What Is Ikigai and Why It’s Important You Know
I have been fascinated by the Japanese and their culture for at least ten years now and I have learned a lot from them. Some of the things I am most fascinated by about the Japanese are their longevity (the Japanese have the longest lifespans of any race in the world), the high importance they place on teamwork, social connections and social responsibility, and their incredibly healthy diets.
If you ask someone the reason why the average Japanese lives so long, the answer you will probably receive is, “because they have a healthy diet”. And that answer is mostly correct. But, as it turns out, there might be more to it than simply a healthy diet. It may also have to do with the fact that the Japanese believe in and adhere to something called “ikigai”, which loosely means “reason for being” or “reason for waking up”.
The Japanese take their ikigai seriously and this motivates them in many ways. It is somewhat akin to the word “passion” in English. It may relate to a person’s career or job, but it does not have to. In fact, only about a third of Japanese profess that their ikigai is related to the type of work they do.
Very often, the Japanese will cite social connections and responsibility as their ikigai. For example, the older generation is respected and highly appreciated. Their opinions and experience are valued by society and this allows them to feel a sense of purpose and responsibility towards others. In other words, their lives matter.
Unlike in the West where our passions mostly take into account what we love to do, ikigai also involves doing something that we love, but it also places a lot of emphasis on a group and fulfilling a role that benefits that group as a whole. Many Japanese are part of formal groups called “moai” and they consider their connection to these groups to be very important in their lives.
A fisherman’s ikigai might be to hone his craft so that he can help successfully feed his family, his moai, or the town, village, or city. A grandmother’s ikigai may be to impart wisdom to the younger generation. A traditional chef’s ikigai might involve preserving ancient recipes and passing them on so that every new generation can enjoy traditional Japanese food. A man who conducts the church choir every week might cite that as his ikigai.
Interestingly enough, a lot of research shows that the earlier a person retires, the higher the risk of an earlier death. This could have something to do with inactivity and being sedentary. It also could have something to do with losing one’s “raison d’etre”, or ikigai.
Some people in the West compare ikigai to happiness, but the two are not synonymous. Ikigai refers to finding happiness and joy in the small, day-to-day activities rather than reaching some final goal that promises bliss. It encompasses finding meaning in the small things. In fact, a person’s ikigai gives them a reason for living even when they are unhappy or miserable in the moment. It is what Victor Frankl wrote about in his epic book, Man’s Search For Meaning. In other words, one can still experience his or her ikigai during times of hardship or suffering. It fosters resilience.
How to Find Your Ikigai
Simply put, your ikigai is where what you are good at, what you love, and what your values are, intersect. When all three of these factors are in line and congruent, it is likely that you have found your ikigai. Try to recall a time when you were doing something and were so engrossed in it that you lost track of time and forgot to eat lunch or dinner. This is often referred to as being in the “flow”.
When you pay attention to tasks that seem to “flow” to you, you will find your ikigai and even deepen your association with it. You will find your life to be more meaningful and enjoyable. Once you notice the things that have meaning to you, you must then take the additional step of incorporating more of those types of tasks into your life. In other words, it requires some action and will not just happen on its own.
This also involves eliminating some things that are not harmonious with your values, that you are not good at, or that you do not like to do. Of course, this does not mean that you can get rid of every single task or activity that you do not like (some people do not like to brush their teeth, but it needs to be done anyway). But it does reduce the amount of tasks that are meaningless to you. Some people delegate these “meaningless” tasks to others to create more time for the tasks related to their ikigai.
One important point to note is that, once you find your ikigai, it will help you see the bigger picture and make even some mundane tasks more meaningful. For example, helping others by conducting research and writing this blog is very meaningful to me. I often experience “flow” and lose track of time when I am writing a blog post. However, I have also come to see that proofreading and correcting my mistakes (not my favorite things to do) are necessary in order to create an article that my readers like and can benefit from.
Knowing what your ikigai is (you can have more than one, although I would be suspicious if a person had more than four or five) not only creates more happiness and meaning in your life, it also can help you live a longer and healthier life. It makes sense if you really think about it: a person is more likely to jump out of bed each morning with vigor if he knows that the tasks he has to perform will make him more proficient at it, happier, and make a difference in the world. Knowing your ikigai also increases the likelihood of you taking better care of your health because your life has meaning.
Knowing your ikigai can be one of the most rewarding things in a person’s life. What is yours?