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.  Ikigai (prounounced ee-kee-guy) is a Japanese word defined 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 supersedes 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 (and people 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 a lot of overlap between what you are good at and what you can get paid for because why would any employer hire you if other people are better at something? Being good at something is always relative to other people.  It is all about comparative advantage. If employers are rational, they aren’t going to hire inferior workers. 

The diagram at the top of the page is a beautiful info graphic, but it isn’t perfect because the vocation category is misnamed and is probably very rare.  It also leaves out a number of additional dimensions that are also important for living a good life such as spirituality, and an explicit recognition of the importance of relationships.  For example, Japanese often use two words for relationships, moai and ittaikan (also mentioned above) when explaining ikigai.

Relationships should be stressed more because you can focus on the other 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.

Relationships should be one of the top factors for ikigai because they usually make 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 social media 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.

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 what you are good at.  The mainly looked at ikigai as mastery.

This goes to show that ikigai is not represented perfectly by the four dimensions of the diagram, but the diagram is aesthetically appealing.  Some authors use completely different ways to explain it.  For example, Japanese writer Ken Mogi‘s five pillars for achieving ikigai are completely different from the diagram.  Life is short and in looking for a career, people need to balance multiple dimensions:

  1. meaningful work that is needed and helps others.
  2. fun tasks (without unpleasant commute, insecurity, tiresome schedule, unfair conditions, etc.) that achieve a state of flow.
  3. relationships with people you work with.
  4. ability (comparative advantage)
  5. challenge (not too much (stress) nor too little (boredom))
  6. feedback about successes and how to improve
  7. autonomy
  8. compatible with personal life goals (sufficient time balance and wage)

You have a lot of weeks in life to find all of these qualities in a career, but you might as well start now:


If you don’t spend those weeks doing 80,000 hours of ikigai, at the end of your life you may have regrets.  For example,  25% of workers don’t think their job is socially useful and people working in private business are much more likely to think their work is socially useless than people working for government. 

Within business, the share of workers considering their job as socially useless is particularly high in jobs involving simple and routine tasks as well as jobs in finance, sales, marketing, and public relations. Within the public sector, jobs in education, health, and the police force are rarely perceived as socially useless.

Posted in Labor

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