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Use the Japanese Art of Ikigai to Find What Matters Most

Has 2020 left you struggling to feel a sense of purpose in your life? Exploring the Japanese concept of ikigai could help you figure out—or remember—why you’re here.
by Jennifer Duffy | Oct 28 2020

As 2020 wears on, many people are feeling a bit lost, overwhelmed, lacking in meaning, and reassessing what’s important to them. The year has seen our concept of a ‘normal’ life change drastically, causing many of us to rethink the way we live our lives and where we find happiness. The Japanese concept of ikigai might offer some help to those looking to find more meaning and joy in life, and point you towards how you should really be spending your time.

What is ikigai?

Ikigai has its origins in Okinawa Island in southern Japan, which is home to the largest number of centenarians in the world. One of the secrets to their longevity can be linked to ikigai, a Japanese term which means your inner motivation or your reason for living.

The word comes from iki meaning ‘life,’ and gai meaning ‘value’ or ‘worth.’ Basically, your ikigai is why you get out of bed in the morning! Focusing on this motivator can help you live a long, full and meaningful life.

“Your ikigai is at the intersection of what you are good at and what you love doing.”
— from Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles

The 2016 international bestseller Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles offers a comprehensive guide to living a long, contented life based on these lessons from Japanese culture. A dual Japanese-Spanish citizen, Héctor García’s fascination with unravelling the wisdom of Japanese culture is an example of ikigai in action.

García and his co-author, Francesc Miralles, a bestselling writer, essayist and translator, interviewed over one hundred Okinawans about their philosophy for a life well-lived. Having an ikigai was one of the key factors the interviewees shared.

Your ikigai lies at the intersection of four factors:

  1. What you are passionate about
  2. What you are skilled at
  3. What the world needs from you
  4. How you can earn a living

Finding your ikigai means finding your own interpretation of this venn diagram. By sitting down and considering what you enjoy doing and what your strengths are you will find what is likely to give your life joy and purpose. The idea that everyone has an ikigai, or a destiny, to fulfill is a belief many Japanese people hold.

“This over the years has been described using many different words and practices, but always hearkening back to the central core of meaningfulness in life.”
— from Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles

How can you find your ikigai?

For some people, their ikigai is very clear and they find it early on in life. For others, it can be harder to uncover. However, it is worth taking the time to explore, as ikigai can bring you great fulfilment and help motivate you to keep going.

“Begin by answering this question in a single, memorable sentence: Why do you get up in the morning?”
– Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones

Bestselling author of The Blue Zones and National Geographic Fellow, Dan Buettner, suggests a simple exercise to help work out your ikigai. Make a list on paper or on your computer with three columns—your values; the things you like to do; the things you are good at. Finding the common factors in the lists will help you find what is meaningful for you.

When trying to work out your own ikigai, think of activities you can become immersed in. In the 1970s, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow,’ meaning a sense of enjoyment or concentration so deep that it blocks out all other concerns. You may experience flow in your work, or perhaps in your hobbies.

Flow can lower your stress levels, help you enjoy your life more and even increase your lifespan. To help yourself achieve flow, think of ways in which you can challenge yourself—if the task is too easy you will get bored—without becoming stressed—if the task is too hard you may give up. Finding new ways to engage with your passions keeps them fun and fresh.

Okinawans remain active late into life, believing that if your ikigai is your job, there’s no reason to retire. If they do retire, they remain active members of their communities. This is an important part of their longevity, as they remain social and continue to have purpose in their lives.

Your profession can be your ikigai, but for many people this just isn’t the case. In a 2010 survey of Japanese people, only 31% viewed their job as their ikigai. In this survey, the primary categories where people found their ikigai were hobbies/leisure and family/pets.

If your ikigai is a hobby, making more time for it will bring greater meaning and joy into your life. If your home life is where you find most meaning, find ways to make this a priority. For many people, their ikigai is in interpersonal relationships—such as those with family and friends—and in 2020 it is perhaps clearer than ever why social interaction matters.

The people of Okinawa have described their ikigai in many ways, including ‘seeing and being surrounded by my children and grandchildren’ and ‘being happy every day.’

“Our ikigai is different for all of us, but one thing we have in common is that we are all searching for meaning. When we spend our days feeling connected to what is meaningful to us, we live more fully; when we lose the connection, we feel despair.”
– from Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles

What are the benefits of ikigai?

Studies show that an engaged mind can help longevity and better your health in old age. There is a very low rate of heart disease and dementia in the population of centenarians in Okinawa. Part of their good health is down to their plant-based diet and the emphasis they put on movement and staying active. Other tips from the Okinawans include worrying as little as possible, greeting others and being happy with what you have.

It’s also important to keep trying new things. Getting stuck in a routine can decrease brain flexibility so by continuing to try out new activities and retaining your sense of curiosity about the world, you can keep your brain active and improve your health. We often neglect our mental health, prioritizing the physical, but both have significant impacts on our wellbeing and longevity.

Another key factor is reducing stress. We are living through an incredibly difficult time now, and it can be hard to manage the anxiety. Finding ways that work for you to handle stress—such as mindfulness, yoga, walks, or just taking some time to breathe and slow your brain down—will help massively. Observing your breath and your body, rather than racing thoughts, can help. The Okinawans prioritize living in the moment, viewing past hardships as a necessary part of their journey to the here and now.

“Ikigai is the action we take in pursuit of happiness.”
— Yukari Mitsuhashi, author of Ikigai: giving every day meaning and joy

Finding your purpose and motivation can sound like a daunting task. However, ikigai is also about appreciating the small joys in your daily life. Making time for little moments of happiness in the day, and integrating things you enjoy into your daily routine will make a perceptible difference to your mood. After all, ikigai is a framework for life as well as a philosophical concept. Good luck with your search!

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