The island of Okinawa, Japan, boasts one of the highest life expectancies in the world, with inhabitants living on average 7 years longer than Americans. There are also 5 times more centenarians in Okinawa than in the US. Why might that be?

In addition to living healthy, social lives, there is one more concept that is believed to contribute to Okinawan longevity: Purpose.

In the US, we divide our adult life into two phases, work and retirement (I can’t stand the word retirement, with its connotation of fading away into the woodwork)—but there’s not even a word for retirement in the Okinawan language. Instead, there is one word that encompasses everything: Ikigai, which translates to “a reason to get up in the morning”—essentially, a sense of purpose. The Japanese believe that everyone has an Ikigai, at all stages of life, and revere the personal search for one’s reason for being.

What do I mean by the word “purpose”? I favor Purpose Expert Richard Leider’s definition: “Our purpose is who we are and what makes us unique, why we’re here. It’s a source of direction and energy. It’s what gives our lives meaning.”

Having a sense of purpose has been shown in research to be critical to our well-being. It protects our health and helps us live longer, happier lives. When we’re connected to something larger than ourselves, we’re more hopeful and positive, we’re better able to cope with life’s challenges, we’re using our brains and connecting with others, we’re staying physically active and more likely to take care of ourselves.

So how do we find our purpose?

Sometimes it finds us, often as a result of a personal crisis. I have interviewed hundreds of women who have reinvented at 40 or later on my blog, and have heard amazing stories of determination—and purpose—in the face of unexpected challenge. Like Cathy Chester, whose diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis propelled her to write about living with ability in spite of disability. Or Gretchen Burns Bergman who, when her sons became addicted to drugs, began advocating for therapeutic rather than punitive treatment of nonviolent drug offenders. Or Jean Lee, whose parents were both diagnosed with Alzheimer’s on the same day, prompting her to write a memoir about caring for her ailing parents.

More often, we need to seek purpose out. This is no easy task, but it’s a critical search and well worth the effort. In my work with individuals and with groups, I take clients through exercises to help clarify their purpose—whatever phase of life they’re in. I teach that purpose is found at the intersection of:

  • Your values – who you are.
  • Your strengths – what you’re good at.
  • Your interests – what you love to do.
  • Your service – how you’d like to contribute (to your family, your community, or a cause).

Many women who have reinvented in midlife have found their own purposeful paths, giving back in a way that’s true to who they are and that leverages their strengths and passions. Just a few examples from my interviews… Bonnie Shay organizes homes; Cynthia Hinckley provides animal-assisted therapy; Haralee Weintraub sells moisture-wicking nightwear; Sunada Takagi is a Buddhist minister and mindfulness coach; Corie Skolnick entertains with her novels; Terry Baugh finds adoptive families for older children; Stephanie Aguilar keeps us safe as a police officer; Kristine Van Raden shares her beautiful clay pottery; Margaret Rutherford informs us on mental health topics; Jodi Okun provides college financial advice—and so many more.

My own purpose is to challenge, empower, and inspire people to purposeful and transformative action. I can’t begin to express how powerful this feels for me. It’s who I am and why I’m here. The clarity that comes with declaring my purpose compels me to make choices that express my true self and align with my mission. It helps me prioritize how I spend my time, energy, and money. I now have total focus behind my passion.

Want to read more about purpose?

  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
  • The Power of Purpose: Find Meaning, Live Longer, Better by Richard Leider
  • The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith
  • Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek

So what’s YOUR Ikigai?


Helene blogs at  Purpose Stories and Next Act for Women, where she shares inspirational stories of people who have found their life’s calling—and are living it—at any age. Hélène is the author of three books: Moving to College, Finding the Right Colleges for You, and Getting Ready for BabyConnect with Hélène on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

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