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A Sense of Purpose: Essential for your Family’s Health

Brad Jesson

We hear it all the time: “Having a sense of purpose is a fool-proof way to a fully satisfactory life” (this one from, but the messages are often similar. Cornell University research tells us: “A sense of purpose is integral to the human experience”.

Yet, many people in society today still struggle to find this purpose. This can be even more prevalent in families of wealth where there may be no urgent need for the next generation to earn money (now or upon inheriting family wealth). As mental health awareness continues to rise, additional resources and tools are now available to help guide people on their path to purpose, whether it be an 18-year-old embarking on adult life, or a 70-year-old facing the prospects of some form of retirement.

The Japanese concept Ikigai (pronounced “ee-key-guy”) is a popular tool we use with some families. Ikigai, which means “that which gives your life purpose” is woven into the fabric of the island of Okinawa, which boasts the highest concentration of people over age 100 in the world. The people of Okinawa don’t just live longer, they also remain healthy and vibrant.

In Tom McCullough and Keith Whitaker’s new book Wealth of Wisdom: Top Practices for Wealth Families and Their Advisors, Don Opatrny and Keith Michaelson do a masterful job highlighting how Ikigai can be used to foster a legacy of meaningful engagement. They focus on helping to ensure inheritors are engaged with a sense of purpose and touch on a very important aspect when it relates to wealthy parents: decoupling the significance of work from earning money. The most successful parents of inheritors, they posit, “do well to reinforce the idea that doing meaningful work is an essential part of human development and satisfaction”.

The model’s four overlapping components help make intuitive sense of activities that offer meaning and purpose. If you’ve inherited family wealth the “earning money/ what you can be paid for” circle may not be a primary need, so starting with the top three circles is more productive, including:

1.    What you love

2.    What you are good at

3.    What you think the world needs/ways you want to contribute

Ultimately, the goal is to help find activities that challenge you, test your abilities, require dedication, and meet the needs of others. One example is the commitment to sport. While it can earn money eventually at the highest levels, for most this is not the motivating factor. It challenges, tests abilities, requires dedication and meets the needs of others. Another is a love of architecture and design. While being an architect can earn money, for many it is not the motivating factor.

The tool is useful for the next generation of inheritors of family wealth, but also for wealthy retirees. On the island Okinawa, the term retirement does not exist. It is important for a person in retirement to continue to have purpose: whether that be through philanthropy, volunteerism, helping with their grandchildren, having social connections with people in their community, continuing their craft, working with their children on projects. It’s not surprising that Harvard’s longest longitudinal study, found that strong relationships (whether spouses, family, friends, and social circles), not money or fame are what keep people happy throughout their lives.

Ikigai is just one of many tools to help foster a culture of meaningful engagement in a family. Society now acknowledges that mental health is just as important as physical health – in order to ensure a thriving family, they must acknowledge the importance of each member having a sense of purpose.  

Thanks to Don Opatrny and Keith Michaelson for their excellent chapter on this important topic. There’s more where that came from in Wealth of Wisdom: Top Practices for Wealthy Families and their Advisors. To listen to Don and Keith discuss their chapter in the Wealth of Wisdom podcast series click here.


Brad Jesson

Brad is a member of Northwood’s family office advisory group, working with families in the areas of goals based financial planning, investment management, tax planning, and next-generation education. In addition to his work with families, Brad is actively involved with Northwood next generation education and regularly contributes to Northwood's Thought Leadership Newsletter.

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