Ikigai: Does your Teenager have a Purpose?

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Ikigai: Does your Teenager have a Purpose?

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Ikigai: Does your Teenager have a Purpose?
December 4, 2017

Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means one’s personal reason for being or sense of purpose. At Oliverian, students are given the tools to discover ikigai for themselves.

Perhaps nothing is so essential to being human as discovering our own sense of meaning. In Japanese, this concept is called ikigai, or a “reason for being.” It can be a hobby, a career, a mission, or a relationship. When described, as it sometimes is, as “the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning,” it becomes clear that this is something adolescents often lack! But in addition to getting your teenager out of bed, studies have shown that ikigai is associated with lower stress, better health, and even longer lives.

Like most fundamentals of adult identity, finding one’s ikigai usually begins during adolescence, a period of life fraught with change and confusion, yes, but also rich with opportunities for self discovery. With all of the pressures, changes, and distractions of adolescence, how can we help young people discover a grounding sense of purpose?

What is ikigai?

Ikigai is formed from the words “iki,” which means life, and “kai,” which means “the realization of what one hopes for.” The definition may be simple, but the concept is complex, encompassing all the aspects of one’s life that bring satisfaction, value, and meaning. It’s like an internal engine that informs your daily actions, or a reason to get up in the morning.

Ikigai was introduced to western audiences in a National Geographic article about so called “blue zones” — five geographic areas (including Okinawa, Japan) known for the longevity of their residents. But Ikigai was first popularized by Mieko Kamiya, a Japanese psychiatrist who based her best-known work On the Meaning of Life on her experiences working with and treating leprosy patients. She holds that there are seven needs associated with ikigai:

1) The need for a fulfilling existence
2) The need for change and growth
3) The need for future perspectives
4) The need for receiving responses
5) The need for freedom
6) The need for self-actualization
7) The need for significance and value

While the strength and combination of these needs varies between different individuals, they are especially urgent for young adults as they prepare for college and adult life. Everyday, teens are faced with significant academic, social, and emotional decisions that will have no small impact on their future. They need to be able to ask and explore difficult questions like, “What brings me joy?” “What are my skills?” “What hobbies do I find meaningful?” “What goals do I want to accomplish?”and “Why am I here?”

An environment that promotes the discovery of ikigai empowers adolescents identify what does — and does not — feel aligned with their purpose, choose a vocation, build healthy relationships, and cultivate a sense of belonging.

Ikigai at Oliverian

In traditional learning environments, structure and control are typically the framework within which personal and academic development take place. But this pressure to conform is at odds with ikigai and can hinder a teen’s unique identity formation.

At Oliverian, we provide students the latitude to explore a variety of interests — academic, social, athletic, extra-curricular — to see what fits. Our curriculum is strategically designed to provide students with choice — whether through the electives they select, the hobbies they gravitate toward, the stewardship activities they pursue, or the topic and direction of their independent academic projects. Choice inspires feelings not only of ownership and pride, but of self-motivation and engagement.

Our exploratory learning environment and robust student support (1.3:1 staff:student ratio plus student teams that include an academic advisor, dorm parent, and therapist) encourage students to better understand themselves and their purpose. Oliverian students are equipped to discover not only what they can get out of the world, but also what they can contribute.

At Oliverian, our mission to help young adults find their place in the world. That mission is, in fact, our own ikigai.

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