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What is ikigai and how can it add meaning to my life?

a woman with yellow long hair shows the ikigai meaning in her life

Life on this pale blue dot can be somewhat challenging. Some days it's tough to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Some people seem to find joy wherever they go.

How do they do it?

Do you know the secret to a happy and fulfilling life?

Do you consciously stop to think about your happiness? Do small things bring a smile to your face? Do you feel like there's a sense of purpose, something that fuels you to keep going even when things get rough?

If you answered 'yes' to these questions, you probably already have an ikigai way to go! If you didn't, maybe it's time to introduce it to your daily life.

Below, we'll provide an ikigai meaning from both the Japanese and Western perspectives. We'll help you figure out how to use ikigai in everyday life, and how it can help you find peace, purpose and joy.

What is ikigai?

Ikigai (生き甲斐, "ee-kee-guy") is a Japanese concept that describes the things that make your life worthwhile; the things that give you a deep sense of purpose, satisfaction and joy.

The word has recently made its way into Western culture, and it's sometimes defined as the "secret to a happy life" or "something that brings pleasure or fulfillment." (This isn't entirely accurate, but we'll clear that up below.)

Ikigai is made up of two Japanese words, iki (生き), which means life, and kai (甲斐), meaning effect, result, value, benefit, or worth. Iki and kai come together to give us ikigai: a reason to live/to exist.

(If you're curious, the "k" turns into a "g" due to a linguistic phenomenon known as 'rendaku'. In Japanese, voiceless consonants (such as "k" in kai) become voiced (e.g., "g" in gai) when they appear in front of words that make up the second part of a compound.)

Although the concept of ikigai is well known among Japanese people, it was first popularized by psychiatrist Mieko Kamiya in her 1966 book Ikigai ni tsuite - (生きがいについて - On the meaning of life).

What's the history behind ikigai?

The origin of the word ikigai dates all the way back to the Heian period (794 to 1185). Professor Akihiro Hasegawa has studied the concept of ikigai for many years, publishing plenty of research papers on the matter.

He believes that the "kai" actually comes from the Japanese word for shell or shellfish (貝). During the Heian period, shells were extremely valuable, often hand-decorated by artists and used as part of a shell-matching game called "kai-awase" (貝合わせ). Only the rich could afford these beautiful and valuable shells, which is how the word kai literally became synonymous with worth, value, benefit, and so on.

Ikigai isn't what you think it is

Ikigai has risen in popularity over the past few years, with many blogs and news outlets (including prominent outlets such as the BBC) writing countless stories titled along the lines of "ikigai: the Japanese secret to a happy life". Unfortunately, many people in the West confuse ikigai with a certain Venn diagram about 'finding your purpose'.

The Western interpretation of Ikigai, popularized by Marc Winn

The diagram comprises four overlapping circles. Each circle contains a question, and each set of circles come together to describe one's passion, mission, profession, and vocation. Once you've contemplated each question, you can supposedly reveal your ikigai / life purpose.

The four questions ask whether or not you're doing:

  • Something that you love
  • Something that the world needs
  • Something you're good at
  • Something you can be paid for

The diagram was popularized by entrepreneur Marc Winn, who combined the ikigai concept with a purpose-finding process invented by Spanish astrologer Andrés Zuzunaga in 2011. It took off, became a meme, and started being referenced as the authoritative definition of ikigai for English-speaking cultures. (Credit goes to Nicholas Kemp for chronicling the history of ikigai's misconceptions.)

The purpose diagram can help people find balance in their life, but really it's career advice, rather than life advice. It has nothing to do with the Japanese concept of ikigai. The misconception perpetuated by the diagram online is that the only way to achieve ikigai / true happiness is by meeting all four conditions.

That's simply not true, because it implies you can't experience ikigai if you do something you love but aren't getting paid for it.

And while we're at it, let's clear up a certain geographical misconception.

Okinawan centenarians don't hold the secret to ikigai. Yes, life expectancy is surprisingly high in Okinawa (the southernmost prefecture of Japan), but the same can be said about many other regions of Japan. Authors Héctor García and Francesc Miralles interviewed a group of Okinawan citizens over the age of 100 for their book 'Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life', in order to find out their life philosophies. But it had the effect of placing Okinawa as the centre of ikigai, which isn't really correct.

Professor Hasegawa found that location doesn't really influence people's ikigai. Rather, it all has to do with health, intellectual activeness, and perceived social behavior / roles.

The true Japanese meaning of ikigai

The truth is that Japanese people rarely ask themselves the above questions with regards to ikigai. The term isn't as grandiose in its original context. In reality, ikigai has more to do with the little things in life - the small, happy moments you learn to treasure as they nourish you with joy.

According to Professor Hasegawa, we might have to blame the language barrier for this misinterpretation. Ikigai has long been described as "the Japanese secret to a long and happy life", but it's not something we can measure – nor does it lie in some certain sweet spot. The word iki, which comes from the verb ikiru/to live (生きる) pertains to daily living. When talking about someone's lifetime in more general terms, the Japanese use the noun 人生 (jinsei) instead.

So, here's a better way of framing it, coined by Nicholas Kemp: "the value one finds in day-to-day living."

The things that really bring you ikigai

Mieko Kamiya didn't just help popularize the term ikigai in Japan. Many researchers (including professor Hasegawa), have used her findings to try and capture the true meaning of ikigai.

