Blog post

The measurement of 'Ikigai' in the West and its association with depression and wellbeing

Dr Dean Fido, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby Online Learning, discusses 'Ikigai' the Japanese construct of having purpose in life as a means of protecting against suicide.

By Dr Dean Fido - 26 September 2019

September marks National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness highlights it is a key time to embrace the sharing of resources and stories as a means of reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness.

On a global level, there are thought to be close to 800,000 deaths as a result of suicide per year, with 6,507 registered deaths (4,903 of which were among men), in the UK in 2018 alone. Death as a result of suicide can have far-reaching and long-lasting effects on family, friends, and loved-ones and, although a lot of work is being done to challenge existing stigmatising beliefs surrounding depression (and mental illness more generally), more needs to be done to raise awareness in the community and break down the taboo of discussing mental illness.

The measurement of Ikigai in Japan

In Japan, emerging suicide prevention policies from the Ministry of Health and Labour Welfare have identified a need to develop interventions aimed at increasing the little-known (at least in the West) psychological construct of 'ikigai' as a means of reducing the number of suicides. In Japanese culture, the term ikigai refers to having 'purpose in life' or a 'reason for living' and has previously been the focus of study in positive psychology and preventative medicine. Specifically, it is considered a key predictor of physical and psychological wellbeing, including reduced psychological burden and fewer incidences of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and breast cancer.

So, why are you only just learning about this topic?

To date, except for a few media references and pop-culture books on the matter, ikigai has been the subject of very little empirical investigation outside of Japan. In fact, apart from simply asking whether or not somebody 'has' ikigai, there is no existing means of measuring the degree to which an English-speaking person embraces and practices the values associated with ikigai. As such, Yasuhiro Kotera and myself (alongside our collaborator in Japan, Kenichi Asano) set out to offer the first translation of an existing measure of ikigai, and subsequent validation in a sample derived entirely from the UK.

Over the summer, 349 participants (with a mean age of 35 years) took part in our research project; completing our translated measure of ikigai alongside previously established and validated measures of wellbeing, depression, anxiety, and stress.

The results suggest that above and beyond the influences of demographic variables such as age and sex, the greater the presence of ikigai that somebody reports, the better their wellbeing more generally, and the lower their depressive symptoms more specifically.

Moreover, and surprisingly to us, the self-report levels of ikigai which people experience in the UK, were very similar to those consistently reported in Japan.

These results are vital in terms of opening up discussion (and testable hypotheses) as to the potential role of ikigai as an additional instrument to the toolkit of healthcare professionals world-wide. This is especially important when we acknowledge that depression is thought to impact the lives of more than 300 million people; contributing to higher incidents of suicide, as well as wider financial and resource implications for health care providers.

Questions still left to be answered

Our research still has some unanswered questions including whether or not we can replicate these findings in the future, how we might increase ikigai through intervention, and why ikigai was not associated with either anxiety or stress. We hypothesise that ikigai might present a tool for mitigating against stressful and anxiety-provoking situations, and so further experimental research is required.

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call Samaritans on free phone 116 123 or 999 immediately.

View a free, open-access copy of the pre-print journal article. Please let us know your thoughts.

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About the author

Dr Dean Fido
Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience

I am a Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Derby. My main area of interest is in the commonly-considered ‘deviant’ personality trait of psychopathy. I believe that psychopathic-related traits are not just evident in criminal populations, but exist to some degree within everyone in the general population.