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The Neuroscience Behind Ikigai

The Neuroscience Behind Ikigai

AJ Keller
By AJ Keller on September 18, 2023

Since I was young, I have been fascinated by Japan. From its language, to its culture — and of course its cultural output (hello, anime anyone?). But perhaps more interestingly, Japan’s history of relative isolation from the rest of the world, known as sakoku or “closed country,” due to the isolationist foreign policy of the Tokugawa shogunate — has led to the development of unique values and beliefs among the Japanese people. One concept in particular, resonates with the life of an entrepreneur. It’s the notion of ikigai, which can be roughly translated as “reason for being.”

Ikigai is a deeply personal and individual concept, intimately tied to one’s life, reflecting their inner self and fostering a mental state of ease and contentment. Importantly, it transcends financial considerations, emphasizing the pursuit of personal meaning and purpose in life. This concept is not unique to Japan; it finds a parallel in the French notion of “raison d’être,” which similarly encapsulates the idea of a fundamental life purpose.

An Iterative Approach To Discovering Your True Purpose

I’ve been the founder of a tech start-up for half a decade. My journey to starting my own company didn’t involve any sudden revelations — after all, I was always in tech. Unlike those who had the privilege of taking a gap year after high school or during their post-secondary education, or embarking on backpacking adventures upon graduation to discover their true calling, my path was more of an incremental process.

Much like many young adults, I approached my professional life as an ongoing evolution. With each successive role, I aimed to incorporate more of the aspects I enjoyed and excelled at from my previous role while reducing elements that didn’t align with my preferences.

The neuroscience behind Ikigai

The Benefits

So by now you understand what Ikigai is and what it represents. Ikigai is your purpose. Ikigai is the motivation to eagerly jump out of bed each morning and find excitement in the prospect of Monday mornings rather than dreading them.

But here’s where things get more interesting…

What’s most fascinating from a neuroscience perspective is that ikigai can have a profound impact on how your brain functions:

  • Reducing Anxiety: Research indicates that embracing ikigai contributes to a well-balanced secretion of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. These neurotransmitters play a crucial role in reducing stress, leading to a sense of calm and well-being.

  • Beneficial for Your Heart: A seven-year study involving over 40,000 Japanese adults revealed that individuals with a low sense of ikigai had a higher overall mortality risk, primarily due to an increased susceptibility to cardiovascular diseases. Having a strong sense of purpose in life appears to promote heart health.

  • Enhancing Self-Authorship: Studies show that individuals without ikigai often have a strong need for external approval, while those who have found their ikigai tend to undertake tasks for their own personal satisfaction. This sense of self-authorship can lead to greater autonomy and fulfillment.

  • Building Resilience: Research suggests that having ikigai can help individuals navigate difficult times more effectively, providing a sense of purpose and motivation to persevere. For instance, it played a significant role in helping many Japanese people cope during the earthquake that struck Japan in March 2011.

  • Promoting Longevity: Another study highlights ikigai as a positive psychological factor contributing to longer life. Both men and women who possess a sense of ikigai demonstrate reduced risks of mortality from all causes, indicating that they tend to lead longer, healthier lives.

These findings underscore the holistic benefits of discovering and nurturing one’s ikigai, beyond just personal satisfaction, extending to mental and physical well-being, resilience, and even longevity.

The Crown and Ikigai

Every morning when I put on the Crown, I know my Ikigai.

I’m not even saying that my product itself is my Ikigai, or that my company is. But my company represents my Ikigai: making advancements in neurotech, Making neurotech accessible to most, and making a difference to those who need it most.

How to determine your Ikigai

If you’re currently unhappy in your job, the first step is to ask yourself: does this align with my true calling? If not, that’s perfectly fine; you have the power to make a change. There are countless opportunities for you to iterate and refine your path. By actively seeking your true purpose, you’ll eventually uncover it. Remember, a single job might not fulfill all your needs.

Your career comprises various aspects, including hobbies, side-hustles, volunteering, and more. However, given that a significant portion of your waking hours — roughly 35% over a 50-year career — will be spent at work, it’s crucial to consider how your job impacts your overall well-being.

While it may take years or even decades to uncover your reason for being, you owe it to yourself to pursue work that intrinsically motivates you, work that truly engages and fulfills you.

The right role can transform your state of mind and, consequently, your life.

Pursue this goal with unwavering determination, and I assure you that once you discover your Ikigai, you’ll realize just how valuable your time really is.


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