022 – Dr. Chikako Ozawa-de Silva on a Lack of Ikigai: Loneliness and Relational Meaning

CONTENT WARNING: In this episode, we discuss the subject of suicide which may be sensitive for some people. If you need help, please contact your local crisis centre.



A loneliness epidemic has been happening around the world. With all these uncertainties and difficulties that we experience, how can we battle loneliness?

In this episode of the Ikigai Podcast, Nick and Dr. Chikako Ozawa-de Silva discuss  the important issues of depression, suicide, and life meaning.


Podcast highlights:

  • Why study suicide website visitors? At 3:39, Chikako shares what attracted her to study suicide website visitors.
  • Suicide websites in Japan. At 5:33, Chikako provides a history of suicide websites in Japan.
  • On writing articles about suicide. At 8:58 Chikako shares on how was it like to write articles about suicide. She shares the effects it has on her while writing those articles. 
  • In what ways does loneliness impact well-being? At 11:02, Nick and Chikako talk about how loneliness affects our well-being.
  • Mental languishing. Chikako defines mental languishing at 13:09, and differentiates it from mental illness.
  • Suicide rates. At 15:46 Nick and Chikako talk about suicide rates in Japan, and the increase of suicide rates in young people.
  • Mental pain expressed by suicide website visitors. At 17:46 Chikako discusses the three types of mental pain expressed by the suicide website visitors, as revealed by her research.
  • Cry for help. At 20:15 Chikako shares how she sees the statements at the suicide websites as a cry for help -- people’s wish to find a better life.
  • Survey among college students. Nick and Chikako discuss at 24:50 the survey that Chikako has done regarding suicide, life, and ikigai among college students.
  • Ikiru imi. At 29:25, Chikako explains ikiru imi, and describes how it’s different from ikigai.
  • Definition of ikigai. At 30:56 Chikako shares her own definition of ikigai.
  • Learning from interviewee responses? At 35:02, Chikako shares what she learned from conducting surveys about suicide.
  • The effect of social media. At 36:49, Nick and Chikako discuss the impact of social media on young people.
  • Understanding ikigai. At 50:10, Nick and Chikako discuss what it takes to understand and find ikigai.
  • Ikizurasa. At 54:28, Chikako gives the definition of ikizurasa, a term mentioned in her interviews.
  • The need to be needed. At 1:03:53, Nick and Chikako talk about the importance of feeling needed, and how it gives a sense of ikigai.
  • Finding ikigai through meaningful relationships. At 1:12:34, Nick and Chikako talk about having meaningful relationships as a way of finding ikigai.
  • Chikako’s advice. At 1:17:41, Chikako gives advice for people who are feeling lonely.

Chikako Ozawa-de Silva

Chikako Ozawa-de Silve

Dr. Chikako Ozawa-de Silva is an associate professor of anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Her research focuses on cross-cultural understandings of well-being, especially mental well-being and contemplative practice. Her work brings together Western and Asian perspectives on the mind, body, religion, medicine, and therapy.

She has written many papers on the topic of naikan, mental health, and loneliness. She’s the author of the book Psychotherapy and Religion in Japan: The Japanese Introspection Practice of Naikan. She also wrote “Toward an Anthropology of Loneliness”, a special article in the journal Transcultural Psychiatry. Her upcoming book is entitled The Anatomy of Loneliness: Suicide, Social Connection, and The Search for Relational Meaning in Contemporary Japan.



Why study suicide website visitors?

Chikako recalls how, as early as 1998, she was already aware of increasing suicide rates, which didn’t show any signs of declining until 2010. She also remembers the impact of the film “Suicide Club”, about Internet-mediated suicide amongst young people, which she watched at the Chicago Film Festival. The film sparked her interest in the topic of suicide website visitors.


 

Suicide websites in Japan

Chikako shares how suicide websites began to emerge in early 2000s in Japan. These websites, which are for people who would like to get support, have chat rooms, links to other suicide websites, and also suicide hotlines. These are places where people can share their mental pain with others who have similar feelings; for example, some moderators were formerly suicidal themselves and make use of their own experiences to support suicidal website visitors.


