Finding Your Ikigai: The Search for a Meaningful Life

As part of the “Great Resignation,” many people are examining their work and picking new priorities for themselves. They’re using the pandemic as a time to reflect on whether their current career trajectory is the right one for them — or whether they might be happier exploring other passions. In retirement, older adults are using this period of introspection to explore more fulfilling paths.

Some Americans are taking inspiration from ikigai, a Japanese concept that embodies the idea of living a meaningful and fulfilling life. While Japan is known for its rigid work culture and grueling hours, the ancient concept of ikigai provides many people in Japan meaning and purpose, giving them something to strive for as they age.

Nancy Heap is a licensed clinical social worker who named her Chicago-based psychotherapy practice Ikigai, LLC. “Retirement can be an opportunity to look deeper into passions, beliefs, and values, separate from a previously defined role or profession,” she says. “It can also be an opportunity to look at the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of things: Why did this role fulfill me? Why this profession? What was my relationship to it? What was the meaning of it in my life?”

In retirement, finding your ikigai — or your reason for being — can help you continue to fulfill your life’s purpose, because it’s the very thing that you live for.

“A very common challenge that seniors — and, indeed, all individuals — face is overly identifying with only one aspect of their lives,” Heap says. “This might be the job they have retired from or a role as a parent or caregiver. When that aspect of their lives is no longer the prevalent focus, it can seem as though life has lost its meaning or has dimmed.”

One strategy to avoid this pitfall is to cultivate new interests, Heap says. “Challenge yourself. Take a class. Write a play. Start a meditation practice. If you’re shy, ask others about themselves and their interests,” she says. “Move outside your comfort zone.”

If you were lucky enough to have found ikigai in your career and now feel an emptiness in retirement, volunteering can be a great way to share your expertise, Heap says.

Volunteering with purpose

Evanston resident Julie Lamberti, 72, retired during the pandemic. While employed, Lamberti found meaning in working with people experiencing memory loss and their families at House of Welcome Adult Day Services, a program of the North Shore Senior Center.

“People don’t necessarily understand that people with memory loss are still people just like the rest of us, with all the same needs that we have: to have relationships, meaning in their life, have fun, contribute to the world — all of the same needs for self-esteem,” she says. “People with dementia need support to have those needs met, and I love being part of that. I love helping people have a quality of life and function optimally.”

Julie Lamberti volunteering at the North Shore Senior Center. Photo by Amy Krause

But when Lamberti retired, she found herself with a lot of time on her hands and not much to do, especially at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic when much was shut down.

Once programs started to reopen, Lamberti began volunteering half a day each week at the House of Welcome to help with activities and administrative work. She also volunteered at the senior center’s memory café, a monthly art and music therapy drop-in program for people with memory loss and their caregivers.

“I missed my colleagues, I missed the organization, and I missed the meaningfulness of the work. So now I have all that back — without the stress,” Lamberti says with a laugh. “So it’s quite lovely. I feel very satisfied with my life’s work.”

6 steps to find your ikigai

Eric Dean, a licensed professional counselor with Symmetry Counseling in Chicago, says the concept of ikigai has been around for hundreds of years, dating back to the Heian period of Japanese history from 794 to 1185.

Dean recommends six steps for finding your purpose — even if you’ve already retired.

  1. Reflect on and respond to the following questions:
  • What do you love?
  • What are you good at?
  • What does the world need?
  • What can you get paid for?
  1. Identify themes that emerge in your responses. “For example, you may notice that the things you love tend to involve being outdoors. Or maybe you notice that the things you are good at involve independent work more than team-based work,” Dean says.
  2. Identify where your responses overlap. “If there is an item that meets all four criteria, you have identified your ikigai. If there isn’t, do not worry — ikigai can still be a useful tool,” he says. For example, you can work toward finding your purpose by identifying what you love, what you are good at, and what the world needs, without getting paid for it.
  3. Share your responses and reflections. Talk to a friend, family member, or counselor to get another perspective. People who know you can help create a plan that integrates your values.
  4. Put your findings into action. Sign up for an online course, join a club, peruse career resources, or start a blog to determine what brings you joy, Dean says.
  5. Repeat the process every year to update your ikigai. “Finding purpose is not easy,” Dean says. “But with the right tools and support, you can find meaning and feel fulfilled at any stage of life.”