Girl Smarts: ‘I was living an awesome life — but I had no purpose’

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‘I was living an awesome life—but I had no purpose’

Not to mention training for a marathon, raising funds for charity, and going on at least three dates a week.

If you had asked me to describe my life five years ago, I would have cited a trifecta like “driven, full, and fun.” I was 30, working a cool job, and moonlighting as a young-adult novelist.

Not to mention training for a marathon, raising funds for charity, and going on at least three dates a week.

If I had any free time, I'd slip in a yoga class, attend a lecture, read a book-anything to get smarter, faster, better.

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Beneath this impressive flurry of achievement, though, I sometimes asked myself if I was on a treadmill to nowhere. Rather than feeling satisfied and accomplished, I secretly felt stressed and burned out. Something was missing, and I only recently found a name for it: ikigai (pronounced EE-kee-guy).

A Japanese term that roughly translates as “reason to live,” ikigai is about having a sense of purpose in life-something that propels you out of bed each morning “ready to live fully,” says Hector Garcia, coauthor of Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.

Not coincidentally, growing research has found that having that feeling can extend and enrich your life: It cuts the risk for heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, and depression, and the resulting stress reduction has even been shown to improve your sleep quality and sex life. Japan, where ikigai is a revered tradition, has long boasted the highest average life expectancy in the world.

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One way of getting at ikigai, says Garcia, is to picture a Venn diagram: One circle is what you love, one is what you're good at, the third is what the world needs, and the last is what you can be paid for. In the center, at the intersection of all four? Your ikigai.

 

It's telling that just one-fourth of the concept is directly about work. In a Japanese survey, only 31 percent considered their job their ikigai. Compare that, from a country known for workaholism, with the 51 percent of Americans who said in a Pew Research Center survey that their identity is tied to their jobs.

That's why I didn't know what was wrong with my piled-high life: I kept looking at accomplishments, aiming for the next one. But while writing a book might be a worthy aspiration, Garcia says, it isn't ikigai. “It's a goal. Ikigai is: I want to write the best I can so my ideas can change the world.” Melding what I'm good at and love-communicating-with the world's needs and being paid brings me full circle, right to the center.

You don't just wake up one day with ikigai, though. Inherent in the term is the idea of actively seeking it out. To find yours, ask yourself these questions.

1. When do you feel most passionate?

Think about moments when you feel the most free and “in the flow.” For one person it might be while gardening; for another, while singing or engaging in grassroots political advocacy. It could be connected to what you do for a living or not at all, says Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., a NYC psychologist in private practice.

“If you look for purpose in work, you need to understand the reason it gives purpose,” she explains. “Are you communicating, educating, inspiring, or helping to create a product that makes people's lives better?” Or, from another angle, is your work leading to something bigger for the people around you-for example, providing a home, stability, and resources for your family? That can be a source of ikigai as well.

2. What are your values?

Examine what you respect and admire. It can be surprisingly simple to get to the heart of what matters most, says life coach Cortney McDermott, author of Change Starts Within You. One idea: Write down the names of four people you hold in high regard-could be your mom or Oprah-and list five traits for each.

“The traits you mention, things like kindness, patience, or a strong work ethic, are likely the ones you desire in yourself,” says McDermott. Let these values lead your thinking and your actions. When you live up to these-say, by consciously being patient when training a new person at work-you get closer to your ikigai.

3. Can you see patterns?

For most people, ikigai isn't static but grows and changes throughout life, says Garcia. “Some may find it in having children. When the children grow up, they need to shift that energy.” What does stay more constant: recurring themes, things that crop up repeatedly and give you pleasure. These can lead to your ikigai.

Danielle Dineen, 34, was successful but burned out on her industry. She began noticing that her favorite moments happened outside of work, often at happy hour with colleagues who would spill their problems to her. “I loved listening to people, and I was good at getting them to open up and figure out how to be happier or make better decisions.” It reminded her of middle school and high school, when she was her friends' “advice giver.”

That prompted Dineen to get a master's in social work. Now, as a therapist, she uses her listening and empathy skills (the “what you are good at” and “what you love” circles) in her career (the “what the world needs” and “what you can be paid for” circles). Boom: ikigai.

4. Do you have community?

Your passions, values, and patterns are also connected to people around you. “We think of happiness as something we should pursue on our own-say, by reading a self-help book,” says Ruth Whippman, author of America the Anxious. “But research shows the biggest source of happiness is good social connection.”

And while finding your ikigai does entail some deep, solo self-reflection, other people are also integral to the process-after all, one circle out of four is all about your place in the world at large. Look again at that diagram: Everything is connected, in the best possible way.

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Women's Health. For more great ideas, pick up a copy of the issue on newsstands now!