Finding ‘ikigai’ during a pandemic

Deboleena M. Guharay
Jan. 14, 2021

When COVID-19 upended everything around me, I took refuge in reading — something I enjoy but never invested much time in. Reading transports me to a place where I don't have to think much about the pandemic. I read mostly at night after putting my toddler-age daughter in bed. Reading helps me relax, and it also means less screen time.

I borrowed a book called "Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life" by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles from my mother-in-law's collection. The Japanese word "ikigai" means finding a purpose to live. Many of the oldest living people on earth are from Japan. In this book, the authors write about these elders' lifestyles, food habits and passions.

Courtesy of Deboleena Guharay
Reading "Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life" confirmed
the importance of purposeful changes in several aspects of Deboleena Guharay's
life, including cooking and eating.

I was struck by their daily practice of habits that take care of their mental and physical health. Their diet is extremely healthy, they exercise daily, and they are connected with their communities. This is exactly what we need right now to get through the pandemic, I thought. Good diet, exercise and social connection can help us get through.

Diet and exercise

To fight any viral infection, we need a strong immune system. My husband and I have focused on diet very seriously. We know daily intake of green leafy vegetables, fish, healthy fat like avocado, fruits, nuts, and foods rich in vitamins C and D will boost our immunity. We enjoy creating our breakfast, lunch and dinner menu. We've tried new recipes.

To make cooking more fun, I started a family chat group called "Quarantine Food 2020." We share recipes, cooking videos and pictures. Seeing the picture of a simple sautéed vegetable dish cooked by my mother-in-law motivated me to make something with vegetables the very next day. Her dish looked colorful, vibrant, healthy and very appetizing. Food brings people together, as did this virtual group with much joy, delight and excitement.

My husband and I have cheat days once in a while when we eat something spicier or with more calories for a little change. Some of our favorite cheats have been fries, chocolate cake or an Indian yogurt-based dessert called mishti doi. This would help us get back to the healthy eating cycle the very next day.

Physical exercise is key to both mental and physical health. Staying at home means less movement, and we needed to incorporate some exercise in our daily routine. Some of my friends go cycling or for long walks, practice yoga, or do gardening. My husband and I go for walks and enjoy the fresh air and nature. I also burn many calories running after my toddler.


The greatest challenge we've faced is social disconnection: not meeting with friends and family, not visiting a local grocery store or a coffee shop. As the pandemic wore on, I began to appreciate the importance of human interaction in our lives.

My husband and I decided to make the best use of technology to stay connected with our extended family. We started doing regular video calls with friends and family, which soon became an integral part of our lives. These sessions bubbled oxygen into our systems that helped us breathe through the next few days. We giggled, laughed and shared our anxieties. We celebrated my mother's birthday virtually in November. My daughter sang "Happy Birthday" for her, and I could see clearly from my mother's face that this moment made her day. We wished we were together, but we made the most of a virtual birthday celebration and enjoyed it immensely. We also celebrated anniversaries, festivals and Halloween virtually.

During this pandemic, I derive inspiration from people around me. My friends, family and neighbors are all inspiring in their own ways. Some have to work full time and also look after their children. It's been tough, but they pursue it with such zest and enthusiasm. And they also find time to follow their passions and do fun activities with their kids. A friend of mine started a food drive to help the needy. She used social media to spread the word and had a great response from the community. One of my other friends started an online painting session and donated her earnings from it to a charity. She did it while holding a full-time job and managing her two kids. Whether it's a painting or a craft or a delicious meal or a little sign in the neighborhood saying "Thank you, frontline workers," each of these is an inspiring act, an act that gives life purpose.

The people around me inspire me in finding my "ikigai." My friends help me believe that the world will soon get better.

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Deboleena M. Guharay

Deboleena M. Guharay earned her Ph.D. in chemistry from Virginia Commonwealth University. She is very enthusiastic and passionate about science communication.

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