Itsukushima Torii as a symbol of ikigai
Itsukushima Torii as a symbol of ikigai

What is ikigai?

According to the Japanese, the answer to a meaningful and purposeful life is simple, find your ikigai. But what is ikigai?

Concisely, ikigai is a concept that has been rooted in the cultural fabric of Japan for centuries and simply means, “reason to live.” 

In practice, the depth of the concept is much more than a simple translation; Ikigai is a lifestyle. Incidentally, the Japanese live it somewhat instinctively without much fanfare or ego. 

While ikigai is often described as one’s “sweet spotand we can surely agree that one’s sweet spot is one’s ikigai, ikigai is not confined to any framework or conditions.

What does ikigai mean in Japanese?

To many English language speakers, ikigai is heard and spoken in three syllables. However, in actuality, ikigai has four syllables as shown in the Japanese Hiragana alphabet below, and is pronounced (ee-kee-ga-ee):

Ikigai written in Japanese hiragana

Japanese Hiragana

Ikigai written in Japanese kanji

Japanese Kanji

When translated literally, iki means “life; alive” and kai (pronounced as gai in this case) can be translated as “reason; worthiness; fruitful; effective.” 

In regards to kai, it is important to note that there is a strong connotation with “challenge”. A common assertion is that the term stems from “passion”. Therefore inferring that it is valuable to one’s life and requires a certain amount of effort to pursue it. 

Hence, a literal translation doesn’t quite give you the insight you need to grasp the gravity of the term and its importance for oneself. As a result, there have been a number of translations, all of which are said to be accurate:

  • reason to live
  • the purpose of life
  • reason for being
  • the meaning of life
  • reason to get up in the morning or jump out of bed
  • what makes life worth living
  • the thing that you live for
  • happiness of being
  • a raison d’etre

and so on…

Girl expressing happiness with her arms open wide
Image by StockSnap

What are the benefits of ikigai?

Conceptually, Ikigai is a path, a way of life or journey; not a destination. Based on that, we can say that the benefits of ikigai are infinite. Following your passion one any given day is a day worth treasuring, hence following your ikigai every day is the root to living.

To put it in more practical terms, your ikigai wakes you up in the morning and leads you away from a mundane, status-quo life-style. It empowers you and drives your actions, your purpose.

Happiness and motivation

Let’s consider how ikigai can help you with your pursuit of happiness

Imagine waking up excited, knowing that today is an opportunity to move forward with something that appeals to you. What an awesome feeling! Especially on those Monday mornings, knowing that the day ahead of you will be a day for you.

Let’s say that your passion is dancing – or cooking – or volunteering – or building. Whatever you enjoy! And today you are going to spend some time doing that.

Surely, you may have other things to do during the day, but this is what having ikigai does for you. It gives you the motivation you need to enjoy life in the way you want to enjoy it. It is waking up with passion. 

Act on your passions daily, and you will surely be excited to continue, again and again, the next day and the day after.

Have ikigai and you will find yourself saying, “Today was a great day. I lived today.” 

Balance and guidance

Of course, life, whether you have ikigai or not, is not always ice cream, glitter, and rainbows. You will face difficulties and struggles just as we all do. 

We all experience loss and failure, i.e. falling off the proverbial bicycle and skinning our knees. Circumstances out of our control throw life’s curveballs at us constantly and we get knocked down. Everyone has to do things they do not enjoy doing from time to time. 

Ikigai does not eliminate these things from your life. It does, however, provide you with a real sense of balance.

There are times when you need your purpose in life.

Ikigai will help you pick yourself up through tough times. It provides you with the clarity you need in your life. Ikigai is as much of a guiding light in times of difficulty, pain, and sorrow as it is a reason for waking up.

Senior woman smiling
Image by Free-Photos

Is ikigai the secret to longevity?

It is believed that the benefit of ikigai is not just happiness. What attracts many of us to ikigai, is longevity. That’s right, you get to live longer – or so we hope.

Of course, there is no guarantee that you will outlive Grandma Moses or anyone else for that matter. But the people of Japan, in particular Okinawa, seem to believe that having such purpose in life is essential for living a long and prosperous one.

