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ikigai and living to be a hundred

Another fine video from TED came across my desk today, and it struck a chord with me. It’s entitled How to live to be 100+ and the speaker is Dan Buettner–a National Geographic writer and explorer who studies the world’s longest-lived peoples.

Now, I’m not necessarily interested in living to be a hundred. (I mean I guess it would be nice, but I’m more interested in living a life that matters–a quality life for as long as I can.) This is what Buettner is talking about–I think–the quality of life. This resonated with me, as I have for a long time now been trying to make the choices I think will result in a better life for me and my family–and for others in the world. I’ve never been very motivated by money or material wealth, and have made career choices based on doing what I enjoy, doing what I think matters, doing something that will afford me with as much family time as possible–basically doing something that really doesn’t feel like work at all. I’ve seen a lot of people around me dig themselves into holes of despair in pursuit of shadows and phantoms–money, stuff, and status–and I feel lucky that I’ve done a fairly decent job of avoiding such trappings. I’m trying anyway and thinking about it everyday.

Buettner has identified a number of areas in the world that he calls “blue zones.” These are places where people regularly live healthy, happy, productive lives for well over a hundred years. One of the groups he mentions in his study is the Okinawan people. In Okinawa there is no concept and no word for retirement as there is in the United States. Instead, the Okinawan people live by a principle known a ikigai, which roughly translates to “the reason for which you get up in the morning.” One question on a survey distributed by the Buettner’s Blue Zone research group asked these people what their ikigai was. They knew instantly. It is a principle that deeply imbues their lives. From Buettner’s talk, this notion is what stuck with me most–ikigai. I think about it often. Everyday, what am I doing? How am I spending my time? What is my purpose?

People sometimes ask me about work, or about homeschooling our son Aidan, or about any number of other things that occupy my time. Sometimes the conversation goes directly to this matter of time. When do I get off work on Friday? How long does “school” last for Aidan each day? These questions honestly baffle me, and I am hard pressed to find an answer. I do very little compartmentalization when it comes to living my life with my family. We just live each day. We do things. I teach college kids. I think often about ways I can better reach them and better help them in their development as writers and as people. I spend time with Aidan. We go places and learn things. We have long conversations over breakfast and dinner. I love my wife and try to tell her every day. Each day unfolds easily without much planning. Each day is in many ways a pleasant surprise. This feels good. This feels more natural.

If I were asked to tell you what my ikigai is, I guess I would have to think about it–find the words to express it. I’m quite sure, though, that it would have something to do with my family, with curiosity and learning, with being of service to others as I try to be a better person and a better friend to the people in my life.

In all honesty, I do like sleeping in, but when I wake up I do so with a light heart knowing that I am living a good life and will continue to take gentle steps to make it better for me and those around me each and every day.

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