Cullen T. Hayashida
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Several years ago, a good friend of mine told me that he was now 65 years old, on Social Security and retired. He said he expected to live at least another 20 years or so, but did not know what to do with his life. It felt as though he would be riding his boat out to sea without a heading or a rudder. My friend was without an ikigai. Roughly translated as that which makes your life worth living, ikigai does not have the familiar ring of other Japanese words like gaman (patience), gambari (perseverance) or giri (obligation), which were so often stressed by our forebears. The Sansei generation, however, might find that this word will have greater significance as they begin retiring as baby boomers over the next 20 years.

Photo of Cullen T. Hayashida
“Finding our ikigai can help clarify why we are here, what gives us pleasure, what makes us happy, what matters most and who we are as contributors to the greater good.” – Cullen T. Hayashida

In the past, reaching our sixth decade of life — our kanreki — was a true milestone. When life expectancy was shorter with not much time left, it certainly was understandable to spend those remaining years with rest and recreation. Our life’s purpose was accomplished after decades of work and shepherding of our children’s lives. However, that retirement roadmap may no longer help boomers in the 21st century. Unlike our parents and grandparents of years past, those approaching the age of Social Security today can anticipate a longevity dividend nearly equivalent to their working years.

A seemingly paradoxical question that new retirees may wish to ask themselves is, “Who do I wish to become?” The children are gone or will soon be leaving. The grandkids may have arrived, but they will not be here forever. They, too, will soon find their independence. So, who am I now without my job title? What will I do with all of my spare time? Will I be a burden to my kids? Will I be functional? What have I done so far? Where am I going? Will I have enough money for 30 more years? How do I want to be remembered? Should I volunteer for a cause in which I believe? How can I maintain good health? In the meantime, do I dye my hair? Botox my skin? What is my passion, my purpose?

These are questions that boomers are pondering as they begin to transition into their retirement years. The word “retired” suggests being set out to pasture with no responsibility in a roleless role. Whereas we once identified ourselves with the title of our occupation — nurse, teacher, skilled craftsman — as new retirees, we now struggle with self-introductions. Am I just a “has-been?”

This phase of our lives requires an identity update. Where the “first age” was our early childhood years of learning, socialization, immaturity and dependence, our “second age” was our adult mid-life years of independence, maturity, work and earnings. With our 20 to 30 bonus years, we now have the “third age” from the sixth decade of life with the potential for self-enrichment, creativity, purpose and legacy. Some chronic health conditions may accompany this journey and the eventual “fourth age.” But the “third age” is a gift of time for our “second act,” or our “encore career.” This is a new period of life for which we have not fully planned or prepared, but we must plan and prepare if we are to reduce uncertainty and age successfully. It is time for a 50,000-mile checkup. Before we make this transition into our retirement years, we need to re-examine our life’s journey and rediscover our strengths, passions and purpose. It is time to explore possibilities, directions and goals. This is a process that differs for everyone. For some, it is long, requiring several years; for others, it is quicker. Sometimes a mid-course correction is needed.

This “third age” is an exciting phase in which to achieve our life’s goals. To do so requires that we understand that in order to age actively, we must maintain our fitness — physically, nutritionally, socially, financially, mentally, and by finding our purpose in a civic and not just a self-indulgent sense. The late psychologist Abraham Maslow spoke of the hierarchy of needs, with the primacy of physiological needs before self-actualization. But does this mean that physical fitness is always primary and purpose secondary? Perhaps not.

In traditional Japanese thought, everyone has an ikigai, but discovering it can take time. Determining what it is, however, provides the impetus for why one should remain fit in all facets of life. Perhaps determining our purpose is the first question that we should all try to address. This is not just for the educated or the wealthy — it applies to everyone. Four parameter questions are posted to triangulate one’s ikigai:

  • What do I love deeply and profoundly? What is my
  • What are my gifts? What am I good at?
  • What are my responsibilities based on what the world needs?
  • What is your life work — paid or unpaid?

As instructive as these questions and diagram may be, we can probably have not just one, but also a combination of ikigai that can and will probably transform over time. The challenge in discovering one’s ikigai is like a puzzle and, ultimately, requires the balancing of your responses to these four markers. Finding our ikigai can help clarify why we are here, what gives us pleasure, what makes us happy, what matters most and who we are as contributors to the greater good. Moreover, finding our ikigai and bringing our lives into balance has the power and potential for improving our health and increasing our healthy life expectancy.

So, what is your ikigai? Now is the time to start your search.

Cullen T. Hayashida has been a gerontologist for the past 37 years, working in Hawai‘i, the continental U.S. and East Asia. In 2014, he prepared “Hawai‘i’s 2020 Vision: The State of Active Aging — A White Paper for Aging for the 21st Century” for the state Office on Aging. He continues his work on active aging initiatives at St. Francis Healthcare System of Hawaii.


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