Ikigai: A Concept Better Than Happiness

The Japanese culture has a concept called ikigai, which relates to a fulfilled and purposeful life. In the recent years, the term has become popularized outside of Japan as people seek to better their lives in the most authentic ways possible. Its scientific links to lowered mortality rates and cardiovascular risks reinforce the importance of psychological well-being in caring for our long-term health.

Ikigai: A Concept Better Than Happiness

The word ikigai, pronounced “ee-kee-guy”, stems from the Japanese words “iki” meaning life, and “gai”, or worth. Although there is no direct translation, it’s roughly similar to the French term raison d’être, or one’s reason to wake up in the morning. It’s one’s life purpose, but not necessarily in the grand or exceptional way we may instinctively think it to be. For the Japanese, the notion of ikigai also involves a modest, everyday reality that still offers a sense of hope and purpose.

So what is your ikigai? A Japanese survey found just 30 percent of people considered their job to be their ikigai—hobbies, family or spiritual habits can be alternative sources of purpose, and individuals can have more than one. It is helpful to think of the concept as the converging point or sweet spot between:

  • What you love (what you genuinely enjoy doing)
  • What you care about (what calls to your deepest nature, ethically or morally)
  • What you can get paid for (a service you can provide in exchange for value)
  • What the world needs (a unique skill, talent or aspect of your personality that can be put to use)

Placed on a venn-diagram, these elements look a little like this:

Ikigai Diagram

To pinpoint your ikigai, experts suggest pinpointing what acts make you feel joy when doing them. Being as specific as possible, ask yourself: how does the activity bring you joy? Do you enjoy it because it boosts confidence? Does it relax you? Beyond making you feel good, does it feel right? Begin with these questions and then move on to the other elements. Don’t be afraid to take tests and assessments to figure out your personal strengths. Converse with people about their perception of you, and about things in the news that excite or anger you. Remember to play and explore: to be in the flow and remain curious allows you to see what your soul inherently craves in life. As Albert Einstein once put it, “don’t worry about what you can’t answer, and don’t try to explain what you can’t know. Curiosity is its own reason.”

Hector Garcia, co-author of the book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life explains how he shapes his mornings around his ikigai: “I have a cup of green tea, do 15 minutes of easy yoga poses and then write for one hour. Before leaving home, I have dedicated time to my health and one of the activities that give ikigai to my life: which is writing books.” It doesn’t sound too monumental does it? That’s because ikigai is not about logic, but about the soul.

Because ikigai is about finding what fulfills you, it places major emphasis on an end goal rather than happiness. For the Japanese it is about a love that oversees and accepts other feelings (such as frustration, lack of acceptance, tiredness etc.) for a greater, eventual good. The toils and challenges are a necessary element—for me, it is this degree of humility that I love the most. Cutting through our modern obsessions with an ultimate, immediate happy life, ikigai reminds us that it is as much about the journey as it is about the end goal. Growth, process, and commitment may not sound exciting, but they comprise the necessary nitty-gritty reality that brings true fulfillment. Ikigai’s emphasis on a sense of mastery means it’s something that’s not only rewarding, but pays you back with interest.

Ikigai, or one’s life purpose, reinvents the classic idiom “there is no path to happiness, happiness is the path”. Rather than thinking of it as an end goal, the concept suggests that happiness is the path to finding something even greater, making all of it worthwhile.


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