While ikigai is a form of happiness, it is a concept far more complex than that. In fact, ikigai is the way to happiness rather than the end goal. Through examples of how the Japanese pursue and maintain ikigai, it is hoped that you will find your own.
Different understandings of happiness
The concept of ikigai has been introduced to the West mainly as the Japanese secret to happiness. In reality, happiness is only a facet of ikigai. While happiness can be understood in universal terms to some extent, ultimately, it is a subjective experience that is difficult to measure and compare at a national level, even more so across cultures. First, this is because people tend to inaccurately perceive and evaluate their emotional state. Second, the way we understand happiness depends on societal patterns that are culturally specific.
For example, North Americans have a tendency to present themselves more positively in public, appearing happier than they truly are. Inversely, Japanese people are generally reluctant to say they are happy when referring to their ikigai. According to author Iza Kavedžija, in Japanese culture as well as in other East Asian societies, personal modesty is considered a social value. Under Japanese social conventions, people should speak about themselves in a modest, down-to-earth manner to avoid being perceived as boasting.
How to find your ikigai
Ikigai is not a destination but a journey that we travel throughout our lives, as we constantly look for new inspirations and meaning in our daily activities. The truth is that no one can tell you what ikigai should be for you. Instead, existing literature emphasizes the personal nature of ikigai, reflecting “one’s inner self and expressing it faithfully.”
Drawing on the studies of the most influential ikigai authors, your reason for being is something that helps you understand your past while allowing you to focus on your future goals. Furthermore, the feeling of ikigai imbues your existence when you immerse yourself fully in the present moment or accept and overcome challenging tasks or adverse events in life.
According to Mogi, your ikigai is most likely something that already exists deep within you and requires a process of self-reflection to reveal. Similarly, Yohei Nakajima[104, 105] suggests examining your role within your community—whether that is through your family, work, or circle of friends—and you will probably realize that what motivates you to keep going is ikigai.
The precarious nature of ikigai
Mathews states that ikigai is only the provisional answer to the question of what makes life worth living. When you have found meaning and purpose in your work, being fired or retiring are certain to affect your ikigai. After years of dedication to a profession, it may feel as if you have suddenly lost your direction in life.
A parent whose children grow up and leave home will experience a loss of ikigai. Dreams may fade, and some people may become ill. In addition, social and institutional constraints, such as tax laws or age restrictions, may limit our pursuit of ikigai.
Reflecting the transient nature of life itself, ikigai is ultimately precarious. However, the Japanese demonstrate to us that ikigai can take many shapes throughout the course of our lives. The loss of ikigai is merely an opportunity to find another one. As Mathews concludes, while one’s ikigai may vanish, it is nevertheless worth having.