Ikigai (pronounced eye KEY gay eye) is not seaweed, not a pill or a potion, or even a physical thing at all. But with it, you will live longer. You will be less prone to heart disease. If you have a chronic illness, you will suffer less from it. And magically, it works even if you have other disadvantages, such as low income or little education.
Ikigai is the Japanese term for life purpose, a passion that puts one’s feet on the floor every morning, a reason to raise one’s head high and carry on. In a study of 73,000 middle-aged and elderly Japanese men and women, those who had ikigai were more likely to avoid dying; for men with ikigai, a lower risk of cardiovascular disease was an added benefit. Women with it also had lower risk of dying from external causes such as accidents.
Okay, maybe people with purpose are just happier and they stick around longer. Ho hum. The interesting thing is that people with purpose had less inflammation. It’s not just in your head; it actually affects your biology, your cells, in particular, cells that mark inflammation.
Inflammation is the fundamental process in many (perhaps all) human illnesses – it’s linked to cancer, heart disease, and more. Gee, that adage – take an aspirin and call me in the morning – is sounding smarter every minute. A study of U.S. middle-agers showed that people who had a life purpose had lower levels of IL-6 and CRP in their bloodstream, which are markers for inflammation.
Let’s get this straight – a person can have multiple chronic conditions, which generally makes a person a sourpuss (in technical terms, increases negative affect) and increases levels of inflammation. If she also has a strong purpose in life, she will have less inflammation and therefore less effect from the chronic conditions. She might still live in a rough neighborhood, eat fewer fruits than would be ideal, and work at a clock-punching job. Yet she will not have as many ills from her chronic conditions as her neighbor or co-worker who has all the same illnesses, but has weak or no life purpose.
So, wellness campaigns could have a great impact by encouraging people to focus on their life purpose. Besides being more effective, it’s much more interesting than the eat-more-fruit-do-more-sit-ups stuff that is the usual fare. The usual stuff hasn’t worked. Wouldn’t success be refreshing?