The Japanese art of cultivating a purposeful life
The quest for meaning in life is something that humans have pursued as far back as we have scripture. From philosophers and artists to your own quiet moments or dinner table conversations, the questions continually surface for individuals: “What is the meaning of my life?”, “How do I find my passion?”, “Can I wake up with joy for what I do each day?” and “What is the secret to longevity?” Turning to the wisdom of the Japanese culture, the mysteriously beautiful yet pragmatic concept of ikigai is a time-proven compass, stemming from ancient tradition to modern day application, to cultivate a long life of purpose and happiness — and you can apply it to your earthly experience too.
The meaning of ikigai
Ikigai is composed of Japanese characters that translate to “life” and “to be worthwhile”, or the overarching meaning of “a reason for being”. It is a Japanese concept referring to something that gives a person a sense of purpose in life. Ikigai is your reason to wake up in the morning and have the willingness to do something. When thinking of ikigai, it may be helpful to envision it as the feeling rather than the thing. In this way, ikigai is too elusive and diverse to pin down into a rigid dictionary definition. It is the incentive of doing things to fulfil your purpose and imbibe meaning into each moment of your existence, and is as unique as each individual who holds it.
The four elements of ikigai
So, if in its simplest form ikigai can be likened to a state of being or frame of mind that allows you to build a happy and active life by embracing the joy of the small things and being in the present moment: how can it be expanded upon? The Japanese commonly look at four elements that you can use to map your ikigai, which offer a tangible and useful framework on your own ikigai journey.
Ikigai is the intersection of the four outer components, which find a balance between an internal mission or personal quest in life and societally engaged pragmatic factors.
- What you love — If you are passionate about something, you will have a natural drive for it. This is key as you will not only enjoy doing what you love, you will be motivated to do it and develop your skills or practice faster. It makes sense then that following what you love comes with inbuilt life momentum.
- What the world needs — It’s important to realise that your ikigai is about fulfilling yourself and simultaneously being able to contribute to the greater community in a beneficial way. This can take many forms, whether as a skilled tradesperson, teacher, cook, accountant, musician or artist. Whatever it may be, it is something helpful for your society. As social beings, a sense of community is endlessly valuable, and contributing to this both cements your belonging and brings a sense of contentment from providing service to others.
- What you are good at — This refers to what you have a natural gift for, or that which feels easy for you to learn and practise enough so that you excel at it. It is about finding something that comes naturally to you, but not that which is necessarily measured in the sense of natural performance, though it could be. You may be a natural maestro on the piano, or you may love the piano so much that you play it daily and become exceptional. It is about the quality of your relationship to the activity or craft.
- What you can be paid for — The Japanese are wise to include this, as it is a very important aspect of a sustainable ikigai. To put it simply, you need to be able to earn an income to support your living. In turn, this fosters a greater sense of worth when you can provide for yourself and your family. Any work that is your profession needs to have a financial reimbursement for your time and skills when you offer them to others.
There are also other components that come into play where these four elements overlap. Your passion lies at the intersection of what you love and what you are good at. Your mission is found at the intersection of what you love and what the world needs. Your vocation resides at the intersection of what the world needs and what you can get paid for. Finally, your profession manifests at the intersection of what you are good at and what you can get paid for.
Using this framework, ask yourself the four elements of ikigai as questions. What do I love? What does the world need? What am I good at? What can I get paid for? Meditating on each of these and writing down your thoughts may be helpful in tuning in to your inner guide and giving form to thought.
For some people, the answers to those questions may flow easily. For others, you may need to focus on “flow” itself, in order to discover your ikigai. Have you ever been so immersed in something that everything else disintegrated around you and you were simply lost in an activity you enjoy? Whether it be surfing for hours while time seemingly vanished, or cooking a new dish in the kitchen where you knew of nothing else but the aromas and textures of your ingredients, these experiences can be described as in a “flow state”. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow conceives it as the pleasure, creativity and process of being completely immersed in life; it is being in your “zone”.
As an exercise, identify activities in your life that allow you to enter flow. What are the common threads that these activities have and why do they bring you to flow? The more you become aware of flow and cultivate it, the more it can help guide you towards your ikigai. The next step, then, is cultivating a life that facilitates ikigai, and there is perhaps nowhere better to learn about Japanese ikigai in action than Japan’s very own “land of the immortals”, Okinawa.
