What is Ikigai? We all need purpose in life. It’s essential. Perhaps the wisdom of Ikigai will help you rediscover the meaning you once felt when you were younger.
Do you love waking up in the morning? As soon as you open your eyes, are you excited to start your day?
If you answered yes to these questions, then you may have Ikigai, which is the Japanese term for “reason for being,” or “the reason why you get up in the morning.”
But, if you wake up dreading your day, and would much rather sleep in than go to work or not do anything at all, then your life may lack Ikigai.
What is ikigai and why does it matter? Do we really need it in life? Can’t we be happy in life without it? And if you’re unhappy or lack direction in life, will it help you?
Let’s talk about ikigai, why it matters if you have it or not, and how you can discover your meaning and purpose in life with this simple Japanese way of life.
What is Ikigai?
Sociologists, researchers, scientists, and psychologists the world over have been trying to study the concept of ikigai and how it affects happiness and longevity. The first time I read about it, I was immediately intrigued, too.
Ikigai is a concept that has become popular in today’s modern world as an answer to the pressures and stresses of daily life, work, finances, careers, and in finding happiness and fulfillment in life.
VIDEO | TED TALK : Ikigai by Tim Tamashiro
But what is it, really?
Well, ikigai is a Japanese word. It roughly translates to “reason for being,” and it’s pronounced as “ee-key-guy.”
The word comes from two Japanese words, which are “iki,” which means “life,” and “kai,” which means “effect, result.” Roughly translated, “Ikigai” means a “reason for living,” which also has another meaning, “your reason to wake up each morning.”
Ikigai, as a concept, has long existed in the Japanese culture and was only popularized in the Western world when Mieko Kamiya, a psychiatrist and academic mentioned it in her 1966 book, “On the Meaning of Life.”
The concept is said to have evolved from traditional Japanese medicine principles of health and wellness. Japanese traditional medicine holds that one’s mental and emotional health, as well as having a sense of purpose in life, impacts your physical well-being.
Michiko Kumano, who is a Japanese psychologist, has stated in 2017 that “ikigai” is a state of well-being that results from devotion to activities that a person enjoys, while also bringing a sense of fulfillment to a person’s life.
Michiko further states that ikigai is different from hedonia, which is transitory pleasure. It is more aligned with eudaimonia, which is an ancient Greek principle of a life well-lived. Eudaimonia is said to lead to the highest and most lasting form of happiness.
So what about your reason for being? Why should we strive for it?
Well, there’s a great deal of data and research with regards to how beneficial ikigai is to our lives. If only we lived by our ikigai, we could become happier, more productive, more fulfilled, and some researchers even believe it is the secret to a happy and long life.
Why Ikigai Matters: Benefits of Ikigai
Dan Buettner is a National Geographic reporter and New York Times bestselling author. In his work covering the world’s Blue Zones, which are places on Earth where people live the longest and healthiest lives, he discovered that ikigai may contribute to the longevity of Okinawans.
Okinawa is an island south of mainland Japan, where the average mortality rate of men is 84 years old, and 90 years old for women (the highest in the world.) According to Buettner, Okinawans don’t have the desire to retire and as long as they’re healthy, continue to do their favorite job.
In the bestselling book, “Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life,” which is written by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles, they mention that ikigai is central to Okinawans. In this remote island with so many centenarians, the authors believe that ikigai is one of the primary reasons for its inhabitants’ longevity.
Additionally, Peter Fisk, who is the CEO of Genius Works and author of Game Changers, states that despite the rural and tough environment of Okinawa, as well as limited access to modern medicine and health care, they seem to be healthier than most of Western society.
Okinawans don’t have cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, and they don’t have struggles with depression and even dementia in old age.
A study on longevity was conducted and involved tens of thousands of Japanese adults between the ages of 40 and 79. They were asked many questions, one being “Do you have ikigai in your life?”
The vast majority of the participants were then followed for 7 years. After the 7-year study, the researchers discovered that 7% of the respondents had died.
