In 2017-18 there was an ikigai fad in the West. Several new books were simultaneously published and numerous news articles were written.  Even the World Economic Forum got caught up in the fad and published an article about it.  They define ikigai (prounounced ee-kee-guy) as “your reason for getting up in the morning”.  It is, “the idea of having a purpose in life” or “value in living”.

…To find this reason or purpose, experts recommend starting with four questions:

  • What do you love?
  • What are you good at?
  • What does the world need from you?
  • What can you get paid for?

Finding the answers and a balance between these four areas could be a route to ikigai for Westerners looking for a quick interpretation of this philosophy. But in Japan, ikigai is a slower process and often has nothing to do with work or income.

In a 2010 survey of 2,000 Japanese men and women, just 31% of participants cited work as their ikigai. [Which makes sense given that less than half of the Japanese population is working and only 59% of adults are working.  So the majority of Japanese workers got ikigai from their work if that survey was representative.]

Gordon Matthews, professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of What Makes Life Worth Living?: How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds, told the Telegraph that how people understand ikigai can, in fact, often be mapped to two other Japanese ideas – ittaikan and jiko jitsugen. Itaikkan refers to “a sense of oneness with, or commitment to, a group or role”, while jiko jitsugen relates more to self-realization.

Matthews says that ikigai will likely lead to a better life “because you will have something to live for”, but warns against viewing ikigai as a lifestyle choice: “Ikigai is not something grand or extraordinary. It’s something pretty matter-of-fact.”

Doing things for other people (“what the world needs”) is a particularly important hole in how most Americans think about happiness.  Harvard researchers surveyed over 10,000 American students and about 80% said they valued their own happiness over caring for others.  Most kids thought their parents had the same priorities.

The irony is that seeking happiness isn’t necessarily the best way to find happiness.  It is partly by caring for others that we find happiness and purpose in life.  Happiness is one of those things that you can’t get by striving to be happy.  It is produced as a byproduct of how you live your life and if you only do things for the world because you want to be happy, it won’t work as well as if you do things for the world simply because you want to contribute.  It is the joy of contributing to others that brings a happiness that cannot be produced by merely striving to be happy.

Yukari Mitsuhashi reported for the Huffington Post that

There have even been attempts to link ikigai to longevity. Studies have found a correlation between longevity and having a life’s purpose, or ikigai, and Japan has the world’s longest life expectancy, 83.7 years ― five years longer than the U.S. (78.7 years).

In another article, Yukari Mitsuhashi wrote in the BBC that

There are many books in Japan devoted to ikigai, but one in particular is considered definitive: Ikigai-ni-tsuite (About Ikigai), published in 1966.

The book’s author, psychiatrist Mieko Kamiya, explains that as a word, ikigai is similar to “happiness” but has a subtle difference in its nuance. Ikigai is what allows you to look forward to the future even if you’re miserable right now.

Hasegawa points out that in English, the word life means both lifetime and everyday life. So, ikigai translated as life’s purpose sounds very grand. “But in Japan we have jinsei, which means lifetime and seikatsu, which means everyday life,” he says. The concept of ikigai aligns more to seikatsu and, through his research, Hasegawa discovered that Japanese people believe that the sum of small joys in everyday life results in more fulfilling life as a whole…

In a culture where the value of the team supercedes the individual, Japanese workers are driven by being useful to others, being thanked, and being esteemed by their colleagues, says Toshimitsu Sowa… That’s not to say that working harder and longer are key tenets of the ikigai philosophy… Rather, ikigai is about feeling your work makes a difference in people’s lives.

How people find meaning in their work is a topic of much interest to management experts. One research paper by Wharton management professor Adam Grant explained that what motivates employees is “doing work that affects the well-being of others” and to “see or meet the people affected by their work.”

In one experiment, cold callers at the University of Michigan who spent time with a recipient of the scholarship they were trying to raise money for brought in 171% more money when compared with those who were merely working the phone. The simple act of meeting a student beneficiary provided meaning to the fundraisers and boosted their performance.

This applies to life in general. Instead of trying to tackle world hunger, you can start small by helping someone around you, like a local volunteering group.

Diversify your ikigai

Retirement can bring a huge sense of loss and emptiness for those who find their ikigai in work. This can be especially true for athletes, who have relatively shorter careers… When retirement comes, it is helpful to have a clear understanding of why you do what you do beyond collecting a payslip.

By being mindful of this concept, it might just help you live a more fulfilling life.

The focus of Ikigai changes with age.  In particular, for people who live long enough to retire (or those living off of an inheritance), the last of the four questions–“What can you get paid for?”–disappears and those lucky people can just focus on other dimensions. In fact, some authors like Dan Buettner always leave the money question off of the list of dimensions and just focus on the other three. There is some overlap between what the world needs from you and what you can get paid for, but they certainly are not one and the same as the diagram shows.

Hector Garcia wrote a book about ikigai and he said that he associates ikigai with being in a flow state where, “you forget to eat and drink”. Iza Kavedžija interviewed older Japanese and she reported that they focused on the second question which is looking at ikigai as mastery.

There are other dimensions that the above ikigai diagram leaves out that are also important for living a good life such as spirituality, and an explicit recognition of the importance of relationships.  That should be one of the top factors because relationships are what makes life happier and healthier.  One study found that, “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”  According to Robert Putnam and other scholars, neoliberal capitalism and new social networking technologies are weakening the bonds of traditional relationships in modern life.  Perhaps these forces are weakening traditional relationships in Japan and that may be one reason why most Japanese people say they are unsatisfied with their ikigai. today.

The Japanese have a word for quality relationships,  moai, and that they often use it for explaining ikigai, but somehow this concept didn’t make it into the above diagram that became popular a couple years ago.  Similarly, the aforementioned ittaikan is also frequently cited by the Japanese as being crucial for ikigai and that is also all about one’s relationship with a group and role in that group.

Relationships should be stressed more because you can focus on the four dimensions — 1) what the world needs, 2) money, 3) competence, and 4) enjoying tasks — without building close relationships with other individuals and feeling at home in a particular group.

This goes to show that ikigai has more than four dimensions and other writers used completely different ways to explain it.  For example, Japanese writer Ken Mogi defines ikigai using five other ways to achieve it that are almost entirely different from the ikigai diagram above.  But he doesn’t have a clever diagram and these four questions are a great place to start thinking about ikigai.   Then you can pick whatever additional dimensions you want to add on your own.

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