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Ikigai – the Japanese route to a good life


IkigaiWhy do you get up every morning? Is it out of a sense of obligation, duty, or even compulsion? Or is it ikigai?

In Japanese culture, ikigai is a reason for getting up in the morning. it is the meaning to your life and your reason for being. It is your ‘raison d’être’, but in a more profound sense than English speakers commonly use that French phrase.

Ikigai is a big idea for English speakers, because we don’t have our own word, but the concept is important.

Ikigai is pronounced: ih-kee | guy-(ee)

Why do we need Ikigai?

Dan Buettner surveyed cultures where people live longer than elsewhere. He calls the communities ‘blue zones’.  His book, ‘Blue Zones: 9 Lessons on Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest’ (US|UK) documents his travels and findings, as does his TED talk.

One of the Blue Zones Buettner visits is Okinawa. On this Japanese island, he found a remarkably high number of centenarians. A major thesis of his books is that diet has a lot to do with longevity. But, in Okinawa, Buettner says, ikigai also has a big part to play. If we are fulfilled, we don’t just live a happier life; we also live longer.

Compare this with another Japanese concept; ‘karoshi’. In Japan, ‘death by overwork’ apparently accounts for around 2,000 deaths each year. This is in a culture where nearly a quarter of employees work over 80 hours of overtime each month. That’s hardly a reason to live!

What is Ikigai?

Ikigai is the value we find in everyday life; our sense of fulfilment. The most authoritative Japanese book on the subject is ‘Ikigai-ni-tsuite’*, by Mieko Kamiya. This explains that the word is similar in meaning to ‘happiness’. But there is a subtle difference. Ikigai directs your attention to the future, even if you’re unhappy now. And, your ikigai does not have to be work. Indeed, in a survey in Japan, work provides ikigai for just less than one third of the population.

* Ikigai-ni-tsuite translates to: ‘About Ikigai’. It was published in 1966 and is not available in English.

Definition of Ikigai

Ikigai translates as:

‘A reason for being’

The idea is that we all have an ikigai. Our task is to find it, through deep reflection and soul searching. This is important, because, when you find your ikigai, it will bring you a profound sense of fulfilment and a meaning to your life.

The Japanese word is a compound of two words: iki, which means life, and gai, which means benefit, worth, or value.

Ikigai comes to the attention of the West

Aside from Buettner’s work, two publishing events have brought ikigai to the attention of English speakers. these are:

  1. The publication of Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a long and happy life’ by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles (US|UK) by Penguin in summer 2017
  2. A consequential spate of lifestyle articles in western newspapers and blogs – including that of the World Economic Forum.

As a result, you’ll increasingly hear the new trope:

‘What’s the word for ‘retirement’ in Okinawan?

There is none’.

How to find your Ikigai

To find your purpose in life, the Western prescription is to ask yourself four questions. What:

  • do I love?
  • am I good at?
  • does the world need from me?
  • can I get paid for?

This gives us the increasingly commonplace ‘four circles’ diagram.

Ikigai - four circles model

Ikigai lies at the balance of the four areas.

But in Japan, ikigai does not lie in work for nearly 70% of the population. Finding it is a slow process. And, when you do, it often has nothing to do with work or income. the focus for them is often delight and fulfilment.

In fact, it often has a direct correspondence to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’. When you get into a flow state, you lose any sense of time passing. You become so absorbed in the task that you want nothing else. You are utterly content. So, notice the times when you enter flow, and you may have found your ikigai. If you can increase the time you spend in flow states, you will increase your connection with your ikigai.

Garcia and Miralles, who wrote the 2017 best seller, have a simple four part prescription for cultivating ikigai:

  1. Nurture your passion
  2. Take things slowly
  3. Be thankful
  4. Live in the moment

These are very much consistent with ideas from Positive Psychology, where gratitude is a big component, as is flow, or living in the moment. Positive psychology also suggests one aspect I suspect is missing from a lot of the articles on ikigai. But it does come out in Buettner’s research. This is the importance of strong social relationships.

What is Your experience of ikigai?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below and we’d be delighted to respond.


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