Shigeaki Hinohara loved cookies.

He had a few of them with milk for lunch every day - at least, he said, when he wasn't too busy to eat. "I never get hungry," he said, "because I focus on my work."

Dr. Hinohara was one of the world's leading physicians and teachers, running Japan's top medical facility and nursing school and helping build the foundations of Japanese medicine. He has published around 150 books, including one that has sold more than a million copies, and he even wrote a musical for children. Only a few months before his death last year, he was still treating patients, giving lectures, and working up to 18 hours a day.

He lived to be 105 years old.

The Japanese do not have a word for "retirement." At least, not in the sense of leaving the workforce for good. The idea that after you retire, you stop doing anything useful, become a burden on society, and stop following your passions is an entirely foreign concept.

What happens instead is that people of retirement age, like Dr. Hinohara, stay involved in the world around them. They keep doing what they love, what they're good at, and what the world needs long after they've left the office for the last time.

They credit the concept of "ikigai" as their reason for this long-lasting purpose and meaning in their equally long-lasting lives.

What is ikigai?

There's no direct translation into English for the Japanese word ikigai. It roughly means the "thing that you live for" or the "reason for which you get up in the morning." In a nutshell, it encompasses the idea that happiness in life isn't just about having more money, a fancy job title, or the biggest house.

"Your ikigai is at the intersection of what you are good at and what you love doing," writes Hector Garcia, the co-author of Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. "Just as humans have lusted after objects and money since the dawn of time, other humans have felt dissatisfaction at the relentless pursuit of money and fame and have instead focused on something bigger than their own material wealth. This has over the years been described using many different words and practices, but always hearkening back to the central core of meaningfulness in life."

Think of it as the overlap between:

  • What you love (your passion)
  • What you're great at (your vocation)
  • What the world needs (your mission)
  • What you can be paid for (your profession)

Asking yourself questions about the above four areas, and turning your answers into a meaningful sense of purpose and plan of action, isn't something you can figure out overnight. It takes time, effort, and experimentation to discover; slowly unfolding and evolving throughout your life.

It's a familiar concept to most Japanese, with many believing it's worth taking the time to search for. In the rat race of Western culture, though, it tends to be forgotten or pushed aside much more quickly. It can take a very long time to find - especially if you're not searching for it - and may require a significant emotional event like burnout forces us to take stock and make changes.

Your ikigai needn't be as grand or ambitious as winning a Nobel prize or becoming the CEO of your company - it can be something pretty matter-of-fact. There's a lot of fulfilment and meaning to be found in simple hobbies or side projects - often more so than in your career. In fact, it doesn't have to be career-focused at all - raising a family, travelling more, or even eating cookies for lunch every day are all ikigai.

It's different from just "following your passion," as sometimes your passion can't pay the bills. It's also more sustainable than focusing on some arbitrary-but-profitable product or service you've encountered because you'll lose interest after only a few months. It leaves room for choice as well - you can have more than one passion, giving you a certain degree of autonomy and freedom in your decisions without prescribing a specific path. Think about ikigai as your compass for both career and life decisions.

How to find your ikigai

Even if you want to jump right in, your ikigai isn't something you can figure out overnight. Instead, it's something that will unfold slowly over time, changing and evolving as your life changes with it.

That doesn't mean, though, that you should just sit back and wait for it to appear on its own. You need to ask yourself some pretty profound questions, spend time experimenting, and, most importantly, take action to discover how your values, strengths and skills can be best utilised to build a meaningful life and career.

Here's how you can start fostering the right mindset to develop your ikigai:

Ask yourself some simple questions

Grab the nearest piece of paper and start by writing down the top 10 things you've spent your time on this week. Don't think too hard, just write down the first things that come to mind.

After writing them down, ask yourself these questions about each item on the list:

  • Is this something you love doing?
  • Is this something the world needs?
  • Is this something you're great at?
  • Is this something you can be paid for?

