce the risk of disability in old age, as people who live with a greater sense of purpose tend to engage in more health-promoting activities. Similarly, having ikigai helps people remain hopeful and look forward to the future when they are faced with difficult times, such as suffering from severe illness. Moreover, ikigai improves life satisfaction and self-esteem, bringing happiness and a sense of worth to the lives of Japanese people.
However, you might wonder what difference can ikigai make in your life. Since ikigai is different for all of us, what it brings to your life may fluctuate as well, argues author Yukari Mitsuhashi. However, Mitsuhashi is clear in stating that, for everyone, ikigai will help you attain happiness and contentment, enjoy and tackle every day with peace of mind, and grow and progress with a sense of purpose and meaning in your life.