What’s Your Ikigai?

It is a wonderful serendipity that I happen to learn about Ikigai (via Adam Grant’s newsletter) right after I put out my piece on finding your Why. Let’s talk about how we can use our Ikigai to lead a more fulfilling life.

The idea of Ikigai originates from Japan as a way to live longer and better. Iki means life and gai is value or worth. It roughly translates to “a reason for being”. It’s the reason for which you wake up in the morning. It’s your raison d’être. It’s your sense of purpose. It’s taking a deep, long search into your self to bring out satisfaction and meaning in your life. It asks the question, “Why do we exist?”

It allows you to look forward to the future even though you might be unhappy in the present. The Japanese believe that everyone has an Ikigai and finding it is the key to a happier and longer life. It is found to be the reason behind people living longer-than-average lives in some areas of Japan (and in other parts of the world).

Contrary to popular belief, Ikigai is not a “lifestyle choice”, but is something to live for, which will likely lead to a better, richer, and more fulfilling life. As Gordon Matthews wrote in his book:

Ikigai is not something grand or extraordinary. It’s something pretty matter-of-fact.

Also, Ikigai has nothing to do with one’s work or income (although for some, their work might be their Ikigai), though that’s how experts in the West typically interpret it.

Here are a couple of benefits to knowing (and living) your Ikigai.

Knowing (and living) your Ikigai gives you a reason to wake up in the morning because you have greater clarity about your life, you have a cause that you believe in, and you’re putting it into action relentlessly. It brings satisfaction and meaning to your life as you experience happiness and contentment in all areas of your life.

Knowing (and living) your Ikigai is the single-greatest factor in improving your health and vitality. All the exercise and “lifestyle” activities in the world will not compensate for lack of Ikigai as you’ll find that those who don’t have Ikigai are more likely to have physical health issues. Defining (and living) your life’s meaning adds to your life expectancy as well resulting in higher levels of self-rated health and lower levels of stress. You’re also more likely to sleep better and to live better.

For most people, Ikigai is about work, family, or both. I know for me, my Ikigai is the work I do (those I serve — readers and clients) and those I love — my family and friends. Even if we might not all know our Ikigai, we can certainly work toward finding it.

If you suspect that your work might be your Ikigai, you can ask yourself some deep questions. What change would you like to see in the world? Or, what would you like to see different in the world? What are the causes you feel strongly about? What are the things you believe in? What are the things that you love doing that makes you come alive? What are the skills you have a natural aptitude for? Take some time to do this introspective process in solitude and see where it takes you.

If your work happens to be your Ikigai, find someone who is already doing what you want to do and ask yourself if it’s something you want to be doing. I covered this in my draft on getting paid. This reminds me of Chéf Jiro, whose work happens to be his Ikigai. Even though he has worked all his life at his craft (making sushi), he would be the last one to claim that he has attained perfection in it. By the way, the Japanese don’t have a word for “retirement”.

Your strengths are also a good indication of your Ikigai in terms of work. The confluence of your strengths — what you’re good at, what you’re greatly passionate about, and what the world needs (and will pay you for it). What activities make you feel strong before, during, or afterwards? For example, before doing an activity, you look forward to doing it; while you’re doing the activity, you’re so engrossed that you’ve lost track of time; after doing the activity, you feel fulfilled. Make a note of all the activities that come to mind. This is not a passive thing but activities you are doing proactively.

People often discover their Ikigai when they encounter something majorly positive or negative (such as recovering from a life-threatening disease) in their lives.

By the way, not knowing your Ikigai is not an excuse to simply do nothing. More often than not, you have to do things in order to discover your Ikigai. Also, Ikigai can change with age; what was once your Ikigai may no longer be the case.

Simply knowing your Ikigai is not enough. You have to put your purpose into action. Once we know our Ikigai, we need to do it every day.

There are a few things we can do alongside our Ikigai to live more fully. We do work that matters by serving others, adding value in the world (using our strengths), and making a difference. We can practice moderation with food (and other things) to be at our physical best. We can reduce our temptations with food (and other things). We can have a support network of friends who we can always turn to to share our happiness and sorrows.

In the end, Ikigai is about feeling (and knowing) that we’ve made a difference in others’ lives and that our lives mattered. It is about living joyfully and with purpose. When we have our Ikigai, life gets very simple very fast. It brings greater clarity about how we want to spend our lives by focusing on the few things that matter.

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