The neuroscience of ikigai

I lived in Japan for seven months when I was younger. For all of the challenges I faced there as a woman and a foreigner, I still was fascinated by the culture. Because Japan experienced a long period of relative isolation from the outside world—caused by sakoku (“closed country”), the isolationist foreign policy of the Japanese Tokugawa shogunate—Japanese people have developed their own unique set of values and beliefs. The one I find most relevant to the life of an entrepreneur is the concept of ikigai, which can be roughly translated to “reason for being.”

Each person’s ikigai is personal to them and specific to their lives, reflective of their inner self and creating a mental state in which they feel at ease. Ikigai is not linked to your financial status. When you find your ikigai, it gives a sense of meaning to your life. We have a similar concept in French called “raison d’ĂŞtre” (also “reason for being”).


Many people are familiar with the concept, so I’m keeping it high level. But what’s interesting is that you wouldn’t expect ikigai to have such a profound impact on how your brain actually works.

  • Ikigai reduces anxiety: research shows that the feeling of ikigai contributes to a well-balanced secretion of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, which in turn reduces the feeling of stress.
  • Ikigai is good for your heart: a seven-year long study with more than 40,000 Japanese adults found evidence that people with a low sense of ikigai had a higher overall mortality risk, mostly due to higher cardiovascular disease.
  • Ikigai increases your self-authorship: research shows that people without ikigai have a strong need for approval from others, while those with ikigai tend to perform tasks for their own satisfaction.
  • Ikigai makes you more resilient: research suggests that ikigai may help you go through times of hardship more easily, making you feel like it’s worthwhile to continue living. For example, it helped many Japanese people cope during the earthquake that occurred in Japan in March 2011.
  • Ikigai helps you live longer: another study identified ikigai as a positive psychological factor contributing to longevity, with men and women with a sense ikigai showing decreased risks of mortality from all causes—meaning they lived longer lives.

While not everyone needs ikigai to get these benefits—looking for meaning can actually be a cause of anxiety, and there are many other ways to take good care of your brain—it’s fascinating how the psychology and the biology of the mind are so deeply intertwined.

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