Chikako also thinks that suicide websites also have negative representation because they also serve as platform for people to plan their group suicide and die together.



On writing articles about suicide

It has been mentally taxing for Chikako to research and write articles about suicide. She says that she was closely following over 40 suicide websites from 2003-2009, and came close to abandoning the idea of writing a book on this topic. However, she was encouraged by senior colleagues who told her that this was a very important topic worthy of exploring in depth.


After seven years of intense visits over the suicide websites, she took a break but has been revisiting the websites since 2018. This allowed her to explore changes in the websites over time, which was helpful in putting together her upcoming book.



In what ways does loneliness impact well-being?

According to Chikako, from a number of studies, long-term loneliness is associated with a reduction in lifespan that is actually similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

She shares that some studies found that 9 million people in the UK often felt lonely. In the US, the 2010 survey found that more than a third of American citizens over the age of 45 felt lonely.

 

Loneliness has been a growing health epidemic and is now recognized as a serious public health threat.



Mental languishing

Nick then asked Chikako about mental languishing and how it differs from mental illness.


Chikako states that mental illness is the medical category, while mental languishing is understood as a deficit in emotional, social, and psychological well-being. She further explains how emotional well-being means you’re feeling happy; social well-being, on the other hand, is the feeling that you’re accepted by other people, your community, and society; psychological well-being, however, is having self-worth and feeling positive about yourself. Mental languishing is a deficit of all these forms of well-being. 


According to Chikako, people with mental languishing, who also, lack social support, are more at risk of future suicide than those with mental illness.


Mental Languishing


Nick summarises this by describing how people can be mentally sound or mentally stable -- but if they don’t have social connections, if they have loneliness, and the sense that they don't have purpose or meaning to their lives, it would be harder to face the future and want to continue living. 



Suicide rates

According to Chikako, in terms of the total number of suicides, it's primarily impacting men in their 40s to 60s, people who lost their jobs and faced other difficult life experiences. However, she felt that the government was slow to recognise the danger of suicide among young people; it has risen by 50%, and, over the past two decades, has even become an issue in elementary school students.


 

Mental pain expressed by suicide website visitors

Through her research, Chikako came up with three distinctive types of mental pain and existential angst expressed by these website visitors. These are:


  • Severe loneliness -- an acute sense of loneliness

  • The absence of meaning in life

  • The feeling of not being needed by anyone

She came to realize these forms of mental pain while she was going through some posts and comments of regular suicide website visitors.



Cry for help

Chikako noticed that one of the reasons why people would visit suicide websites is because they felt lonely and wished to find a way to connect with other people. This led her to look at the statements posted on these websites as a cry for help.


As she says, people wish to find a better way of life, but to die with other people is at least a happy way to end their life.



Survey among college students

Chikako did a survey among college students. She interviewed 24 college students about suicide, the meaning of good death, life, and ikigai. She says that it was surprising for her 

to hear how many students said that it was actually helpful for them to talk about things that matter to them. Others even said that it was very healing to have somebody who can listen to them. 


Others used her interviews as a way of deepening their own thinking on the spot. She shares that she found conducting surveys among college students to be a valuable and touching experience.



Ikiru imi

One of the terms mentioned in Chikako’s article was ikiru imi, which literally translates as ‘meaning in life’. It was a common term used by the suicide website visitors.


But what is the meaning in life, and what is the point of living? These are very abstract and lofty questions, evoking philosophical, ideological, and ontological reflections. Ikiru imi as a phrase therefore may sound overly grand for many college students, who might then say that they do not have an ikiru imi -- but they can talk about their ikigai, which is more about relations and purpose.



Definition of Ikigai

Chikako defines ikigai as ‘purpose in life’ or ‘what makes life worthy’. It’s feeling-oriented, small-scale, relation-oriented, and how you feel about yourself and life. It’s the feeling of being needed, and being there for other people.


Chikako shares that what she learned from her interviews was how so many people viewed ikiru imi or ikigai, in the sense of being needed by others, in a really intimately connected way. Being needed by anyone: that is the meaning in life. 


