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Everyone dreams of living a long and happy life. That’s why you would always hear that line or many other variants in birthday wishes. However, as much as we all want to live a long and fulfilled life filled with happiness, very few know how to find that point in their lives where everything balances out.
Fortunately, the Japanese people have mastered that with the ikigai concept. Some may already know the term, while it might be new to others. But ikigai promises to teach people how to live a long and happy life with a sense of purpose.
Ikigai Definition – What Is the Ikigai Concept?
The Japanese believe that the secret behind a long, healthy life is a sense of purpose. With the highest concentration of centenarians worldwide, the Japanese island, Okinawa, is proof that there is merit behind the concept. The Okinawans have had the longest practice of ikigai as the tradition originates from there.
Even though ikigai is a Japanese concept, it is not exclusive to the Okinawans. Dan Buettner, the author of “Blue Zones: Lessons on Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest,” writes to that effect. Even though they don’t have a name for it, all the blue zones where the healthiest people live, like Ikaria, Sardinia, and the Nicoya Peninsula, practice that same concept.
What then is this concept that promises to give you longevity, and why does it work so well? The concept of ikigai essentially means finding value in your life. It is what wakes you up every morning and gets you going.
According to Japanese culture, everyone has an ikigai. When you discover what it is, it can change the quality of your life.
The word ikigai dates back to the Heian period in Japan (794-1185). The term has no literal translation in English. However, it is believed to be a combination of two Japanese words, iki, meaning “life” and gai.
In 2001, Akihiro Hasegawa, an avid ikigai evolution expert, and clinical psychologist, released a paper where he said the word gai comes from kai, a Japanese word for “shell.” Shells were extremely valuable during the Heian period, so the association of value with the word, ikigai can be inferred. Together, the two words mean “to live a life of value or purpose,” or as the French call it, raison d’etre.
What’s the Point of Living?
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” – Pablo Picasso.
So many people have run themselves ragged, trying to answer this question. They experience an existential crisis that comes from having conflicting desires. On the one hand, they want to live a meaningful life chasing their passions and desires. But they worry that the consequence would be poverty and deprivation.
On the other hand, they also want to enjoy a lifestyle that promises the security of money, even though there is a high chance that they would have to sacrifice their passion for it. Most people end up choosing this option. A wealthy lifestyle without the comfort of the things you love will always be empty. Life is so much more than just existing for the money. Everybody deserves to live a life with more excitement than the cheques they clear and the bills they get.
The meaning of life is in the things that bring meaning to your life. It is personal for everyone; some may even say that it is unique. It is a gift that makes you wake up every morning, striving to be the best version of yourself.
The point of living is to find that gift, revel in it, hone it, and share it with the rest of the world. You enjoy a more fulfilled life when you live connected to those meaningful things. But if you lose that connection, you lose the meaning of life. All that remains is the feeling of despair as you drift through life. To take a page from Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, we all have a passion that drives us. If you don’t know what it is yet, it is your mission to find out.
Just Another Word for Purpose?
Ikigai is not just another word for purpose. Finding your ikigai means that you have found a reason to live – the reason to wake up every morning.
People will try to convince you that you live for one purpose only. It can be overwhelming for you to discover what that one purpose is. Ikigai, on the other hand, is finding happiness and value in everything you do. It does not have to be extraordinary or grand. You don’t need to have lofty ambitions or aspirations for humanity before you deserve happiness. You don’t have to discover something monumental, like a cure for cancer before you live a fulfilling life.
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Your own ikigai can be as simple as traveling the world with friends while drinking green tea or other beverages. The beauty of ikigai is not the final aim but in how you immerse yourself in the process until you reach that aim.
For example, if your purpose was to have a successful career (final aim), your ikigai could be the jobs you do and the connections you build (the process) to get there. Each morning you wake is another chance for you to do a job or meet people that bring you closer to your purpose.
