The Japanese Concept of Ikigai

The Japanese Concept of Ikigai

“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for”. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov


The Japanese concept of Ikigai is a lovely way to look at purpose – and as we know from the time spent exploring this as a wellbeing theme last year, a sense of purpose brings meaning into all that we do.  Not only does it make our lives more passionate and enjoyable, it can make the simplest tasks take on a whole new meaning.  While we stayed in our homes during lockdown and missed out on all of those simple joys we had taken for granted, our combined sense of purpose around beating the virus helped us make sense of all we were experiencing.

The word “Ikigai” has no direct translation, but roughly equates to our reason for living – something that brings us joy, or that makes us spring out of bed in the morning.

Part of the beauty of this interpretation of the word is that it is not connected to money.  It is supposed to be about finding joy in the small things.  It’s also not even linked to the idea of happiness – but rather to the idea of fulfillment.  These things are subtly different, and it is perhaps by examining money and wealth that we see the difference.  Money may give us access to luxuries that provide happiness in the moment, but fulfillment is a deeper and more permanent feeling.  It is a sense of having changed things for the better, and of having made a positive difference in the world.

Many people mistake a purpose to mean something that is “big” – something that makes you a leader or an innovator.  But it can be something that is simply meaningful to you, or even a small group of people.  Starting a drama group in an underprivileged postcode that engages teens at risk is hugely important – and while it only makes a difference to a small number of lives – what a difference it makes.  If even one person is positively impacted, it was worth doing.

Your Ikigai might even be quiet.  It might be to support a person who is that leader or an innovator.  It might be to raise happy, healthy and well-balanced children.  It might be to rescue abandoned puppies, one at a time.  Only you can say what is meaningful to you.

Not sure what your Ikigai is?  There are a number of things you might consider if you are interested in pondering it.

It can be connected to your work if you feel a drive and a passion for what you do,  but it also does not have to be work.  It might be a creative outlet or helping others.   If your work is your Ikigai, then never fully retire. Always stay connected in some way to that thing that gives your life purpose and meaning.

It might be connected to something that helps you experience what we call “flow” – that sense of being fully engaged in a task.  Where do you lose yourself?  In books?  In training?  In counselling others? Entertaining people?  In art?

A good rule of thumb might also be to consider the Saturday morning test.  If you wake up on a Saturday morning with nothing to do and no demands on you, how do you spend your time?  The answer to this question may be very revealing.

Still not sure about your Ikigai?  Maybe we need to take more time to be quiet.  Our lives are subject to constant input – not only the people around us, the traffic and busyness of life, but also the constant input of social media at our fingertips. How often do we just sit quietly without reaching for the quick buzz or quick comforts of our phone?  These quiet moments are when we ponder the big questions – the kinds of things that help us realise our Ikigai.  What are our dreams?  What would we like to avoid?  What are our best moments connected to?

 The pondering of your Ikigai should only be to help recognise the things that bring pleasure and purpose – not to define ourselves rigidly or to meet a societal expectation about “purpose”.  It might help you recognise something you had not considered before.


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