About 60% of the participants who answered yes to having ikigai were likely to be employed, educated, and married. These participants reported lower levels of stress and better health according to self-rating, and 95% of respondents who reported having a sense of meaning in their lives were alive after 7 years.
The researchers also discovered that the lack of ikigai was particularly associated with death due to cardiovascular disease. The study shows that ikigai could predict who was still alive after 7 years.
Though the study does not promise that ikigai guarantees longevity or explains the exact mechanisms associated with ikigai and mortality rate. The researchers, however, revealed that their data showed substantial significance in the study of longevity and its association with ikigai.
The Benefits of Ikigai
From what I have mentioned above, we can see that ikigai does have an impact on helping people live longer in Japan. But since the biological, social, physical, and psychological benefits of ikigai are largely unknown, here are four benefits of ikigai that have been proven by scientific research:
Studies have shown that having ikigai contributes to the healthy secretion of healthy neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. These neurotransmitters all help to reduce stress and anxiety.
Friedrich Nietzsche once said: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” This quote was mentioned in Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” where he narrated his personal story of surviving several concentration camps during WWII.
Research suggests that ikigai may help people go through times of hardship. Having ikigai, or purpose in life makes you feel that life is worthwhile and worth it to continue living despite loss, struggles, and hardships in life.
In fact, ikigai is said to be one of the reasons people in Japan coped during the earthquake and tsunami disaster that occurred in March 2011.
Improves Self Satisfaction
Research has shown that people who don’t have ikigai in their lives have a strong need of wanting approval from others. Those with ikigai, however, have been shown to perform tasks for the sake of their own satisfaction, rather than for the approval of other people.
Good for Cardiovascular Health
One study that spanned 7 years and involved 40,000 Japanese adults revealed people who have a low sense of ikigai experienced a higher overall mortality risk, with most of the causes of death due to higher cardiovascular disease.
5.Promotes Longer Life
A study reveals that ikigai reduces risks of mortality from all causes, and not just cardiovascular disease, which means having ikigai helps you live longer.
All this information from studies, research, and books show that ikigai does help you live longer, but also helps you become healthier and even happier.
What Does Psychology Have to Say About Ikigai?
Since my background is in Psychology, I was naturally curious about what psychological theories and explanations back the benefits and effects of ikigai.
Yes, having a sense of purpose makes you get up in the morning, but why? Why is ikigai the key to happiness and why does it help us live longer?
I’ve been reading about Viktor Frankl and when I started researching on ikigai, I realized that Frankls’ work has similarities with this Japanese way of life.
Frankl created logotherapy, which is a form of psychoanalysis connected with positive psychology and existentialism.
In his brilliant book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” it is said that one of the very first questions practitioners ask patients is this: “Why do you not commit suicide?”
When I first read about it, I, myself, paused. It made me think, yes, why don’t I commit suicide? Sometimes, even therapists, counselors, and psychologists have their very own existential moments, when they ask themselves why am I even doing what I do?
VIDEO | Listen to Viktor Frankl talk about meaning
Logotherapy makes you face yourself. It pushes you to come up with a straight answer to the question, helping you find out a reason to live, i.e. your ikigai.
The main goal of logotherapy is to help patients endure hardships and suffering through a search for purpose. By consciously discovering your life purpose, it motivates you to push forward and overcome obstacles you encounter in life.
The Concept of Flow
I mentioned the bestselling book, “Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life,” earlier and one of the psychological concepts repeatedly mentioned in the book is Flow.
Flow is a concept created by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is also known as being “in the zone.” Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as occurring when you are consistently doing something you love, something that you are good at, and something that brings value to other people’s lives. Read his book entitled “FLOW” to learn more.
It is the moment by which you are so deeply engaged in what you’re doing that you become a part of it. Notions of time disappear, and some forget to eat, drink water, or go to the bathroom because you are so immersed in the task that you absolutely enjoy doing.
Some of the benefits of flow include better emotional regulation, greater feelings of happiness, greater enjoyment and fulfillment, improved creativity, improved performance, and many other positive effects in one’s life and experience.
