There are areas in the world called the blue zones in which people live longer and well. I have been interested in knowing the factors that may predispose to that phenomena to apply it to my life and the life of my patients. Those factors that promote survival and wellness have been scientifically studied in Okinawa Japan (one of the blue zones) and confirmed in the other places and the most important factor for longer wellness and survival is to have a meaning in life (Ikigai in Japanese)
As the New Year freshly become more alive, I renewed my interest to consider (and share with you) a great practice to help maintain and balance health and wellbeing. That practice is to ask yourself this question, "What gives me meaning in life right now?”.
A recent CNN article addressed this very topic and made me decide to write about it now not only because the importance of personally finding meaning in life ( as I mentioned above) but also because new science now supports this concept. Two separate studies, one among 9,000 participants over the ages of 65 ) and the other among 6,000 people between the ages of 20 and 75 showed that those who could articulate the meaning and purpose of their lives died later than those who saw their lives as aimless. It didn't seem to matter what meaning participants ascribed to their life, whether it was personal (like happiness), creative (like making art) or altruistic (like making the world a better place). It was simply having an answer to the question that mattered.
The scientific results are certainly plausible and explanations are multiple. It could be that having purpose may help one cope with daily stress or those who think about life's meaning are more likely to do other activities that promote good health. But many more reasons are to be discovered. Importantly and from a practical standpoint ( I am a very practical person), there is no correct answer when you formulate the inquiry of what gives you meaning in your life, just the answers need to be right for you at any given time. Since you might be able to formulate your response in less than a minute, being then the wisdom-to-effort ratio that makes this philosophical exercise very rewarding.
In addition to the Ikigai and the new science, a school of psychology called Logotherapy focuses on helping people become more aware of what gives their life meaning, so they can overcome life’s challenges. Logotherapy is based on the idea that we are strongly motivated to live purposefully and meaningfully, and that we find meaning in life as a result of responding authentically and humanely (i.e. meaningfully) to life’s obstacles. The founder Viktor Frankl who tested his own theories on himself while in a concentration camp said his own set purpose and eagerness to publish his science was what kept him alive. He further confirms that people in the concentration camp without meaning to surviving such hardship died much more quickly than those who had a meaning to life.
Other people in very different walks of life also expressed the importance of finding meaning in life. The writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in his book titled “The Little Prince” stated “Each man must look to himself to teach him the meaning of life. It is not something discovered, it is something molded”. Einstein and his Holiness the Dalai Lama also agreed on the importance of having a meaning in life. They both agreed that serving human being was the main purpose in their own lives and his holiness (also a very practical person) added if you do not do good for others as your meaning, to have the meaning of at least to not harm anyone.
Again, this New Year which just freshly started is the perfect time to answer the question of what gives you meaning. Start now and repeat the exercise from time to time or even every New Year. You will learn how you’ve evolved and you’ll learn something more about yourself. The more you do it the closer you’ll get to a deeper self-understanding of yourself, which is what I consider pure wisdom.
So, stop and take a moment to record your answer to the question "What gives me meaning in my life NOW?" Amazingly this simple exercise already adds meaning to your life by doing it. So… go out and just do it (the Zen way), that is the practice. Find your own answer, now.
Roberto Benzo MD