As children, we yearned to be adults — tall and happy, capable of achieving anything we set our minds to. Upon finally entering that stage, however, we found that life was mostly confusing, and that we were subject to an unending stream of frightening things, like bills, grocery shopping, interpersonal communication, and broken appliances (among so much else).
Many adults — especially younger ones — feel that life seems directionless, stagnant, or aimless. Both in the personal and professional spheres, many suffer from the feeling that they’re living life on autopilot. Wasn’t adulthood supposed to be more… fulfilling?
What is life without joy? That’s what the process of finding “ikigai” is all about. By finding your ikigai, you find a deep joy within you that can guide you throughout “the long and pleasurable journey” of life.
Origins of ikigai theory
Beginning in Japan
Ikigai as a concept has been present in Japanese culture for centuries. It has its origins in traditional medicine, which posits that our physical wellbeing is greatly affected by our mental and emotional health, and whether or not we have identified a sense of purpose in life.
From a semantic perspective, the word “ikigai” is a combination of the word “iki”, or life, and “gai”, value. It’s said that gai stems from the Japanese word for shell — these were considered highly valuable because they were hand-decorated and only accessible to people of means. Iki, on the other hand, comes from the verb “ikiru”, which translates roughly to “daily living”.
Mieko Kamiya, a Japanese psychiatrist who treated leprosy patients, wrote the book Ikigai ni Tsuite (On the Meaning of Life) about her clinical experiences. To many in Japan, she is considered the progenitor of modern ikigai theory and study.
Many researchers have taken her work further. One of these is Akihiro Hasegawa, an Associate Professor at Toyo Eiwa University. He has described ikigai as a feeling of awareness about life that drives people to survive and improve. To feel ikigai or enter a state of ikigai, people need to have a sense of control and momentum in their daily lives. When you are able to devote yourself to activities and pursuits you enjoy, you have found ikigai.
Bringing ikigai to the West
The writers Hector García and Francesc Miralles explored ikigai during their search to understand the secret behind the longevity of certain Japanese populations. In their book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, they reported that, on the island of Okinawa, there are 24.55 people over the age of 100 for every 100,000 inhabitants—far more than the global average. Some attributed it to a healthful diet, a simple life, an abundance of tea, and a pleasant climate. But was that all?
Dan Buettner, a Guinness record holder for endurance cycling and author of The Blue Zones, mentions that his research on “Blue Zones” scattered around the world — places like Okinawa where the population seemed to enjoy long and healthy lives — seemed to suggest otherwise. Healthy diet, regular exercise, and strong social ties were a fixture of these Blue Zones, but more importantly, people seemed to have found their ikigai.
Ikigai has become very popular in the English-speaking world. It lends itself well to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which holds that people can alleviate negative and depressive feelings by pursuing and mastering enjoyable activities. Around the world, ikigai inspires people to contribute to community and find harmony with others.
Clarifying misconceptions about ikigai
Many English-speaking populations think of this diagram when they hear “ikigai”.
The diagram below does not actually depict Japanese ikigai. It originated from the 2012 book Qué Harías Si No Tuvieras Miedo (What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?) by Spanish author Andres Zuzunaga.
Why is it linked to ikigai?
In 2014, blogger Mark Winn wrote an inspiring post titled “What is your ikigai?” after watching Dan Buettner’s Ted Talk on How to Live 100+. (Dan Buettner is the person who studied the “Blue Zones” we mentioned earlier). Winn combined the Zuzunaga Venn Diagram of Purpose with Buettner’s concept of ikigai to create the diagram you see above.
How does it relate to the Japanese concept of ikigai?
The Winn-Zuzunaga diagram is very helpful for Western audiences, and it has been used by HR leaders and managers to great effect. But when we retrace the Japanese origins of ikigai, we can see that the Japanese people do not necessarily link ikigai to professional success, financial freedom, passion, or what you need to give to the world.
Rather, for Japanese people, ikigai is about connecting deeply with the objects, people, and ideas that imbue life with meaning. Instead of a final endpoint, ikigai is more like the process of growing and becoming your truest self.
Finding ikigai in daily life
People who want to find their ikigai should take time to reflect, either alone or with a coach or therapist. What gives you a sense of control and momentum in life? It could be something like caregiving for a pet, tending to a garden, or contributing to a community.
You can follow the 5 Pillar Framework created by Ken Mogi, a Japanese scientist, researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratories, and visiting professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Mogi published his books on ikigai in 2018, and many have found his perspectives helpful for informing their day to day life.
Discovering ikigai at work
Some may feel that the concept of ikigai is diametrically opposed to work. After all, work can be constraining, stressful, and restrictive. Can we really find joy at a job we don’t like?
The answer is yes! We can cultivate a sense of purpose even during times of difficulty. This happens when we place more emphasis on doing our job well and on growing our mastery of certain skills. We recognize that though we may not necessarily love work, it’s an opportunity to stretch our wings and develop further as individuals.
García and Miralles’ writings are actually a great way to explore the concept of ikigai as it relates to work and health. Work has an undeniable impact on our mind and our bodies, but the reverse is true as well. They explain on their website Ikigai 101 that “the mind has tremendous power over the body and how quickly it ages. Most doctors agree that the secret to keeping the body young is keeping the mind active—a key element of ikigai—and in not caving in when we face difficulties throughout our lives.”
It seems that many people who lived especially long, satisfying lives were successful not because they avoided difficulties, but because they were able to approach challenges with a positive and serene attitude.
Creating ikigai for employees
How can employers use ikigai-related concepts to create a safer, healthier working environment? It’s about shifting the focus to employees. When employees feel they have control and autonomy in the workplace, they are more likely to feel connected and joyful about their work.
Instead of fitting people into rigid, homogenous roles and motivating them primarily through salary, a workplace that follows ikigai principles is keenly interested in connection and meaning. Such feelings are great motivators — as employees contribute in tangible ways, they’re more likely to agree that their work has value and exert effort to achieve esults.
What happens when employees work at jobs that they are neither interested in nor enjoy? They quickly become disengaged, and the company will suffer as a result. The lack of real interest and enjoyment in their roles — and inability to shape their day-to-day work routine as they like — has led many employees to quit and seek greener pastures.
Closing remarks on ikigai
In English, words like “purpose” and “meaning” can seem very lofty. But the concept of ikigai is much smaller, and fits well into day-to-day life. Finding ikigai is about the little, mundane, and humble experiences.
Ikigai is deeply personal, and it’s not necessarily related to economic status or condition. A person can also find and follow ikigai in their life, yet still experience moments of difficulty and hardship. The purpose of finding ikigai isn’t to escape sadness, but to discover what makes you feel like life is worth the effort.
If you’re interested in learning about ikigai or wish to introduce this concept into your workplace, MindFi is more than happy to lend a helping hand.