In terms of its connection with ikigai, when you do something you love, when you engage in activities that bring meaning to your life, you experience flow, and the purpose of life is to have as many flow experiences as possible to bring authentic happiness.
Similarities with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is used by therapists to address a wide range of mental health issues. From anxiety to depression, fears, life transitions, and even addiction, CBT is used to improve people’s mental health.
I discovered that the very techniques used in CBT resonate with ikigai. One of which is recommending patients to pursue activities that produce enjoyment and a sense of mastery to alleviate depressive symptoms.
CBT emphasizes pursuing things that produce joy in your day-to-day life. It also encourages you to focus on the present moment and your immediate environment, and not on your past, or even your future.
I think, unknowingly, ikigai is the answer to a lot of psychological issues that stem in people’s lives.
Happiness and a Sense of Purpose
I found a study where the researchers took blood samples of their participants to investigate that different forms of happiness induced different biological responses.
Steven Cole, who is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UCLA, and associates, collaborated with University of North Carolina scientists to conduct the experiment.
The study involved having 80 people answer a questionnaire about two different kinds of happiness, and the researchers took blood samples of the subjects to examine which genes were turned on and off with regards to immune response.
The researchers discovered that those who took pleasure in hedonic pursuits, such as buying a new car or going on a vacation, had a high inflammatory gene response to adversity.
This means that when people preferred hedonic pursuits of happiness and were met with a setback, their bodies had a low expression of antiviral and antibody genes. When these people encounter adversity, they experience symptoms similar to high levels of stress and anxiety.
According to Cole, this kind of response to adversity can cause cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, which can lead to early mortality.
The participants who responded well to eudaimonic pursuits, however, had an opposite reaction. Eudaimonic pursuits come from having a deep sense of meaning and purpose in life, as well as doing good for others. When these people encountered adversity, their high antiviral and antibody genes were ignited, which means they have a better ability to fight off illnesses and viruses.
The conclusion of the study reveals that having a sense of purpose makes you happier and healthier, as compared to having mere self-gratification and pleasure-seeking pursuits.
The presence of meaning in your life is highly associated with better mental and physical functioning. Many studies reveal the health benefits of having purpose in life, which include reduced heart attacks, better sleep, and faster recovery from negative events much faster.
There is so much literature when it comes to happiness and longevity brought about by having purpose in life, which is what ikigai is all about.
However, it is not just about purpose and meaning, but it’s also more than that. You can have a job that’s fulfilling and having an impact on other people, but just because you’re good at it, doesn’t mean you’re happy.
So many people all over the world have high-paying jobs that have a positive impact on other people but yet they are depressed and some are even suicidal.
Ikigai is more than that. Several factors constitute ikigai, and we’ll discuss this next.
The Four Factors of Ikigai
To further get a better glimpse of what ikigai represents, a diagram shows the factors that lead to ikigai.
This Venn diagram illustrates the very factors that create ikigai. These 4 factors are:
- What You Love
- What You Are Good At
- What The World Needs
- What You Can Get Paid For
According to this modern interpretation of ikigai, these 4 factors must be met to be able to achieve authentic ikigai in your life.
What You Love
The first thing on your agenda is doing things that you love. It doesn’t have to be one single thing and it can be several things in your life that you love doing.
Remember the concept of Flow, which I mentioned earlier? Well, you can use flow to point you in the right direction.
What is one thing that absolutely makes you feel happy, joyful, and free? It could be climbing a mountain. Or maybe playing music in your room during your day off? Or maybe it could be cooking on the weekend.
You need to fill your days with activities that bring joy to your life. If you are employed, you must be doing a job that you are happy to do.
What You Are Good At
You need to find something that you’re actually good at to be able to enjoy it. It’s like playing a sport, like soccer. If you aren’t good at it, and you join a professional league, you certainly won’t enjoy playing if you can’t even dribble the ball to an open space or pass it to your teammate. You certainly won’t enjoy even playing one game.
