Most people have heard of Ikigai, the Japanese concept of finding purpose in life. In the western world, it tends to be used as a tool for entrepreneurs eager to find their true passions or businesses hoping to encourage greater engagement among their teams.
However, in Japan, ikigai has less to do with finding a meaningful career and much more to do with creating meaning in your overall life. In a study on the concept of well-being, psychologist Michiko Kumano defines ikigai as a state of well-being resulting from an individual’s devotion to activities they enjoy and which also brings them a sense of fulfilment.
Of course, those activities could be work-related, but regardless, income is not a prerequisite. In fact, in another study, conducted in Japan by the Central Research Services, only 31% of participants claimed their career or work was part of their ikigai.
So, while enjoyment on the job can certainly be part of the ikigai picture it’s not essential. And the value you place on your life’s meaning is measured in many other ways beyond that of an impressive bank balance. In other words, even if you have a crappy job or are earning less than you want, you can still find your ikigai and have a life that makes you proud.
The key to ikigai
So, how is it done? On the Japanese island of Okinawa, Dan Buettner, the author of Blue Zones: Lessons on Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, claims ikigai is the primary reason behind local centenarians’ long and happy lives. Few of these residents are looking to kickstart new careers, but what they are looking for, Buettner states, is a reason to rise each morning with a zest for living a life of consequence. This then is the key.
Breaking down the real meaning of ikigai
The word ikigai is an amalgamation of two words – “iki’ meaning “life” and “gai” meaning “worth”. Worth in this sense can be defined as the value that your life gives to you, others and the world around you. It’s the idea of finding a purpose in all that you do.
But if this sounds like a lofty plan, it’s not. According to Ken Mogi, a Japanese neuroscientist and the author of The Little Book of Ikigai, you “do not need a grandiose motivational framework to keep going …(instead you must) rely more on the little rituals in your daily routines”.
The “daily routines” are the “life” part of the above ikigai word combination. They refer to how you show up in your friendships and family life, in your work and hobbies, your downtimes and pastimes, because all of this relates to your ikigai.
The five pillars of ikigai
To create those daily routines and define a life of meaning or consequence, Mogi suggests in his book that one needs to consider the five pillars upon which ikigai is built. These are: starting small, releasing yourself, harmony and sustainability, the joy of little things, and being in the here and now.
“Starting small” actually relates to the Japanese concept of Kodawari. The word has no direct English translation but it implies meticulous attention to detail, and is one of the principles behind the Japanese work ethic.
We all know that perfection doesn’t exist, but that shouldn’t stop us from pursuing it by always doing our best no matter the situation. Doing so will not only make us feel all the feel-goods, but it will also positively impact those around us.
If you can release yourself from the idea that you have to be like others and learn to love the contribution you and you alone can make in the world, you’re one step closer to finding your ikigai. In The Little Book of Ikigai, Mogi writes:
“Accepting yourself is one of the most important and difficult tasks we face in our lives. Indeed, accepting oneself is one of the easiest, simplest, and most rewarding things you can do for yourself. A low budget maintenance-free formula for being happy.”
Of course, self-acceptance is easier said than done but allowing yourself to engage with activities that truly make you happy, whether that’s writing, running, doodling or disco-dancing is one step you can take towards accepting why it’s pretty damn wonderful to be you.
Harmony and sustainability
Living in harmony with all around you from the natural world to your cranky next-door neighbour reminds you of the value and vitality of life.
It’s easy to get mad at the world, but it’s not always helpful or even healthful. Certainly, if you fill your brain and body with negativity, you won’t feel the urge to jump out of bed each morning with the ikigai trademark “zest for living”.
On the other hand, by consciously considering others and examining how your actions and words impact them, you can contribute to making your immediate world – and the world at large – a more pleasurable and sustainable place to live.
The joy of little things
While many people believe ikigai is about grabbing your passion by the horns and placing it front and centre in your life, Mogi claims that true fulfilment is found in the joy of little things – A morning coffee, a walk in the park or a roll ‘round the floor with your pooch or cat!
Because of this he suggests creating small pleasurable experiences that can become part of your routine, particularly upon waking. The idea is that if you’re rewarded with a great cup of coffee or a blast of your favourite music first thing in the morning, the contentment you’ll feel will set you up for a good day ahead and contribute to an overall sense of satisfaction with life.
Being in the here and now
The final pillar in determining your ikigai is to be present. Of course, we all ruminate about the past and wonder about the future but it’s important to balance those reflections with being in the here and now.
When we’re fully present in our lives, we’re not caught up in worries about things that happened or might happen. Rather, we’re connected to moments as we experience them, which science has shown makes us feel more fulfilled. This is true even when what we’re experiencing is challenging. Why? Because the fact that we’re present gives us greater control over our mind, body and emotions and helps keep us calm when we’d otherwise lose our heads.
So, incorporate some mindfulness exercises into your daily life. This could be meditation, yoga, simple mantras or anything that just pulls you back from spiralling into worries or grievances about things you can’t change and reminds you that, after all, you really do have a wonderful life worth living.
Photo: Jason Leung