Lessons from Okinawa
The Okinawa islands, situated at the southern end of Japan, have historically been known for longevity and are revered as one of the world’s “blue zones”. Regions that fall into the blue zone category are marked by a noticeably higher population life expectancy than usual. Okinawa is known for its centenarians and supercentenarians — people who live to 110 years of age and over!
So what is the secret of the Okinawans? In addition to a healthy diet, an integrated healthcare system that focuses on disease prevention and the effort that the Japanese people make to stay active their whole lives, longevity is tightly tied to cultural ways of thinking and living. What stands out is the sense of community and purpose, which are both intrinsic to the importance of ikigai.
Many attribute the concept of Japanese ikigai to having been developed in Okinawa, and it is certainly something that is deeply embodied by the inhabitants of the islands as part of their recipe for life, who just happen to be the longest living people in the world. Indeed, contributing to the community and having an ikigai as that guiding purpose, even in the absence of work, is a sure way to maintain the kind of zest for life that cultivates a strong will to live — for many, many years.
Practise a lifestyle that supports living out your ikigai
While it’s evident that having a strong ikigai helps you to live a happier, longer life, it is also clear that it’s a two-way street. Embracing a lifestyle shaped by practices conducive to living out your ikigai is vital; it is all interconnected.
In their book Ikigai: the Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, authors Héctor García and Francesc Miralles visited the small town of Ogimi, coined the “Village of Longevity” in the Okinawa prefecture, where they conducted a series of interviews with the eldest members of the community. The conversations that followed were about their life philosophy, secrets to longevity and their ikigai, from which five key elements of wisdom were identified, that you too can apply to your own life.
Below are these guiding principles, as well as delightful snippets from interviews recorded in the book.
“The secret to a long life is not to worry. And to keep your heart young — don’t let it grow old.”
“The best way to avoid anxiety is to go out in the street and say hello to people. I do it every day.”
Cultivate good habits
“I plant my own vegetables and cook them myself, that’s my ikigai.”
“I never forget to do my taiso exercises when I get up.”
“I go dancing with my friends once a week.”
“Eating vegetables — it helps you live longer.”
Nurture your friendships every day
“Getting together with my friends is my most important ikigai. We all get together here and talk — it’s very important. I always know I’ll see them all here tomorrow, and that’s one of my favourite things in life.”
Live an unhurried life
“My secret to a long life is always saying to myself, ‘Slow down’ and ‘Relax’. You live much longer if you’re not in a hurry.”
“The most important thing in Ogimi, in life, is to keep smiling.”
“Every day I say to myself, ‘Today will be full of health and energy. Live it to the fullest”
“I’m 98, but I consider myself young. I still have so much to do.”
Life is not meant to be perfect
If discovering and living life in accordance with your ikigai sounds somewhat idealistic to you, then it may feel more attainable when you understand it alongside the concept of wabi sabi. Stemming from traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi sabi is a concept that motivates us to constantly look for the beauty in imperfection and to accept the natural cycles of life and nature.
It is a reminder that everything, including yourself and life itself, are imperfect and impermanent. In knowing this, there is no need to strive for perfection, and you can instead celebrate its opposite. By ushering an awareness of impermanence — that everything in life is changing and fleeting — wabi sabi also urges you to live in the moment.
The Japanese proverb “Nana korobi ya oki,” which means “Fall seven times, rise eight,” is also a useful piece of wisdom to hold in tandem with your ikigai. Even in the challenging times, when you stay on course with your ikigai, you will ultimately find fulfilment in the pursuit. Challenges build resilience and strength. Finding and embodying ikigai will enrich your life and even help you to live more of it, but it isn’t about having an easy ride. It’s about having one that means something, and this comes with all the beautiful imperfections that life has to offer.
The power of ikigai
Though individual experiences of ikigai vary greatly, there is strong evidence that having an inner incentive of doing life with purpose — finding that motivating force in life, however it is applied — is associated with greater fulfilment, happiness and even longevity.
Ikigai unites a number of important human drives: pursuing your passions, developing your talents, helping others and making a living. By fostering your own ikigai, you can connect to something deeply personal within yourself that will ripple out into all areas of your life. When you have your ikigai, no matter the hardships or imperfections of life, you will awake ready to experience each day and a silent joy for life will propel you from your bed. That is the power of ikigai