Healthy Living

People Who Live the Longest Share This Trait

Optimistic and happy woman with Japanese cherry blossom and journal entry background"
Optimistic and happy woman with Japanese cherry blossom and journal entry background
Graphics by: Aryana Johnson
Graphics by: Aryana Johnson

We’ve been taught that a long and healthy life boils down to a simple formula: eat healthy and exercise. But the secret to longevity may not be as simple as what we eat and how much we move. According to a study in the book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, people who live the longest also have something called ikigai, which is more of a personality trait and mindset. I enlisted the help of mental health professionals to find out the meaning behind ikigai and how to live longer and healthier lives.



What is “Ikigai?”

“The concept of ikigai comes from a Japanese philosophy referring to what gives a person a sense of purpose in life,” explained Veronica Hlivnenko, a psychologist and holistic health counselor at InPulse. “Ikigai is a broad concept that indicates your reason for being, the passion that drives you throughout your life, the bliss that brings you joy and inspires your zest for living. Japanese culture believes having an ikigai is the key to a person’s happiness, mental and physical health, and longevity.” 

“When you have a clear purpose—a sense of meaning for life—it motivates and energizes you to take action, to strive, and to persevere,” conveyed Dr. Harold Hong, a board-certified psychiatrist at New Waters Recovery. “Having ikigai can help you to live with intention. You’re no longer just going through the motions, but instead actively pursuing something that brings meaning to your life. It’s something that carries significance for both you and those around you.” One recent study among older Japanese adults discovered that having ikigai was associated with decreased depressive symptoms, and increased happiness, life satisfaction, and physical wellbeing. 

“Finding one’s ikigai involves answering four categories of questions, acknowledging your passion, mission, vocation, and profession: what you love, what the world needs, what you are good at, and what you are paid for,” Hlivnenko stated. Translation: Your ikigai comes down to the intersection of where your passions, talents, and skills meet what others need. Simply put, it’s your “why” for getting out of bed every morning. 


How Ikigai Affects Health

When you live life with purpose rather than living on autopilot, it’ll have a domino effect on your behaviors that will naturally promote longevity. “Ultimately, when you’re driven by your life purpose, you internally and externally program yourself not only on wanting but chasing a happier and longer life,” Hlivnenko described. “It means you adjust your lifestyle choices to this intention and treat yourself accordingly. Thus, people with a defined ikigai tend to stick with a healthier lifestyle as they have strong inner motivation for healthy behaviors, such as maintaining a balanced diet, regular exercising, prioritizing self-care, and not getting into bad habits. All these are the keys to a more extended lifespan.”

As for your mental health, Hlivnenko illustrated that a clear sense of purpose makes life meaningful and creates a solid foundation for psychological well-being. “When people are confident with what they are doing, they naturally experience less stress and anxiety, which prevents their health from being compromised and alleviates the risk of depression and prostration,” she said. “Besides, consciously pursuing your ikigai can help you develop better coping mechanisms through adversities, bringing the vision in which direction to move, enabling you to avoid being overwhelmed or slowed by unproductive emotions, and inducing a positive attitude in the face of challenges.”


Tips for Finding Your Ikigai



Putting pen to paper enables you to self-reflect, work through your thoughts, and explore your feelings. Ask yourself what matters to you and visualize your future self and what you’d be doing. “Journaling is a highly helpful mindful practice for those seeking to develop emotional awareness,” Hlivnenko said. “Putting your thoughts with ink to paper enables you to look at them in a more rational and structured way. It provides an opportunity for relaxed and honest self-talk when you can gradually interpret how you feel, reflect on your emotional response, analyze the reasons behind it, and draw conclusions for the future.”

Gratitude journaling, specifically, is an easy and effective way to make the practice part of your daily regimen. “Bringing to top of mind the things you are thankful for in your life possesses a potent outlook improvement potential, resulting in positive emotions and a sense of fulfillment,” Hlivnenko voiced. Don’t overthink it: Jot down the first three things that come to mind, no matter how seemingly trivial they may be—flowers you saw on your walk, your new workout ‘fit that was just delivered, or the compliment you got from a stranger. 