In that sense, you can have more than one ikigai. Your ikigai is not an absolute all-or-nothing purpose, so you can change and redefine it.
The ikigai Venn Diagram shows that your ikigai is the convergent point of your passion (what you love), vocation (what you can be paid for), profession (what you are good at), and mission (what the world needs).
While this sounds like a popular and helpful framework, there has been controversy over its legitimacy. Ikigai experts and coaches insist that the framework does not accurately describe the Japanese concept of ikigai.
The diagram implies that you can only attain ikigai when you meet all four conditions. It also implies that ikigai is a career, which is a simplistic view. And that’s where a lot of self-help gurus get it wrong.
Marc Winn first published the diagram on his blog in 2014. He merged the concept of ikigai to Andrés Zuzunaga’s Venn Diagram of Purpose. He changed only one word on the Venn Diagram, and it became the sensationalized western version of the ikigai concept. However, if you were to show this diagram to the Japanese, they would not be able to make heads or tails of it.
Can the Purpose Venn Diagram be of any use to you? Certainly! While ikigai can be anything that adds value to your life, the Purpose Venn Diagram is the concrete representation of ikigai. So, instead of a sweet spot in the middle of the Venn diagram where everything interacts, your ikigai are the several pieces on the diagram that come together to give you purpose.
If you take a wider look at the whole picture that the ikigai/purpose diagram presents, you will see that career is only a fraction of what ikigai represents and not the whole as many will have you believe.
Purpose Venn Diagram from Human Business.
1. Calling: Calling is a spot where the things you love, what you are good at, and what the world needs. That’s your calling. The downside is that you cannot earn much, if at all, from it.
2. Career: Your career is the point where what you can get paid for, what you, and what you are good at meet. However, it does not do much to help other people.
3. Cause: This is the point where your strengths can get you paid, while solving the needs of the world. Everyone wants to be part of a good cause where they feel like they are making an impact in the world.
4. Potential: Your potential straddles the point where what you love, what you can get paid for, and what the world needs. The downside is that you are probably not going to be any good at it.
At every one of these points, you can find ikigai because it gives you a reason to live and brings happiness. Ikigai does not mean “choose one at the expense of others” and that’s why most successful people have mastered the art of finding it in all. They will find purpose in their career, in volunteering for their calling, donating to a cause, and hiring people who can bring the potential of their ideas to life.
Why Is Ikigai Important?
The idea of living life with a sole purpose is enticing but also the reason why many people struggle to find meaning in their lives. They spend their entire lives chasing a dream that straddles the mid-point of that Venn Diagram comfortably. Most people end up frustrated when they don’t find it. Because, let’s face it, how many people get to live a magical life where their passion matches their vocation, passion, and what the world needs.
Most people will never reach that magical point, and that’s why you have successful people who do not feel fulfilled. It’s the reason why people will quit their well-paying line of work to pursue things that give them genuine happiness and fulfillment.
Ikigai is important because it stops that mindless search for fulfillment and purpose that we are inclined to do. You might not have a magical, groundbreaking purpose, but that’s okay. Ikigai encourages you to find pleasure in everything you do, even the little things.
Many journalists, sociologists, and scientists have researched the concept of ikigai and have come to an interesting conclusion. They have concluded that living a life of purpose keeps you interested, focused, and fulfilled, leading to a longer and happier life.
One good example of someone who lived an ikigai life is Steve Jobs. When people think of Steve Jobs, their first thought is technological wiz and trendsetter. But that does not wholly describe the man. Steve Jobs was, first and foremost, a lover of elegant craftsmanship. He surrounded himself with his passion for finely created items, from collecting handmade Japanese tea cups or obsessing over product design details. That passion seeped into his work. His companies, Apple and Pixar, became his vehicle for expressing that passion.
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The following books will give you more insight into the concept of ikigai.
Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life – Héctor García and Francesc Miralles.
How the Japanese Wake Up to Joy and Purpose: Awakening Your Ikigai – Ken Mogi.
