Ikigai — The Japanese Approach to Cultivating Life’s Purpose

by | Jul 6, 2022

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What’s your life’s purpose? It’s a big question, and finding an answer is hard. It’s common to think of purpose with a capital “P” — an overarching reason for being.

The Japanese have a different approach — they look for “purposes” with a little p rather than a Purpose with a capital P. This view of purpose is called “Ikigai” which is formed of two Japanese characters: ‘iki’ [生き], meaning life, and ‘gai’ [甲斐], meaning value or worth. Ikigai, then, is the value of life, or happiness in life. Source. “It is about focusing on individual moments, not just on the big journey of life.” Source

What is Ikigai?

The concept of Ikigai doesn’t translate perfectly in English. At its heart, it is about knowing yourself. Common descriptions of ikigai include:

“It’s what gets you up in the morning” Source

“That thing in our lives that provides a delicious richness.” Source

“It’s what a French philosopher might call a raison d’être.” Source

Ikigai is similar to the concept of happiness but different. While happiness is a current state, “ikigai carries with it the idea of moving towards the future.” Source. It means being aware of what you enjoy and are passionate about and using that knowledge to move forward with focus and direction.

Ikigai is not just one thing; it’s a combination of many factors that give your life direction and meaning. And it’s in flux. As you move through different epochs of your life, your Ikigai changes.

Here’s how Erin Niimi Longhurst beautifully describes how various pieces of our lives fit together to give us our Ikigai:

“If you think of your life as a flower, then your ikigai is the center and is what holds it all together. The beauty of the flower comes from the sum of its parts: how beautiful the petals all look together. But individually, each petal represents a different facet in your life, and the things that transcend or tie them all together. “

Finding Your Ikigai

There’s no specific formula for finding your ikigai. It doesn’t come to you all at once; it is slowly revealed over time.

Common ingredients include:

  • Work
  • Hobbies and passions
  • Love
  • Relationships with others
  • Self-discovery
  • Awareness of your environment and surroundings

In his book on Ikigai, Yukari Mitsuhashi notes that after interviewing people about their ikigai that there were some common elements that are helpful as we look to define our own ikigai:

Everyday life > Lifetime Although it’s possible for your ikigai to be your one great purpose in life – something that allows you to look forward to the future – remember that we live our lives moment by moment. Even if we are tempted to focus on the events that seem most significant in our lives overall, each major event wouldn’t happen without the smaller moments leading up to it. Remembering this can help you to see each moment as significant and valuable.

External world > Internal world Would it be possible to feel alive if no one reacted to what you said or did? Probably not. Being fully alive involves interacting with other people. Ikigai is not just something you find within yourself but is often something that connects you to the outside world.

Giving > Receiving One of the most rewarding ways to connect to the outside world – and one that makes us feel profoundly alive – is when we contribute to the lives of others. Giving brings us a sense of fulfillment.

Fluid > Fixed People often feel ikigai towards something that they can see change and progress in. Parents are fascinated by seeing their children learn new things and grow up day by day; a working person feels alive and motivated in progressing at their job; a retired person might find gardening enjoyable because they see flowers and plants grow and change over time. The change need not be a dramatic one, but we all have an underlying desire to seek and witness progression in our lives. In what areas of your life do you see or seek changes?

Emotional > Logical An essential element of ikigai is that it is based on emotions rather than logic. Ikigai is something you feel with your heart rather than something you think with your head. Logic would dictate that having more money would make you happier because it would increase your options in life, and yet a person might have all the money in the world and still feel empty inside. Your emotions do not lie, and it helps to be true to them when you are searching for your ikigai. What arouses a feeling of joy in the depths of your heart is likely to be your ikigai.

Specific > Abstract In order to feel alive and fulfilled, we need reactions and responses from the outside world. You are likely to experience the difference you’re making when you are involved with those closest to home. It is great to have a desire to solve world hunger – the world surely needs a solution to that problem – but what about the people in your own neighborhood who are struggling to survive? Although a grand mission is admirable and, with perseverance, might be achievable, starting small and seeing the impact you’re making will enable you to find meaning in what you do and give you a stronger sense of purpose. So you might feel a desire to solve world hunger, but you could help in a more specific way by volunteering at a local food bank. This gives you something tangible to focus on.

Active > Passive No matter how simple, ikigai is almost always accompanied by action. (After all, ikigai is what gets you up in the morning.) One of my greatest pleasures since childhood has been reading mystery novels. When I read books by my favorite authors, such as Keigo Higashino or Hideo Yokoyama, I am immersed in their world and cannot help but turn the pages. Reading might not seem the most active hobby, but even here, action is involved: I am seeking out a book I want to read and then finishing it. Without action, there would be no ikigai. Ask yourself, what are you actively pursuing (even though no one is asking you to)? Looking back over your life, are there things you have continued to do without conscious effort?

Ikigai and Work

What you do for a living can be a part of your ikigai. Actually, you’d hope that what you do for work would be aligned with your ikigai — otherwise, work would be total drudgery and feel like a waste of time and effort.

A common way work and ikigai are represented is shown in the below schematic.

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The overarching concept is that satisfaction and fulfillment comes from work if you can move your career towards:

  • What you love to do
  • That you are good at
  • That has a deeper mission (what the world needs)
  • And that actually pays enough for you to make a living

My father gave me similar advice when I was in college and trying to decide on a major. He said: “Do what you love because if you love it, you’ll probably be good at it, and if you are good at it, you’ll be paid well to do it.”

My Ikigai

I’ve spent countless hours thinking about my purpose over the past decade. Learning about the concept of ikigai took some of the pressure I had put on myself to find that one big thing. Currently, here are the core elements of my ikigai — those things that get me up in the morning and, when I go to bed, make me feel like I had spent one of my precious days well:

Learning: each day, I want to learn at least one interesting new thing. It gives me a rush of pleasure. I wake up each day and wonder what I’ll learn.

Sharing what I’ve learned: I experience great joy in sharing things I’ve learned. Plus, I feel like it’s a waste to learn new things and do nothing with that new knowledge. When I realized this, I started this blog. It’s why I teach classes at Washington University. And write Forbes articles. And wrote a book (will be published in 2023). And love presenting at conferences. And leading training at our company. And so on . . . .

Reading: this is one way I learn new things. But I love reading in its own right. While reading, I occasionally stop and reflect on how great it is to have the time to read and the joy of being immersed in a well-written book (whether fiction or non-fiction).

Relationships: I love so many people, and relationships with them give my life meaning.

Exercise: I love to exercise and the sense of accomplishment a good workout brings.

Food and drink: Sitting in the morning with a cup of coffee. Sipping a fine wine or whiskey after dinner. Enjoying a great tofu curry, a dark chocolate peanut butter cup, or one of my other favorite foods. These are all things that, for me, give life a bit of spark.

Knowing these elements of my ikigai has helped me focus on them. I’ve intentionally aligned my career path with them. I try to live in the present moment when I’m doing things that are part of my ikigai.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this great article! I can’t wait for your book.

    Reply
  2. John-
    I read your IFODs on most days, and this is one of my favorites. You took such an important and complex question/topic and broke it down into attainable basics.
    Thanks!

    Reply
  3. John, I’m continually amazed by the depth and breadth of your interests… and how well you summarize them! This is just another wonderful example….

    Reply

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