020 – Dr. Iza Kavedzija on Happiness and Ikigai – Insights From Ageing Japan

Can we find other sources of ikigai as we move on in life?

As we journey through life, it becomes essential to cultivate diverse sources of ikigai.

In this episode of the Ikigai Podcast, Nick speaks with Dr. Iza Kavedzija about the elderly in Japan and their pursuit of ikigai.

Podcast Highlights

Dr. Iza Kavedzija

Dr Iza Kavedzija

Dr. Iza Kavedzija is a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Exeter and an anthropologist of Japan. Her doctoral research examined the creation of meaning in life among older people in Osaka, and her current area of research is an ethnographic study of young contemporary artists in Osaka. She’s also the author of Making Meaningful Lives: Tales from an Aging Japan.

Iza’s backstory

Iza’s interest in topics about meaning in life and happiness started back in 2008 when she was conducting her doctoral research. She looked into different ways in which people conceptualize good life: what it means to them to live a good life. Since then she has become engrossed with themes related to happiness.


First visit to Japan

Iza’s first visit to Japan was when she participated in an exchange student program at her high school organized by their Japanese language teacher. This experience sparked her interest in Japanese culture. She then studied Japanese alongside her major in anthropology and sociology, and decided to make Japan a focus of her master’s.

The process of researching

For her doctoral research, Iza spent 14 months with the same group of people. Originally, she planned to look for some older Japanese people who live in their homes. However, entering homes isn’t a simple matter.

Luckily for her, she was able to find a community cafe in the south of Osaka which allowed her to volunteer and conduct her research; she spent over a year coming to the same place weekly and establishing very close contact with a group of older people who frequented the establishment.


Happiness in the Japanese context

“Happiness in the Japanese context can usefully be understood as deriving from a series of negotiations or ‘balancing acts’ between contrastive values and orientations to the world.”

Happiness, in the Japanese context can usefully be understood as deriving from a series of negotiations and balancing acts between contrasted values and orientations to the world. - Iza Kavedzija

Click to Tweet
Warm Connections

Older adults have the urge to develop new relationships, and places like the community cafe give them a chance to form new associations. What’s important for them is to try and form connections that are friendly and warm, but not overly burdensome -- they need to be amiable, yet avoid being overly intrusive to avoid ruining the mood. Their opinions are important, even so, it is also important for them to have a good time and avoid conflicts -- it is a balancing act for them.

Ways to say happiness

The Japanese people have three ways to say happiness: shiawase, ureshii, and koufuku.

The terms shiawase and ureshii are both frequently used and have some similarities.

  • Shiawase is good fortune or blessing -- lifelong happiness.
  • Ureshii is being glad or pleased -- feeling of happiness for a short time.
  • Koufuku is not commonly used; it refers to well-being or blessedness.

Defining happiness

Having read Iza’s article, Nick was astounded by how one old lady defined happiness: looking after her husband’s parents makes her the happiest. Iza interprets it as the importance of care; if one cares for others then everything will be good, and it will reciprocate to them -- the world will be a better place if people look after each other. Another way of interpreting it is as a sense of fulfilling her social role, as a wife and a mother -- finding one’s role in a community as a way to experience ikigai.


How Japanese people express joy

What Iza noticed during her research is that Japanese people are reluctant to use the word ‘happiness’ to describe their lives; the people she worked with rarely spoke directly of happiness because it seems like a form of bragging, and it is customary in Japan to represent oneself in a modest, self-deprecating manner.

Japanese people express their joy in a reserved manner, but people around them can definitely feel it -- it’s a shared experience.

A Caring World

Ikigai to the elderly

As part of her research, Iza looked at academic works, self-help books, and articles related to ikigai; what transpired is that ikigai was frequently associated with older people. She thinks that the reason for it is that older people, who are about to retire, are more at risk of losing their ikigai; being deprived of something that has been their ikigai for years might be difficult for them and they will feel a sense of loss.

Oftentimes, the older people she interviewed don’t want to talk about their ikigai; they feel like they don’t have anything to say in particular because of their old age. That is why the city government would organize an ikigai school, where they offer traditional arts or have a sports group, for the older people to get together and do a little bit of exercise because it is important for the elders to pursue their ikigai and find something that will make their life liveable and to help them avoid becoming (or feeling like they are becoming) a burden.

Doing Things Properly

Ikigai can be a spectrum of small and personal things like a pursuit of a creative hobby. It doesn't have to be about achieving anything. - Nicholas Kemp

Click to Tweet
Pursuit of a Creative Hobby

Ikigai can be a spectrum of small and personal things, like a pursuit of a creative hobby -- it doesn’t have to be about achieving anything. In Iza’s paper, she mentioned the idea of doing things properly; for some Japanese, their hobbies become a practice and it’s important for them to not be sloppy. It’s sort of an attitude to life that doing things properly could be seen as attention to form. 

Japanese people have a proper way of doing things, like serving a cup of tea to or even sorting the rubbish -- there is precision in the way they execute their tasks; it is an important part of living, especially for the older people, it makes them present by being engrossed in what they are doing.


Japanese people tend to avoid meiwaku (to cause trouble). To not be a burden for their children has become a widespread concern for the elderly, thus, they find ways to be of help to others; they are very thoughtful and show great care for others. Instead of thinking about themselves as independent, they try to cultivate multiple relationships: a form of interdependence with different people rather than being overly dependent on one person, which may be burdensome.

Iza’s works

Iza’s article “The good life in balance: Insights from aging Japan”, came out directly from the conclusion of her doctoral thesis. She also has a book called Making Meaningful Lives: Tales from an Aging Japan, which encapsulates all topics discussed in her article. She is also the author of The Ends of Life, Time and Meaning in Later Years, a special issue of the journal of anthropology and aging, and is working on a new book for Cambridge University on well-being.
Meaningful Lives

Learnings from Japan

Living in Japan taught Iza a lot of things and made her appreciate life more; the attention to detail, attentiveness to others, and the way Japanese people relate to objects — that objects are also important and need to be looked after. There are certain Japanese attributes that she also finds useful, like their attitude of gratitude that she believes is important because of the relational quality that it has; it reminds people that they live with others.

Live With Others

Iza’s ikigai

Situations like the pandemic made Iza appreciate the relationships that she has; her family, friends, and acquaintances are a very important part of her life and she considers them as her ikigai. In addition to that, her passion for research and teaching are also sources of her ikigai, as well as her other creative pursuits.



Each person's definition of happiness evolves as we progress through different stages of life. Our priorities shift, and what brings us joy may change. Activities that once excited us may lose their appeal, while new interests emerge.

Therefore, it is vital to actively explore and engage in activities that motivate us as we navigate through life. This pursuit not only leads to personal fulfillment but also prevents us from becoming a burden to those around us, benefiting both ourselves and others.