To be able to enjoy and bring happiness to the task you’re doing, you must at least be good at it. Find something that you are particularly good at so you can enjoy doing it every day.
What the World Needs
Ikigai is associated with social connections. There is more meaning in what you do when you know it helps or has an impact on someone else. You will find more meaning in your job or business if you know that you are making someone else’s life better.
What You Can Get Paid For
Building a comfortable life for yourself and your family is one of the basic needs of man. Without income, you won’t be able to move past your basic needs, which are food, water, clothing, and shelter.
For you to have ikigai, you must earn enough to live a comfortable life.
These 4 factors can be further divided into 4 different categories:
When you do what you love and do something that you are good at. It could be dancing, singing, playing sports, or doing yoga.
When you do what you love and the world needs it. It could be helping unfortunate people in low-income areas, helping people in a disaster, or fighting a wildfire.
This happens when you’re doing something the world needs and you get paid for it. This can include doctors, nurses, policemen, and people in the service industry.
Your profession is doing something you’re good at and getting paid for it. This includes being a lawyer, engineer, being a real estate agent, entertainer, and the like.
Ikigai is your passion, your mission, your vocation, and your profession rolled into one. It is living a life where you get to do something that you love doing, something that you’re good at, something that can give value to other people, and that society, in general, is willing to pay you for it.
When all these factors are present in what you do, then you can say you have ikigai in your life.
However, there is one thing about this interpretation that lacks explanation. According to Ken Mogi, who is a Japanese neuroscientist and author of the book, “Awaken Your Ikigai,” he mentions that ikigai is more than just the Venn diagram commonly seen in Western interpretations.
According to Mogi, ikigai is something more private and ephemeral.
Ikigai and Inner Joy with Hobbies
Mogi emphasizes that ikigai doesn’t always have to do with earning or being paid for something that we love doing. In fact, in a survey that was conducted that involved 2000 Japanese men and women by the Central Research Services in 2010, only 31% of the participants reported their work as their ikigai.
Many Japanese retirees find their ikigai in their hobbies after leaving the workforce. Their hobbies keep them active both mentally and physically and give them a sense of meaning.
One study that was conducted in September 2017 was done by a Japanese TV program called “Takeshi no katei no igaku.” Partnering with a group of scientists, they conducted the study in a small town called Kyotango, Kyoto, which is a place with a population of residents at the age of 100, being 3 times more than the average of the rest of Japan.
The goal of the study was to find commonalities between these happy centenarians in their daily lives. The researchers followed seven centenarians every day from morning to dawn.
They discovered that each of these people had the DHEA hormone, as well as a hobby they practiced every day. One woman in her late 90s carved Japanese traditional masks several hours each day, while another man painted, and another man went fishing daily.
The study suggested that a hobby a person is really into keeps you focused, interested, and gives you satisfaction in life. The researchers further proposed that a hobby may even boost DHEA hormones in the body, which has been known to have anti-aging effects.
I wanted to share this study about the joys of having a hobby because this is what Ken Mogi meant when he said that ikigai is private and ephemeral. Ikigai is based on your inner joy – the happiness when you feel when you engage in an activity that you love.
When it comes to finding your purpose for living, or your ikigai, it doesn’t have to be grand goals like saving humankind from cancer or ending world starvation. According to Mogi, money is not the primary factor of ikigai, but it’s in finding joy in the small details in your life.
An activity that is trivial but may be your source of ikigai. This can include waking up each morning to spend time with your grandchild, or getting up from bed each morning so you can continue to make your very own personal clay pots.
The 5 Pillars of Ikigai
Mogi is known for creating The 5 Pillars of Ikigai. The 5 pillars are as follows:
You don’t have to find a grand purpose in your life right now. Small and baby steps to reach a goal or purpose is enough to get started.
This means accepting yourself for who you are. This means saying no to activities or tasks you know you will not enjoy, or something that you know you are not good at.
There is a famous saying that suffering occurs when we resist change. When we let go and embrace change in our lives, that is when we reach enlightenment.
