How to find your ikigai (it's tipped to be the secret to longevity)
The Japanese live longer than any other nationality, partly because they know why they are alive
A friend recently said: "We have to find an ikigai." I replied: "There's that dude at the corner store." She was shaking her head. "Not an icky guy. Our ikigai."
If that term rings no bells for you, consider yourself officially out of touch with the latest craze in wellness.
If, however, you read the word "ikigai" and nodded with confident familiarity, you are probably either the owner of an impressive collection of self-help literature, or from Japan.
The Japanese know a thing or two about how to live. Exhibit A: they invented cat cafes, where you can enjoy a latte with a purring feline friend on your lap. Exhibit B: they have the highest life expectancy of any country on Earth.
Why is this the case? I already mentioned the cat cafes, but there's more to it than that - and one of the factors with which Japanese longevity is credited is the notion of ikigai.
BACON IS NOT THE ANSWER
Your ikigai is most succinctly defined as your reason for living. In a seminal 1966 book on the concept, psychiatrist Mieko Kamiya glossed it as whatever allows you to look forward to the future, even if you are unhappy in this moment.
Others have explained it as the answer to the question: If you have no particular duties to discharge, what gets you out of bed on a Saturday morning?
Psychiatrist Mieko Kamiya defined ikigai as whatever allows you to look forward to the future, even if you are unhappy in this moment
"Bacon" is not a satisfactory response. I quickly learn this on a recent rainy evening in Cape Town, seated around a table with a group of other people similarly intent on finding their ikigai.
If any place in South Africa would play host to ikigai-questers, it would be Cape Town, where - as of this year - you can sign up for ikigai workshops.
Somewhat disappointingly, our workshop takes place in a corporate boardroom. I had been hoping for something a little more zen.
Our instructor, Joanne, is also distinctly not Japanese. Putting these initial blows behind me, I settle down to work on a series of tasks Joanne has set us.
"What do you love?" she instructs us to consider initially. It's a seemingly innocuous question, but one which Joanne says has sent previous pilgrims over the edge.
One woman, confronted with this inquiry, cried "I don't love anything", and stormed out of the room in tears.
Finding your ikigai, it emerges, is probably not the best voyage for people in genuinely perilous mental health.
As we scribble our lists of personal passions, Joanne darts about performing a kind of alchemy in which she transforms banal answers into something meaningful. If you wrote "bacon", for instance, she would gently urge you to think more deeply about what it is about bacon that arouses such warm feelings in you.
Perhaps the smell of frying bacon on a Saturday morning holds comforting associations of safe domesticity. Perhaps it connotes the sense of being cared for, or caring for others. Or perhaps you crave bacon so urgently because you have an iron deficiency, in which case you should see a dietician rather than an ikigai facilitator.
PLOT YOUR PASSIONS
"What are you good at?" is the second question we turn our minds to. Even if you are reasonably confident in your abilities, you may find yourself plagued with self-doubt as you contemplate an entire A4 page waiting to be filled with your answers.
By the time I found myself scrawling "banter" in extra big letters, I had to admit I was scraping the barrel.
On we move to "What can you be paid for?" This, too, can be denting to the ol' self-esteem - particularly if, like me, your marketable skills amount to "reading and writing". Ignore the obvious temptation to write down "sex". It is neither clever nor funny, and also probably not true.
The last query that the ikigai quest demands is: "What does the world need?" This requires you to describe the causes you feel most passionate about. I dutifully wrote: "An end to the social, structural, economic and psychological barriers which prevent women from being treated as full humans".
Then I saw the next step of the exercise required us to transcribe our answers on to microscopic slivers of "Post-it notes", so I scratched that out and replaced it with "feminism".
Having answered those four questions, we were now in a position to map our responses on to a two-axis graph. This bit gave me immediate PTSD flashbacks to high school geometry, but it is necessary in order to construct a venn diagram which leads you to your ikigai.
"Why did the Japanese have to invent a path to self-enlightenment which feels so much like maths?" I hissed to my friend. "This is how they'll end up ruling the world."
When you have plotted your passions and strengths on to a graph, the parts that overlap in the middle are where your ikigai lies.
A 2010 survey of Japanese men and women found that only 31% of respondents considered their work their ikigai
The sweet spot, so to speak, is where your passion, mission, vocation and profession come together. That's the ikigai.
I stared at my finished product. "My ikigai is my work," I said, with ill-concealed disgust.
This puts me well out of step with the Japanese. I subsequently discovered that a 2010 survey of Japanese men and women found that only 31% of respondents considered their work their ikigai.
This is probably why they'll live so much longer than me. That, and those cat cafes.