Ikigai: Man's Quest for Meaning.

August 21, 2014

Long ago, three men were lost. Wandering in the desert.
Eventually, they crossed paths with a wandering spirit. Startled, they turned to run. The spirit calmed them, however. Explained they had nothing to fear. In fact, he would grant each of them one wish. But, they must each wish for something different. Nor would he help them leave the desert.

The first man came from little. So he wished for wealth.
The second man came from money. And he wished for women.
The third man came from humility. He wished for meaning.
Two years later, the capital gates opened at the approach of a ragged stranger. A man of undetermined age. He was cleaned, fed and permitted to sleep for days.
Upon waking, he was taken to the elders, who asked of his story. He told them of tribulations in the desert. Of being lost with the other men. How they came upon the spirit. Each having been given one wish.
He explained how one of his acquaintances died in the desert, surrounded by unfathomable treasure. Another had passed amid a harem of exotic women. Only he, whose life had been imbued with meaning, had the capacity to carry on. Day after day. Until he stumbled upon the city gates.
"And what granted meaning to your life?" they asked.
That I would live to accumulate wisdom enough to better the lives of family, friends and community.
"And have you?" they asked.
I learned that neither inexhaustible treasures nor unimaginable sexual conquests can save one from the unending expanse of the desert. For only that which is inside of us, forcing us to look inward, can lead us from those scorching plains.
With that, the elders took him to the palace. Where he would spend his remaining decades happily married, raising children, and serving at the right hand of the king.
. . .
Philosophers have long held that a meaningful existence was among the keys to health, wealth and longevity. Recent science has underscored these beliefs.
In 1994, a seven-year study of 43,000 Japanese adults found that individuals who believed that their lives were meaningful were apt to outlive those lacking such belief.
The study's focus was the Japanese notion of "ikigai." Translated by researchers as believing that one's life has purpose. Meaning. Is a life worth living. The term is imbued with connotations of joy. The pure joy of being alive.
One may find ikigai in his family, work or hobby. Regardless, it must be something about which one is passionate.
In the study, Japanese researchers considered such mortality risk factors as age, gender, education, body mass index, cigarette usage, alcohol consumption, exercise habits, employment, perceived stress, and history of disease. They also considered the participants perceived level of health -- an accurate forecast of physical well-being in and of itself.
60 percent of the study's participants reported having a sense of ikigai. These individuals were more likely to be married, educated and employed. They also reported lower levels of stress. And better health.
95 percent of those purporting to have ikigai were alive and well seven years later. This versus 83 percent of those who reported none. In other words, those who lived with a sense of meaning were 12 percent more likely to outlive their peers.
And that's just the beginning.
American writer and explorer Dan Buettner has been on a quest to discover the secrets to longevity. His latest project entails an extensive study of the world's "blue zones" -- defined as hot spots of human longevity.
Buettner, working with top demographers and physicians, studied the diet and lifestyle of blue zone inhabitants in order to create a blue print for longer life.
"We know that there's a recipe for longevity, and that 75 percent of it is related to lifestyle," he says. "And were figuring it out."
In Buettner's 2009 TED Talk (here), he detailed his Blue Zone project. Describes a number of the lifestyle traits inherent to human longevity. These include diet, exercise, sleep and other healthy habits. Also appearing on the list? Ikagai, or one's daily perception of meaning and purpose.
Of course, you've heard this before.
Several years ago, we wrote of Victor Frankl. You'll recall his landmark book, Man's Search for Meaning. A young Jew at the onset of World War II, Frankl -- a renowned neurologist and psychotherapist -- was imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp. As were his wife, mother and father. He alone survived.
In Auschwitz, he busied himself by making a study of the horrific situation. He studied fellow prisoners. As well as the camp's guards.
Frankl noted that a prisoner's longevity was directly tied to the idea of purpose. A positive means by which that individual perceived the future. His family. A lover. Perhaps a job, or hobby. Something that drove him to rise and face another day's horror.
Frankl concluded that one's meaning of life is present in every waking moment. That life never ceases to have meaning. Even in suffering and death.
Accordingly, he found that a prisoner's psychological reactions are not solely based upon one's present conditions, but on one's ever-present freedom of choice as to how one responds. Without hope for the future, one was doomed.
In one passage of the book, Frankl's gives light to the idea of finding meaning. Even in the midst of extreme suffering:
"... We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us."
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth -- that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way -- an honorable way -- in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory...."
Pray you never face such harsh conditions. But you will face adversity. Loved ones lost. Injuries, both physical and financial. Jobs lost. Relationships adrift. You too, on occasion, will face long walks in a soulless desert.
Regardless of the expanse before you, will you be accompanied by strength of purpose? Will you find your way to the gates of contentment? To the lush vistas of the meaningful life you were meant to lead?
Prior to answering, Frankl might ask of your priorities. Have they gone askew?
Within a ten mile radius, children go hungry. Yet, our children ask for two-hundred dollar sneakers. We find time for weekly rounds of golf, though soup kitchens fail to find volunteers to serve the impoverished. We begin another HBO series. Having never read the poems of Yeats, Frost, Neruda or Angelou.
Do your actions lead to -- or away from -- a meaningful existence?
Frankl found the secret to life. It lay in its purpose. Meaning will differ by man, day and hour. Yet, what matters is not the general meaning of life, but the specific meaning of a person's life at any given moment.
Because your time is not gold. But something more valuable. Time is time. Incalculable, invaluable, irretrievable seconds that, once spent, you may never relive.
Imbue them with meaning. Each hour. Every day.

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