You don't have to think of all the answers at once - in fact, it can be beneficial to repeat the exercise over a few weeks, to make sure you're getting a good baseline.

It's also important to be honest with yourself. Don't be afraid to write down whatever comes to mind, no matter how crazy or irrational it seems.

Once you've spent some time thinking and writing, you'll probably notice that your answers might overlap a bit. That's kind of the point of the exercise. Are there any themes that are starting to jump out at you? It's those overlaps that are the places you'll begin to discover what adds meaning to your life, and what doesn't.

If you can't see any clear links yet, don't worry - that's normal. Figuring this stuff out takes time, along with a little trial and error. Keep asking yourself the above four questions, staying mindful of your answers, and over time you'll start to see the patterns emerging.

Experiment with small changes

The real power in finding your ikigai lies in actually putting it into action. You have to commit to taking consistent action to make changes - and also to make adjustments along the way as you learn.

Once you've got a better idea of how your day-to-day activities map to your ikigai, you can start to look for changes you can make to add more meaning to your work. These don't have to be big, sweeping changes, like quitting your job - you can start as small as you want.

In his book, Hector Garcia says that ikigai has changed how he spends his morning routine:

"I have improved my morning routine to start my days doing what is most important to me before getting busy with others. This means that I have a cup of green tea, do 15 minutes of easy yoga poses and then write for one hour. Before leaving home, I have dedicated time to my health and one of the activities that give ikigai to my life: which is writing books."

In my own life, one concrete change I'm making is to force myself to switch out of "work mode" earlier in the evenings and spend more time with my wife and daughter. Even though I tend to get tied up in my work, because at the end of the day it's what pays the bills, I value time with family more.

By prioritising the work that gives you purpose, and aligning your actions with the "thing you live for", you'll gradually you'll find yourself on a more meaningful and fulfilling path, and find it easier to get through life's ups and downs.

Follow your curiosity

"Our intuition and curiosity are very powerful internal compasses to help us connect with our ikigai," Hector Garcia writes. When you make time for exploring, creating, and learning, you'll naturally gravitate towards work that you love doing, and that the world needs.

The problem for many of us, though, is that things like our work routines and family responsibilities leave little space for curiosity. Slowly enough that we don't notice, our childlike sense of wonder starts to disappear, leaving us on a path that doesn't match our ikigai.

Author Neil Pasricha suggests a way to combat this, by running your ikigai through what he calls the Saturday Morning Test:

The Saturday Morning Test is your answer to one simple question: What do you do on a Saturday morning when you have nothing to do?

What would you do if you weren't getting paid for it? What gives you intrinsic motivation? Making curiosity and creativity a part of your everyday routine will help you avoid straying from your path.

Don't overthink it

Although all these things can help lead you towards more meaningful and purposeful work, there's an important lesson to learn from Dr. Hinohara: there's no perfect strategy for discovering your ikigai.

Regardless of how meaningful or purposeful your work is, not every day will be easy or even enjoyable. No matter what path you go down in your career and life, you'll still have to make trade-offs from time to time. Having a clear idea of the bigger picture behind what you do, though, will help you keep those bad days in perspective.

Don't worry if it feels a little like your work doesn't exactly fit what the world needs, or that what you love doing the most won't pay the bills. If your sense of purpose comes from working hard in your career, that's great - but it doesn't mean you shouldn't also make time for your family and friends as well. Working towards a sustainable balance of meaningful work is more important than coming up with the perfect strategy.

"Life is not a problem to be solved," Hector Garcia writes. "Just remember to have something that keeps you busy doing what you love while being surrounded by the people who love you."

Let your ikigai be your compass

Your ikigai is more of a compass than a map. It helps point you in the right direction, but it doesn't dictate how you need to get to your destination - or whether there's a fixed destination at all.

By relying on your ikigai to steer you in the right direction, you'll end up with a more fulfilling career, a more sustainable business, and a longer, happier life.

You might even get to eat cookies for lunch every day.