Having one of the world’s highest population of centenarians, Okinawans are living proof. As it turns out, Okinawa is a ‘Blue Zone,’ one of a few places on earth with above average longevity rates and “has the oldest living female population in the world,” as Dan Buettner, a writer for the National Geographic shares in his TED Talk, How to Live to Be 100+.

Indeed, if you listen to his presentation, he explains that not only does diet and society play major parts in the health and well-being of Okinawans, there is something else.

Dan Buettner says that many Okinawans, older people in general, never really retire. They work. It’s not because they have to, mind you. They work because they want to. In doing so, they keep an active mind, body, and soul. 

Just ask an Okinawan, and they will tell you that the reason they live so long, is because they LIVE so long.

Other studies reveal similar findings that suggest ikigai is linked to longevity:

Statue of Buddha expressing happiness
Image by Alexander Stein

Is ikigai spiritual?

Being that Japan is predominantly Shinto coexisting with Buddhism, it is fair to say that the principles of these two religions are evident in the ethos of ikigai. However, a more accurate answer to the question may be to consider what you believe is spiritual.

If you feel that to be spiritual means to adhere to a specific religion like Buddhism, Shinto, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, or any other, then I would say the answer to that question is closer to “no” than “yes.” To my knowledge, there is nothing specific in any religious scripture about ikigai or how it might bring you any closer to God.

However, one can argue that if you follow the teachings and live with religion in life, then worshipping would be at the center of what you do, your purpose. This, in turn, would fill your life with meaning and joy, guiding you through good times and moments of despair. 

In other words, devotion towards God or a certain faith can be your ikigai if that is connected in any way to your passion.

All in all, faith or aspiring to a certain dogma is not a requirement to ikigai. It can be spiritual if you choose it to be. Indeed if your life’s purpose is in balance with your religious beliefs or spirituality, then, by all means, the answer to, “Is ikigai is spiritual?” would be a resounding, “yes.”

Happy Japanese girl with ikigai in kimono
Image by Sasin Tipchai

Does everyone​ have ikigai?

Yes.

The Japanese believe ikigai exists within all of us and is as unique to me and the values and beliefs I hold dear, as it is to you and what brings joy and meaning to your life. It is a personal reflection found through meaningfulness, satisfaction, self-esteem, morals, and happiness. 

Think philosophy – your philosophy.

As with life, there are choices and decisions, but no right answers or rules to ikigai. There is an infinite number of paths to travel upon, and the only guide you have is yourself. Furthermore, the only map you keep is the one you lay out before you.

Goals or plans have no meaning other than to keep you in motion. Ikigai is not about end results. It is a winding journey transforming and growing with you, never-ending. As is so often said, it is not the destination but rather the journey. 

Above all, ikigai is what you make of it. For some, it can be as grand and magnificent as volunteering at a local community center or fighting to end world hunger. While for others, it is as wonderful and delightful as planting a garden or baking a cake.

True ikigai has no boundaries, no limitations. It can be whatever you want it to be. You only need to discover your own and live by it.

Woman on the ground as a metaphor for procrastination
Image by Free-Photos

The demon in the room

Whether you have an idea of the direction you are heading, you are just starting out and are looking towards your first steps, or you are well attuned to your purpose, like so many others on their journeys you too may have to face the toughest obstacle in your path, procrastination.

The lure of procrastination is quite similar between us all, and there are many common causes for procrastination such as fear of failure, lack of motivation, being a perfectionist and impatience. What affects me may be different from what affects you, but the end result is the same…

You simply need to do nothing to avoid facing the challenges you need to overcome.

Meet the challenge head-on

Needless to say, you need to face your challenges head-on. You will either work hard to find solutions and push forward maintaining your rhythm, or you will pause.

The danger here is that a pause leads to inaction. Perhaps it is only for a day. But be warned. A day can turn to two days, then a week, and so on and so on. 

Sure, by pausing or not taking any action your fears towards that action will subside. By releasing yourself from the task, you release yourself from the stress. However, before you know it you will realize that you have done nothing and find that you are still unhappy. Worst of all you may feel a grand sense of regret. 