The Little Book of Ikigai: The Secret Japanese Way to Live a Happy and Long Life – Ken Mogi.
Ikigai: Giving Every Day Meaning and Joy – Yukari Mitsuhashi.
How to Ikigai: Lessons for Finding Happiness and Living Your Life’s Purpose – Tim Tamashiro.
How Do I Find My Ikigai?
In his book, How the Japanese Wake Up to Joy and Purpose: Awakening Your Ikigai, Ken Mogi describes the five pillars framework for ikigai. You can use these five pillars to discover your ikigai and let it flourish. They are:
- Pillar 1: Starting small
- Pillar 2: Releasing yourself
- Pillar 3: Harmony and sustainability
- Pillar 4: The joy of little things
- Pillars 5: Being in the here and now
1. Starting Small:
We have big dreams, and sometimes we just want to rush into it and achieve it at once. But everything in life has a process. It doesn’t matter what you do; you have to start small. Like a child getting introduced to new things, what you have in abundance is curiosity and open-mindedness – an excellent start for any great cause. Patience and perseverance are very important virtues to add to the mix as well.
2. Releasing Yourself:
We have these lofty ideas of who we want to be. Sometimes, these ideas conflict with who we need to be. When you have two beliefs pulling you in different directions, it is hard to maintain focus, satisfaction, or happiness. To accept yourself as who you need to be, you need first to release yourself from your illusory image. Learning to accept yourself and where you need to be is one of the easiest and most rewarding things you can do for yourself.
3. Harmony and Sustainability:
A healthy environment will help you achieve your goals and dreams. If you are not in harmony with the people around you, your environment, and society, you cannot have sustainability. You can find the right balance between your individual desires and the sustainability of the environment you live in. Be mindful of the impact of your actions on other people. When you do things, don’t just do it because they benefit you, but do it to help others as well. Look outwards and try to help the people around you create an empowering environment.
4. The Joy of Little Things:
Ikigai is a broad spectrum where you find satisfaction in even the small things. Every day, make it your aim to do at least one thing you love. It doesn’t have to be something grand. These things may be insignificant to others, but it’s coming from your heart. It could be as simple as enjoying a cup of coffee fresh out of bed each morning. This is where starting small and releasing yourself from the standards you hold yourself to come into play.
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5. Be in the Here and Now:
The pillars are interwoven and have no hierarchy. If you are not in the here and now, it will be hard for you to experience the joy of little things. Without your release, it will be hard for you to let go and remain in the present. The inner joys and satisfaction from doing these things are more than enough to drive your life.
Too often, we do things for the reward we get from them, not enjoyment. When the rewards don’t come in, we lose interest and motivation in our work. When you begin to find happiness in your efforts, you don’t need someone else to reward you before you feel fulfilled. So sing, even when no one is there to listen. Write, even though nobody will read it. Paint, even though you might never have an exhibition.
These worksheets will help you discover what your ikigai is. The first worksheet will help you find out the Japanese version of your ikigai. In comparison, the rest will help you use the westernized version.
Many of us follow a career path that is not in line with our values because it promises us wealth. We sacrifice the things we find pleasure in and stick to what we consider “safe” – like the nine-to-five job. Without a daily dose of satisfaction, work becomes a herculean effort.
When you do what you live, you live a happier, fulfilled, and more productive life. One reason is that you keep improving in small bursts. You also develop a higher sense of confidence and self-esteem because you keep reaffirming that you know what you’re doing. Your work no longer looks like a chore. The effort required seems worthwhile when you enjoy and care about the results of your work. You become more proactive and motivated to keep doing those things.
With satisfaction and fulfillment come a better quality of life. Your overall health is better – physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
It takes considerable willpower and self-control to follow a steady course in life. However, self-control and willpower do not come easy. The only way to develop willpower is to do what you love. Once your work reflects your personal values, it gives you the willpower and motivation to chase your goals with determination.