Ikigai: finding life’s purpose as the key to the well-being

I think we all dream of a long life. Therefore, we diet, count steps, take supplements, and wait for miraculous treatments that may help us conquering immortality. However, while diet and exercise are certainly vital to health, science shows that there is another factor that impacts our longevity, one that we often forget:

Finding a purpose.

Years of research show that people who believe their existence has a meaning have lower levels of cortisol (the hormone accountable for stress), fewer sleep problems, and handle emotional strain much better.

Let’s say a 90-year-old with a clear purpose in life develops the Alzheimer’s disease, it’s more likely that this person continue to function relatively well, despite the actual pathological changes in the brain, the study found.

Another meta-analysis, comprising ten studies and involving more than 136,000 people, found that having a purpose in life can minimize the risk of mortality by about 17% — almost as much as following the famous Mediterranean diet.

Since I started my research on Longevity, I have been trying to find out what the scientific community says and which studies have been published that may allow me to adapt and improve my therapy, in consultation and in the various programs I carry out.

Bearing that in mind, I could only start with Japan. I talked to scientists and had access to studies involving centenarians on the reason behind this nation’s exceptional longevity — life expectancy at birth is 84.2 years, almost six years longer than in Europe.

While in similar interviews in the West, responses tend to focus on diet and exercise, in Japan conversations quickly focus on ikigai, which is often translated as “purpose in life” or “life worth living”.

Ikigai is perceived as having measurable effects on longevity, so Japan’s Ministry of Health, Work and Welfare has included it in the official health promotion strategy. In an epidemiological study of 43,000 Japanese, the lack of ikigai was associated with a 60% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, while eating lots of fruits and vegetables a day can reduce the risk of succumbing to cardiovascular disease by “only” 27%. Makes you think, right?

And what can this life’s purpose be translated into?

Japanese elders respond that it can be “taking care of grandchildren”, “be a volunteer”, “keep the streets clean and beautiful” or, simply: “I want to work until the moment I die”. Although the concept of ikigai does not translate easily into Western culture, and we certainly don’t have to work until we drop down dead, Western researchers show that concepts related to a purpose or meaning in life can also significantly impact our physical well-being.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, there has been an explosion of research that relate well-being, in its various forms, to various health indicators.

Unfortunately, looking for or having a purpose in life isn’t as simple as taking dietary supplements, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, four out of ten individuals still haven’t found it.

Perhaps, if we start by defining it, it will become easier.

While Aristotle addressed a lifelong quest for the “virtuous activity of the soul”, twenty-first century psychologists talk about having a sense of direction, setting goals and objectives.

On a more precise scale, developed by Ryff and his colleagues, having purpose means answering “yes” to questions like “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I’m not one of them”; and “no” to “Sometimes I feel like I’ve already done everything there is to do in life.”

If we maintain this attitude, if we find purpose and meaning in the current darkness, we may end up not only happier, but also healthier and longer-lived and, perhaps, more resilient in the face of the stress of the moment.

Ana Matos
Integrative Medicine Expert
ABC Sustainable Luxury Hospitality

Integrative Medicine Expert | Key Traits: Tolerance, Passion, Resilience

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