Procrastination is one of the most common and deadliest of diseases and its toll on success and happiness is heavy. 

Wayne Gretzky

Procrastination can turn to a vicious cycle and worst of all, you get the desired (albeit negative) results immediately all with absolutely no effort on your part. All the time and effort you invested up until that point would be all for naught. 

But all is not lost…

Take as many steps as you need

Procrastination is not the road one takes to living a meaningful and productive life, it is however a part of it. While you may feel temporary bliss taking a break, know that any prolonged delay in following your passions is indeed ignorant.

There really is no choice but to get back on the horse and give yourself another go.

Fortune would have it though, the amazing thing about ikigai is that you get to go again, and again, and again if you so choose. 

Remember, if you could start from zero at one time, you can start from zero again – at least now you’d have some experience.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Lao Tsu

Man with binoculars searching
Image by Free-Photos

How do you find your ikigai?

Just as life is fluid and the only constant is change itself. What might have been your passion and dreams yesterday, may not be the same now. 

The truth of the matter is that change happens so much that one day you wake up and realize that there has got to be a better way. Fortunately, as life would have it, there is a better way, or rather, there are better ways.

While self-realization and discovery are unique to each of us, there are practical things we can do to aid us on our journey.

Here we look at two well-known approaches to finding your purpose in life, holistic and pragmatic. Both start by knowing yourself, which is where the road begins.

Ikigai, the "sweet spot"

A popular representation of the ikigai concept envisioned by Marc Winn is visualized in the below Venn diagram, attributed to the Toronto Star. 

This image illustrates how four distinct components of one’s life can overlap and identify at the center, one’s sweet spot.  

However, it is important to note that while the framework as illustrated can accurately portray one’s ikigai, the relevance each area has on one’s ikigai can vary considerably. Furthermore, know that aside from the first component, “Do what you love,” none of the other areas are requisites for ikigai.

Four components of the sweet spot

  • Passion: Do what you love
  • Profession: Do what you are good at
  • Mission: Do what the world needs
  • Vocation: Do what you can be paid for

Passion: Do what you love

Simply, what are your passions, or what do you really enjoy doing the most? Note the emphasis on “doing.”

Wasting your time sitting on the sofa doing absolutely nothing might be your favorite pastime, but it defeats the concept at which we are aiming. Unless there is a useful purpose such as mindful meditation or resting, then you should consider something more engaging as part of your ikigai.

Find your passion in life to find your ikigai.

Profession: Do what you are good at

Be it a talent or skill such as playing an instrument, speaking in public, or even organizing events, you can make it a part of your ikigai. Doing what you are good at also be a part of your occupation, for example perhaps you are talented in sales, marketing, counseling, etc. 

Whatever you choose to focus on, do what it takes to fine tune your skills, master your talents and grow your purpose.

Mission: Do what the world needs

What is the difference you want to make in the world? Is there something you want to change about how the world works? If so, think about how you can start your mission in life.

Just a note of caution though, don’t get caught up in the meaning of the word, “world.” It can be taken literally and mean millions of people, or more liberally meaning just one, “you.” 

Because let’s face it, what the world really needs is for you to follow your ikigai, everything else would theoretically fall into place.

Vocation: Do what you can be paid for

This piece of the sweet spot path may indeed be the most difficult to achieve. After all, getting paid to apply your talents and passion to make the world a better place is certainly the sweetest of spots. 

Note that I would also include volunteering or even taking on responsibilities without income such as caring for your family in this category.

Understand, although this holistic view is an accurate representation of what a purpose driven life might look like, aside from the first component, “doing what you love,” the other three components or any combination thereof are not requisites for your ikigai and can come in varying levels of application.

The pragmatic path to ikigai

Let’s say, I love playing the piano. I’ve only been playing for three years and I’m not very good at it. I enjoying playing just for my own pleasure and certainly I cannot be paid for it – not yet anyway. In this case, would I still have ikigai?

Absolutely, yes.

Let’s take a look at how ikigai can be broken down into practical advice you can take to live longer and happier?