Ikigai is not about achievement or success which most people are fixated on. It's about relationships, the feeling of being needed, and being there for other people.


 

The effect of social media

Nick and Chikako talk about how social media might be one of the causes of depression among younger people.


Chikako said that people present themselves in a very positive light on these social media platforms because that’s how they want to be perceived by others. That’s how social media works: People only show the positive side, what they want to show. When someone is experiencing loneliness and sees other people on social media having a great time, that might make them feel even more desperately lonely; they could become even more depressed about where they are. This illustrates how important it is to use social media wisely so as to avoid, or minimise the likelihood of, depression.



Understanding ikigai

Chikako thinks that ikigai depends on where you are in life. It normally shifts. She thinks that her ikigai has changed over time.

 

Life experience gives us more opportunity to find ikigai. - Nicholas Kemp

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Ikigai


Nick agrees that ikigai is something that changes over time. He says that when people are young, they are forward-thinking, focusing on their goals and future. When people grow older, however, they tend to reflect on the past. They still have goals towards the future, but they also make meaning of their past. They discover what’s important to them throughout their life journey. With life experiences, people can understand that ikigai comes in different forms. Life experience gives people more opportunities to find ikigai.


Nick shared something that he learned from Professore Shintaro Kono:  the temporal aspect to ikigai is that people can feel ikigai when they reflect on their past memories or experiences.



Ikizurasa

Chikako’s introduces the word Iikizurasa, which translates to ‘difficulty of living’ or ‘finding it hard to live’. This term, which emerged in her interviews, is often used in Japan; she describes a small bookstore in Hiroshima that has an entire section on ikizurasa.


Chikako shares how, back in the 90s, Japan went through an era of healing, but then, within a few decades, was experiencing ikizurasa, the difficulty of living in society. At that time people were aware of the need for healing.



The need to be needed

Nick and Chikako discuss the importance of feeling needed.


Chikako shares that the students she interviewed expressed an anxiety about mattering to someone; they demonstrated a neediness, and to reduce this neediness, it is necessary to help them feel that they are needed by someone. 


The need to be needed


Nick says that being needed gives people a sense of ikigai. Being needed makes a life worth living. It is all about having these deep, connected, and meaningful relationships. To be needed, one must be useful and do things for others.


To be needed, we do need to be helpful to others and we need to make others feel needed, too. - Nicholas Kemp

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Being needed


Finding ikigai with meaningful relationships

Nick and Chikako both agree that fostering meaningful relationships is an important step towards finding ikigai. Ikigai can be an appreciation of small things, and it can also involve being embedded in a very good relationship and enjoying various aspects of that interaction with another person. Once people become goal-oriented, it could be endless. What’s important is having this kind of sound relationship that is the real foundation for happiness.


Foundation for happiness


Chikako’s advice

Nick asks Chikako what advice she can give to people who are feeling lonely.


Accept loneliness


First, she suggests that people need  to accept loneliness: It's okay to be lonely. Loneliness is everyone's business. It's not that some people are lonely, and other people are not, it is just the condition of what it means to be a human being. She advises that if you encounter people expressing loneliness, the first thing you can say to them is, ‘it’s okay; right now it's tough, but it can get better’. It's not a mental illness; we all experience loneliness. 


Second, Chikako advises that we all strive to accept other people and also accept ourselves. When we are struggling, we tend to become more critical of others. However, there is a relationship between accepting others and accepting yourself; if you can learn to be less critical of others, you can learn to be less critical of yourself, as well.

Connect with your ibasho


Finally, Chikako suggests that people work on finding their ibasho, the place they belong to. We all have relationships not only with people, but also with certain places with which we have particular connections. Even just imagining the image of these special places can bring on a sense of calm because of the special meaning of that place. When feeling lonely, then, people can think of their ibasho and find a way to connect with it. 



Conclusion

It’s normal to feel lonely. Each one of us has experienced loneliness at some time or another, and we can find ways to combat it. Meaningful relationships can help with this battle; sometimes all we need is to feel needed, and to have a sense that we matter to somebody. This can be a powerful antidote to a world full of uncertainties.


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