I managed to squeeze in some fiction reading in the break between Christmas and new year. I wanted to catch up on some classics and one of the stories was a Leo Tolstoy piece – The Death of Ivan Illyich. 

If you have never read or heard of this, it’s quite a sad story about a lawyer, Ivan who is married with two kids. He has been quite successful in his career, working his way up to become a high court judge. He is unhappy in his marriage, and so spends all his time dedicated to his work, including very lengthy hours in the office. I also wonder whether it’s the lengthy hours at work which contributed to the disharmony of the marriage?

As he works his way up the corporate ladder, the salary he earns is growing. Perhaps not enough to satisfy himself, the wife and family. Despite the upgrades in the family home and flashy new ‘things’ he has been able to purchase, it never seems quite enough.

Ivan then suffers a terminal illness, which gradually gets worse and worse, and the story describes in detail his agonising pain over the last few months of his life, where he is confined to bed, and feeling utterly depressed and lonely. He contemplates his victimhood and tries to make sense of why he, a good man, has suffered such a terrible illness and soon to be early death. Then, just before Ivan passes away, he comes to a stark realisation –

“What if my whole life was wrong?”

Pause for a moment and imagine what that would feel like to live a life where you have worked so hard to build your career, provide a nice home and ‘stuff’ for you and your family, and to then suffer a debilitatingly painful terminal illness, wondering, on your death bed…

… Was it all worth it?
… Would you have done things differently?
… Have you lived your life with meaning?
… Did you have a purpose?

There have been many international studies, such as this one, that found that people who have a sense of purpose in life are at lower risk of death and illness.

One of the reasons why this is so, is because those who have a purpose often have a healthier lifestyle – they are more motivated and resilient, and this protects them from burnout and stress.

It’s therefore no wonder that ‘finding your purpose’ has been a hugely popular topic in the self-help field. One writer, Dan Buettner, has researched the lifestyles and traits of five places in the world that have the longest life expectancy, to find out what contributes to longevity.

He interviewed the community of Okinawa, an island in Japan where people enjoy the highest life expectancy, and in his TED talk titled ‘How to live to be 100+’, Dan refers to the japanese concept of ikigai, as part of the formula for good health and longevity.

‘Ikigai’ has become a popular theory in the western world over the last few years, in the pursuit of happiness. Whilst there is no direct translation into English of what ikigai means, it has been translated roughly to mean ‘the reason that you get up in the morning’ or ‘the thing that you live for’.

It provides a sense of purpose to life, with the idea that having a sense of purpose provides happiness. The key thing to note is that the purpose need not be grand or earth shattering. One example from the TED talk was that taking care of a child or family member may be your ikigai. In a nutshell, your ikigai is the cross-section between what the world needs, what you love, what you are good at, and what you can be paid for.

According to the Japanese, every single person has an ikigai. So if you haven’t been feeling very motivated to get back to work after the holiday break, then it might be worth your while trying to figure out your ikigai, by finding a common ground between doing what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

Remember, your ikigai doesn’t have to be something that changes or saves the world. You get to choose, and it can be something like being a fisherman and providing fish for your family everyday, or living to get to hold your great, great, great grandchild (which are some of the examples provided in the above TED talk).

For some, finding and knowing their purpose in life, may come naturally. However, if you are anything like me, it’s a struggle to narrow it down. Giving yourself permission to have more than one purpose, and knowing that you can change it over time is helpful.

But for now, instead of searching for, and trying to articulate my ‘one thing’, I’m instead trying to pay attention to my moment-to-moment purpose, and using happiness as a guiding principle. Trying to do more of what ‘stirs my soul’. If you haven’t yet started your journey of self-introspection, and you are interested in seeking your purpose in life, perhaps you could start by following the simple advice of Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss”.

Have you found your purpose in life?

Do you have your Why, your one thing that gets you up in the morning? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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