Through their research, Héctor García and Francesc Miralles in their book, ‘Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life’ advocate a few practical steps to guide you towards finding your ikigai: stay active even past your retirement years, slow down, take care of yourself physically and mentally, be social, give thanks to what brightens your day, and live in the moment.

While on the surface this advice doesn’t seem like anything new, the beauty and simplicity of it is that it’s just true.

Another good read that is true to the concept of living a purposeful and meaningful life, oddly enough with a similar title, is ‘The Little Book of Ikigai: The Secret Japanese Way to Live a Happy and Long Life’ by Ken Mogi, neuroscientist, a senior researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratories, and a visiting professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

In this book Ken Mogi presents 5 distinct pillars (in no particular order as he says) to finding your ikigai:

  • Starting small → focus on the details
  • Releasing yourself → accept who you are
  • Harmony and sustainability → rely on others
  • The joy of little things → appreciate sensory pleasure
  • Being in the here and now → find your flow

Starting small → focus on the details

We are encouraged to improve the way we behave in small ways.

This may mean waking up earlier in the morning or changing your daily routine just enough to find time to do what you enjoy doing. It might also be small tweaks in what you do to enhance your skills or profession. Eventually, small changes as such would become habitual and lead support your ikigai.

Releasing yourself → accept who you are

Imperative to the success of finding your ikigai is to understand who you are and what you stand for. 

That is not to say that your thoughts and actions won’t change over time, in fact, we can expect them to, but rather to embrace yourself and give yourself permission to be yourself, no matter what.

Harmony and sustainability → rely on others

The more we share and the more we engage, the more pleasurable life can be for us all. 

Make an effort to talk to those around you not about the goals you have, but rather the passions you have, the small things in life, the moments you appreciate, etc, etc. Strive to create common bonds with people in your community. Absorb the energy they give you and return it in kind.

The joy of little things→ appreciate sensory pleasure

Try to appreciate the things in life we often take for granted. 

Think about the amount of skill or effort that is put into everything that you do. Find what it is that makes you feel good when you do it, then focus on doing it better. Do this often enough and much like a habit, you will find yourself more grateful for the talents you have and the people and things around you.

Being in the here and now → find your flow

Be mindful of how you feel and of your surroundings. 

Appreciate what you can through your senses and work hard at being in tune with life. Even simple actions like taking a deep breath, holding it, then releasing it slowly can help put you in the right frame of mind. You’ll somehow find things a bit clearer when you do and your next steps will be more grounded.

Bamboo forest in Kyoto Japan
Image by Walkerssk

Your next steps

You may prefer a holistic approach to finding ikigai over a more pragmatic one, but whichever way you choose, you are surely capable of finding your own.

I am not suggesting that this happens overnight in one swift leap mind you, but rather over time in every step that you take. Whether they be small or massive advances that move the hearts and minds of the world or just just for you, each day you will see your life become more meaningful.

Make no mistake though. Identifying your purpose in life can be tough. Just know, the challenge is worth it, and you owe it to yourself to search for it.

Once you have found your purpose in life, it is meaningless unless you act on it. In other words, there is no point in dreaming about doing the things you want to do, and then not doing anything about it. 

The only result you will achieve is regret, especially when there is little stopping you to take a step forward and actually pursue your passions and dreams. 

Nonetheless, living a life of purpose is a choice and requires deliberate action. You either choose to pursue your passion and your dreams or you choose not to. Either make that commitment to yourself or don’t.  

Should you find your ikigai, you will surely find a happiness that you carry with you throughout your life. And now is the time to embark on this journey if you haven’t started already.

Get busy living, stay active for as long as you can, take care of yourself physically and mentally, be social, give thanks to what brightens your day, and live in the moment.

3 Responses

  1. Geri

    I was on the first ship that carried US service men families to Japan after the war. There were only a few children. I was about 5 years old. We lived several places there. Including Okinawa. I loved it all. We quickly learned to love all the Japanese that cared for us. Ikigai was a constant part of our language. I have pretty much forgotten much from those years, but not the word “ikigai”. We used it in our home, and I have used it often thru these many years. It’s one of my favorite ways to share happiness with others.

    • admin

      Wonderful story! Have you written about it on a blog or website? I’d like to read more.

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