One thing Kamiya established was that most people have one specific force, or focus, of their ikigai. This can be tied to the past, present, or future, and it can be many different things, including:

  • experience
  • memory
  • health
  • hobby
  • family members
  • friends
  • social role
  • future events
  • imagination

Any of these can fuel a person's ikigai, leading to several positive feelings of life satisfaction:

  • self-realization and willingness to live
  • sense of fulfillment in everyday life
  • motivation to live
  • sense of existence
  • sense of control

These feelings are known as ikigai-kan. Many of us here in the West are driven by similar motivational forces; we're just not always conscious of their effects. In Japanese culture, people tie their happiness and well-being to their ikigai, finding purpose and staying strong even when dealing with a highly stressful daily life. The endurance, discipline, and determination many Japanese are known for could potentially be linked back to their self-defined ikigai.

What are some examples of ikigai?

With that in mind, it's not hard to come up with some great ikigai examples, which can be both grandiose or humble.

Think of the single mom who's working two jobs to make sure her children have everything they need. Life's not easy, but taking care of her children, watching them grow, and putting a smile on their faces is enough to keep her going. Her children are her ikigai, bringing joy and fulfillment in an otherwise exhausting and unstable life.

Think of a young student's will to study hard and pursue their dream job and a teacher's quest to see their students flourish. A grandma's ikigai might be just staying healthy or getting to see her children / grandchildren every week.

Yes, your profession might be closely linked to your ikigai, but note how there's no necessary correlation with monetary benefits. This is what the Venn diagram gets wrong. Besides, as we've already mentioned, small things that bring pleasure and fulfillment make just as much of a contribution to your ikigai (e.g., walking your dog, enjoying your morning coffee, reading a novel before bed, or just staring at the clouds in the sky).

How do I find my ikigai?

Ikigai isn't an elaborate secret or fancy technique that can give meaning and purpose to life – at least according to neuroscientist Ken Mogi. For him, it makes more sense to do away with strict definitions, focusing on the positive impact of ikigai – and finding a way to replicate its effects.

Anything that gives you joy while also fueling you to keep moving forward can be described as ikigai.

In his book, Awakening Your Ikigai, Ken Mogi identifies five principles that can help people feel more grateful as they learn to appreciate the small joys of life.

A way to find your ikigai, based on Ken Mogi's research

1. Start small

The first pillar of ikigai is closely tied to the Japanese philosophy of kodawari (こだわり – 'commitment'). You can think of kodawari as the relentless pursuit for perfection in one's work or craft. Many Japanese know that perfection is unattainable, but they still aim to be as efficient and innovative as possible.

Even if they have access to limited resources, Japanese followers of ikigai will put their heart and soul into what they do, always looking for new ways to improve and progress. They know that greatness doesn't come easy, and they don't mind moving forward one step at a time.

Diligence, patience, and attention to detail allow them to see beauty in the smallest of things: the first sip of coffee in the morning, a child's laughter, the strong scent of tonkotsu ramen in the streets of Tokyo.

2. Release yourself

According to Mogi, The second pillar of ikigai is accepting yourself as you are. With variation being one of the greatest hallmarks of nature, he believes there's happiness to be found in allowing your true self to flourish and shine through.

He mentions the Japanese proverb junin toiro (十人十色), which translates to "ten different colors for ten different people" and lies at the core of ikigai philosophy:

"In pursuing your ikigai, you can be yourself, as much as you like. It is only natural that you should be yourself because each one of us has a slightly different color."

Although otherwise a collectivist culture, the Japanese value variations in personality, sensitivity, and expression.

3. Live in harmony and sustainability

The third pillar is all about harmony and sustainability. You should pursue your own dreams and desires, but you should always take the sustainability of your social – and natural – environment into consideration as well.

You see, ikigai is a kind of motivational force that helps you move forward: it gives you the strength to do the chores when you'd rather sleep. It pushes you to go to work (and find joy in it) when you could instead sit at home and play video games all day. But more importantly, ikigai is about being in harmony with the environment, with the people around you, and with society at large.

For Westerners, the concept of harmony can be a tricky one. After all, we find ourselves in competitive environments where hierarchies and power structures reign supreme. It's difficult to see the bigger picture when we're so preoccupied with our own selfish worries and desires. We don't often see how we fit into that bigger picture, and that can bring us down.

4. Find joy in the small things

Despite what most of us Westerners believe about ikigai, for most Japanese people it has nothing to do with their day job. Because many work environments are so demanding, exhausting, and uninspiring, people seek fulfillment outside working hours. Japan is a country of hobbyists who've taken the joy of small things to a whole new level.

What if you work in business full-time but have a passion for pottery? You find time to spend in your workshop, even if you're only going to sell one $10 vase by the end of the week. The sense of achievement and satisfaction you feel by landing that sale might be enough to fuel your ikigai for days to come. Or it could just come from the act of making it, if you don't care about the commercial aspect.

As an example, Mogi talks about the huge number of people who actively produce and sell their own manga at the komiketto (コミケット – comic market). Sure, it can be lucrative to some extent, but for the vast majority, it's nothing more than a joyful hobby.

5. Be in the here and now

You'll be familiar with this concept if you've studied Eastern philosophies before. Remaining focused on the here and now allows you to lead a calmer, more carefree life. Mogi believes this final pillar is all about bringing out our inner child, taking the time to cherish and appreciate every fleeting moment.

He says that children are always filled with joy because they don't spend too much time thinking about the past and the future. The present moment brings new adventures and sensations that they just need to explore.

Being more childlike can be life-changing. We can continue to learn, play, be free and creative, without having to worry too much about money, social roles, or status.

Ikigai in a nutshell

Experiencing ikigai means finding your personal happiness triggers and devoting yourself to them wholeheartedly. It's all about discovering the small joys that make life worth living for you. It doesn't have to be this big secret that will suddenly enlighten you and give you purpose.

Take some time to observe the world around you. Be kind, look inward, and try to make the most of every moment without overthinking things. That's the key to a happier life.

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