Harmony and Sustainability
Mogi believes that social connection and asking for help from others are part of having a happy and meaningful life. Sharing our happiness with family and friends creates harmonious relationships that are needed for a life well-lived.
The Joy of Little Things
Mogi encourages people to find joy in the simple things in life. This can include finding joy in washing the dishes, watering your plants, sweeping the floor, or commuting to work. You must find joy and gratitude even in the little things in your life.
Be in the Here and Now
Mogi teaches being in the present. Do not dwell on your past and don’t worry about the future. Be aware of what is going on here and now and lose yourself in what is in front of you, similar to what happens when you are in a flow state.
Mogi emphasizes that you don’t have to make great changes in your life to have ikigai. He suggests that finding and making joy with what you have now, what you’re already doing, and doing more of what brings you joy is already considered ikigai.
How to Find Your Ikigai
And so, after covering about what ikigai is, what science says about it, and all the benefits of having ikigai can provide your life, if you haven’t found your ikigai just yet, how do you find it at all?
Is ikigai something that each person has? And is it easy to discover?
Well, according to Japanese culture, everyone has an ikigai. It simply takes time and inner reflection to find. But once you do, your life will be much more meaningful, and in turn, your physical health will improve, your relationships will be better, and you’ll wake up each morning wanting to start your day with joy.
So let’s get started with simple steps to finding your ikigai.
Ask Yourself These Questions
Remember that there are 4 factors to having ikigai, which are doing things you love, doing things you’re good at, doing something the world needs, and doing something you can get paid for.
Let’s go over each of these factors one by one:
What You Love
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What would you do for free?
- What would you do if money was not a factor?
- What activities make you lose time?
- What activities make you forget about your problems?
- What tasks do you find challenging but can’t make you feel exhausted?
Think about all the things that bring joy and peace to your life. There doesn’t have to be one primary answer. There can be several things on your list, but make sure this activity is truly enjoyable and is not something that you’re forced to do.
It could be painting, dancing, pottery, talking to people about their problems, teaching children, or just about any activity that you truly enjoy doing and something that you could do even if you don’t get paid to do it.
What You’re Good At
This can be difficult to answer because you might think you’re good at something that you’re not, or you might be good at something you think you don’t.
Some questions to ask yourself are the following:
- If you left your job today, what areas of work will your company need to fill?
- If you left your job today, what one thing would your coworkers miss about you?
- What tasks are easy for you to do that others find difficult?
- What do people ask you for help?
Think about your skills and strengths and list these down. You also need to consider that the skills that you’re good at must bring joy to you. You may be good at sketching portraits but you find it tasking and draining. Don’t write that down.
There are so many things that you may be good at but you don’t actually like doing. You may have the highest grades in Math but you actually hate doing accounting. You may be the best at playing basketball on your team, but you’d much rather stay at home and paint.
Think about something you’re good at that you really enjoy doing.
What The World Needs
- What can you do that helps other people?
- What do people need you for?
- What impact can you give to the community?
- What can you do to improve people’s lives?
Authentic happiness occurs when it is shared. When you achieve something in your career, when you buy something new, and when something excites you, what is the first thing you do? You call your family, you call your loved ones, and you share with them the happiness you feel.
The same goes for tasks, skills, and activities that you do. When you have a gift, sharing it with others and helping people uplift their lives is one of the best ways to achieve happiness. When you are needed, you immediately feel good.
What You Can Get Paid For
- What can you do to earn a good living?
- What skills do you have that allow you to earn well so you can have a comfortable life?
This isn’t just about earning some money, but earning enough so you and your family can live well. When you live well, it’s much easier for you to share your blessings with others because you’re not worried about meeting your own needs.
Once you’ve met your own needs, such as a good home, a good income, and being able to pay for the things that you need, it becomes so much easier for you to extend your table to others.
Once you’ve answered these questions and come up with your ikigai or reason for being, it doesn’t stop there, there are more tips that you can apply to truly embrace your reason for being, or your reason for waking up in the morning.
