The Japanese concept of Ikigai is all about finding your reason for being. It’s what makes you want to get out of bed in the morning.
‘Iki’ translates as ‘life, whilst ‘gai’ describes value or worth. It’s a philosophy that dates all the way back to the Heian period, between 794 to 1185.
Of course, the idea of finding your life’s purpose is nothing new. But Western cultures often have a different interpretation of this
That’s why the Japanese concept of ikigai has plenty to teach us about bringing more joy and meaning to life.
1) It’s important to discover and nurture your talents
The first step to finding your purpose requires knowing yourself.
This can be surprisingly challenging. Many of us underestimate ourselves. We burden ourselves with self-limiting beliefs. We overlook our own skills or we deny them.
You need to be able to honestly assess:
- What you are good at
- What skills do you have
- What natural talents do you have
- What comes easy to you
- What do people come to you for help with
Knowing what you are good at gives you a firm foundation. But on its own, it’s not enough.
Because we also need to find whatever we do rewarding.
2) You should always ask yourself what brings you joy
This is the all-important passion part of ikigai.
Because there might be lots of things in life that you’re good at, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you like doing them.
But when you find something you enjoy, something quite magical can happen:
We call this flow state.
It’s when we become so focused on the task at hand that the hours pass without us barely noticing.
This intense presence is a hallmark of doing an activity that brings us ikigai. So we should look out for it.
But we also need to be careful, because not all pleasure equals ikigai…
3) Don’t mistake joy for fleeting pleasure
I absolutely love to eat potato chips on the couch as I binge-watch my favorite shows.
This brings me pleasure.
But alas, it doesn’t count as my purpose in life.
The truth is that lots of us chase pleasure — for obvious reasons. And we can find it in plenty of things…
Food, alcohol, partying, shopping, social media, TV, computer games, drugs, etc.
We’ve gotten very good at hiding from the drudgery of daily life in these fleeting moments that can bring welcome relief.
But these temporary highs are very different from the abiding joy from ikigai.
The key difference?
There needs to be a sense of fulfillment that comes along with the pleasure.
And most of the highs we chase can leave us feeling pretty empty afterward.
So it’s not about hedonistically searching for a non-stop good time. Ikigai reminds us that we shouldn’t chase the trappings of fool gold.
More money, a bigger house, a flashier car — they won’t necessarily bring us greater happiness.
Only the highest form of joy is what brings us lasting happiness. But this can be found in the most humble and selfless of tasks.
4) It’s important to think about where you can be of service
We usually seek out purpose because we want greater happiness. So in many ways, it seems like a selfish pursuit.
Yet what most of us find is that we end up getting the ultimate sense of meaning when we find a way of serving others.
That’s why an important element is finding a way of merging the self, with society.
Ikigai encourages us to ask:
What does the world need?
We may struggle to discover our bliss when we only look at things from our own perspective.
But ikigai is also an act of service. It is an offering of what you have to give to this world.
So your quest for purpose is simultaneously both a personal pursuit and something that benefits others.
5) Consider how you can draw together all these elements and get paid for it
We spend on average a third of our lives working — anywhere up to 90,000 hours.
That’s a long time. And for plenty of people, it’s not always time spent doing something they enjoy.
So it’s understandable that for many the thought of finding their purpose focuses around the work they do.
With so much time invested in our jobs, it’s going to feel so much better when we feel like that is time well spent.
Ikigai isn’t just about chasing a warm and fuzzy feeling. There is a clear practical aspect to it.
It isn’t about flippantly deciding you want to be a famous singer because you love to sing.
Passion even when it is combined with talent isn’t always enough. We must also consider how we will apply it in the real world.
That means we cannot ignore things like the demand for our skills, the competition we face, and other practical issues.
We must find the place where our interests, our skills, and what others need from us all meet. This is the sweet spot where we may be able to make money from it.
6) But not so fast, you don’t necessarily need to make a career out of it!
As we’ve just explored, in the West, we often associate our life purpose with our chosen work. But ikigai is a more broad concept.
It’s essentially just about discovering what motivates you. But that doesn’t have to mean you turn this into a living.
It can include hobbies and interests. It can be the people in your life like family and friends.
We can put pressure on ourselves to make a career out of the things we love or get paid for our passions. Of course, that would be nice. But with Ikigai, this doesn’t have to be the case.
The enjoyment and purpose are what matters most.
Héctor Garcia, is the co-author of the book Ikigai. He says they interviewed more than 100 elderly residents in a Japanese village and found very varied answers for what offered them joy.
“When we asked what their ikigai was, they gave us explicit answers, such as their friends, gardening, and art. Everyone knows what the source of their zest for life is, and is busily engaged in it every day,”
Your purpose may be your children, your pets, or your garden. The point is that it doesn’t need to fit into a narrowly defined idea of what we consider purpose to be.
7) Finding meaning gives us a reason to live
The rewards for discovering your ikigai go beyond peace of mind. They may just be the secret to a longer and healthier life.
Perhaps this is one reason why the Japanese live longer.
The average life span in Tokyo is around 88 years old for women and 81 years old for men.
Meanwhile, the island of Okinawa boasts a large number of centenarians, many of whom account for their good health thanks to their strongly defined sense of ikigai.
Of course, other potential environmental and cultural factors for why the Japanese enjoy such longevity cannot be ignored.
But it certainly does seem to be true:
If you want to live a long life, then you need to find something worth living for.
8) Your purpose ultimately offers you connection
Perhaps a significant part of that “something” to live for is a connection to the people and world around you.
It’s very easy to become self-focused when we are looking for our purpose. After all, it’s our purpose.
So we may diligently go within in search of it. Yet it’s so important to remember that it’s not about us in isolation.
One of the most powerful things about finding it is the connection it brings us to things outside of ourselves.
Your ikigai links you to your community and the world around you — whether it be your neighbors and society or Mother Nature and the environment you live in.
It’s about creating strong social links that keep us active and participating rather than isolated and lonely.
This type of connection is strong in Japan.
One national survey in 2018 noted that almost half of people (47.5%) aged over 70 are still active in their community through work, hobbies, or some other form of activity.
9) It takes time
I have always envied those people who say they always knew their vocation in life. From a young age, there was something they loved and followed with passion.
This is not me.
I have taken a far more long and winding route to discovering my ikigai. And it’s changed over the years as I have changed.
But that is also perfectly normal.
Purpose isn’t straightforward because it involves all the different overlapping elements that we have already discussed.
For that very reason it takes some deep reflection, effort, and time to find out your unique recipe for meaning in life.
Even though we can learn from one another, we cannot simply copy someone else’s.
So it takes as long as it takes. We shouldn’t be disheartened if it doesn’t come easy to us.