Engage in positive self-talk

Let’s face it: We’re our own worst critics. It’s time to check the judgment and naysaying at the door. Enter self-compassion: treat yourself with kindness, understanding, and forgiveness and take note of when negative self-talk comes into play and replace self-criticism with self-encouragement, as recommended by Dr. Sam Zand, D.O., Chief Medical Officer at Better U and Founder of the Anywhere Clinic. “Saying an encouraging affirmation (aloud or to yourself) can serve as a kickstarter for a positive thinking process and help you shift to a more positive mindset,” Hlivnenko suggested. Think: “I am enough,” “I love my body and all it does for me,” and “I am open and receptive to all good.”


Practice mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness is also an effective way to become more aware of your own thoughts and feelings as well as those around you,” Dr. Hong recommended. “Mindfulness helps to build healthier relationships based on trust, understanding, and mutual empathy.” One surefire way to be more aware of your sensations, thoughts, and feelings? Meditation. “Indulging in a quick mental and physical break and living a few minutes of silence, stillness, and thoughtlessness promotes a relaxation response, reduces stress hormones released in the body, restores your energy levels, and switches you to a more positive state of mind,” Hlivnenko said. Let go of any preconceived notions that meditation has to be a certain length of time or look a certain way. If you only have a few minutes, great! You can also turn anything (like walking your dog or folding laundry) into meditation by being intentional and focusing on your breath.


Foster optimism

Dr. Zand encouraged challenging negative thoughts and reframing them into more positive and realistic perspectives by surrounding yourself with positive influences and engaging in activities that bring you joy. Is your inner circle optimistic? If not, that could keep you stuck in the “Debbie Downer” downward spiral. Also be mindful of the content you take in, whether it be the news or social media. Alternatively, seek things that inspire you, like a feel-good podcast, self-improvement book, or IG account. “To cultivate a more positive outlook on life, it’s important to focus on what you can control instead of worrying about things that are out of your hands,” Dr. Hong agreed. “It’s also helpful to look for the silver lining in difficult situations or try to find the lesson within them.”


Seek social connection

Setting aside time to catch up with your BFF, grab lunch with a co-worker, or volunteer at a local organization all have one thing in common: building social connectedness. “Most often, people who live the longest share their lives with others,” Hlivnenko shared. “Ikigai usually implies active social interactions and joy from connecting with individuals with similar interests and beliefs. Supportive social networks and meaningful and harmonious relationships greatly impact our happiness levels and mental and physical health, and, thereby, contribute to how long we live.”   

Research shows that having deep, purposeful relationships leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity and generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being. What’s more, another study found that those who are more socially fulfilled tend to function better cognitively. Take Dr. Zand’s advice and cultivate meaningful relationships and surround yourself with supportive individuals. “Engage in active listening, express empathy, and communicate effectively to foster strong connections.”


Try new experiences 

Stepping out of your day-to-day routine and immersing yourself in novel foods, hobbies, places, and subjects will keep your brain stimulated, strengthen cognition, and promote a longer lifespan. Have you been wanting to learn a new language or take up cooking? Fuel your curiosity, and go for it! Take it a step further and habit-stack boosting your physical well-being and your brain health simultaneously by picking up, say, pickleball or trying the 3-2-8 method—you’ll be working your body while learning new skills. “Dedication to your ikigai boosts self-development and improvement goals and promotes continuous learning,” Hlivnenko said. “Constant involvement in mentally-stimulating activities keeps the brain active, enhances cognitive functions, and supports a sound mind and memory, which is crucial for quality living to old age.”

Research has demonstrated that the brain continues to create new neural pathways in order to adapt to new experiences, learn new information, and create new memories. Hot tip: Whatever new pursuit you engage in, find one that you enjoy and will commit to—you’ll be doing your overall happiness, mood, and mental health some good.