Take it Slow
Once you’ve found your ikigai, do not be in a hurry. Take things slow. You don’t need to achieve your goals or purpose right away.
Slow living is crucial in living life with ikigai as it helps you to pause and appreciate the small details in everyday life. When you wake up in the morning, take a few minutes to enjoy your cup of coffee and reflect. Take a walk in nature, experience the tiniest sensations in your body as you meditate, and enjoy the people in your life.
Taking things slow will give you a greater appreciation for all the things in your life.
Did you know that there is no Japanese equivalent for the word “retire?” This is because when Japanese people leave the workforce, they don’t really “retire,” in a similar way as people in the Western world do.
Japanese people continue to work, continue to practice their hobbies and crafts, and continue to be active and productive even in their older years.
Don’t Worry If You Can’t Find Your Ikigai Right Away
You might have tried to answer the questions here and can’t seem to find your ikigai. Don’t worry, as finding your reason for living may not be so obvious for many people. In fact, some people spend many years searching for that one thing that makes them feel alive, that one thing that makes them believe that life is worth living.
If you don’t find it now, you will find it soon as long as you keep on doing things that you love, creating joy in the little things in your life, and honing your strengths.
Pretty soon, and before you even know it, you’ll be living your ikigai and having a happy, long, and healthy life, excited to wake up each morning.
Have I Found My Ikigai?
I won’t say that I’ve found my ikigai, though I do know that waking up each morning to hustle, work, and earn for my three kids is what I’m meant to do. Do I love doing it? Not so much, but I’m good at it, it’s what my children need, and I get paid for it.
But doing something that I love? Well, every now and then, I find a really beautiful piece of fabric and I get really excited. I start thinking of so many ideas that I could do with it. Maybe I’ll make it into a dress, or maybe a coat, or maybe a beautiful gown. And when I do have that spare time to play around with my thoughts and ideas, I get down to business, start cutting that piece of cloth, put my foot on the sewing machine pedal, and disappear.
While I do get paid for making beautiful clothes for other people, that’s not what I really want to do. I simply want to create the images I have in my head, and my happiness comes from turning these ideas into reality. Even if no one buys or pays for it, I will still do it. And in these few hours, I find joy, I find my bliss, I find my happiness, and I realize what I was always meant to do.
Maybe one day I’ll get to do that every day and be happy for the rest of my life. Yes, I believe that this is my ikigai – doing something that I love, and doing something that I’m good at. It may not be needed by the world, and I may not get paid for it (right away), but I would do it in a heartbeat, as long as my kids are settled and I have money to pay my bills.
My ikigai is sewing for me. Sewing to turn my ideas into reality. Even when no one likes it. Even when no one pays for it. I will be happy, and that is my true ikigai.
Come to think of it, maybe I can do it every day. For a couple of hours when the kids are asleep and when the rest of the world is sleeping, I will lose myself in my ideas and create. And maybe, just maybe, someone will see the beauty and value in my work, and maybe, pay a great amount of money for the things I create.
And when that time comes, I can definitely say that I have achieved my true ikigai.
Final Thoughts on Ikigai
What makes you get out of bed in the morning? What makes you excited? And if you could do something for free, what would it be?
Ikigai isn’t just a goal or a purpose but it is a way of life. Yes, you can enjoy a hobby that you’re good at, you can enjoy your job, your calling, and what you do every day. But it is in truly immersing in a task, it is in having true bliss in an activity that you can achieve true happiness.
It can be as simple as spending time with your grandchild, or planting orchids, or maybe doing yoga every morning, or can be as grand as searching for a cure for cancer or leading a nation out of poverty.
Your ikigai is the reason why you can still get up in the morning despite the death of a loved one. Your ikigai is the reason why you can still look forward to waking up each day despite your company going bankrupt. Your ikigai is the reason why you still get back to training when you’ve had a massive sports injury.
Finding your ikigai makes life worth living and when you know life is beautiful, you become happier, healthier, and who knows, maybe you’ll even live up to a hundred, like an Okinawan.