Ikigai, or the Japanese way of finding happiness in living

This tile presents the basics of the philosophy of ikigai, from the term’s origin and history to its modern interpretation.

Image: Constituent elements of Ikigai Image: Constituent elements of Ikigai

Definition of the term ikigai

Can you answer this question: “What is your reason for getting up in the morning?” Finding meaning in one’s life or a reason for living has been a persistent preoccupation of humans throughout history and cultures. For Japanese people, that reason is their ikigai.

The term ‘ikigai’ is composed of the Japanese characters ‘iki’ [生き], meaning ‘life’ or ‘to live,’ and ‘kai’ [甲斐] (pronounced ‘gai’1), meaning ‘reason,’ ‘meaning,’ or ‘worth.’ Ikigai is a nuanced Japanese word, reflecting the idea of happiness to be alive.2

Japanese dictionaries define ikigai as ikiru hariai, yorokobi, or meate (something to live for; the joy and goal of living; happiness and the benefit of being alive).3 In English, it is commonly referred to as ‘the value of life,’ ‘a reason for living,’ or ‘what makes life worth living.’

History of ikigai

The term ikigai has a long history in Japanese culture. Gordon Mathews, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who explored the concept of ikigai in studying how the Japanese and Americans find meaning in their lives, tracks the term back to the 14th-century Taiheiki and even early 20th-century works such as Natsume Sōseki’s 1912 novel Kōjin.4

Akihiro Hasegawa, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Toyo Eiwa University, traces the origin of the word ikigai further back to the Heian period (794–1185 CE).5 Hasegawa explains that the word ‘kai’ (pronounced ‘gai’) derived its meaning from the word ‘shell,’ which was considered to be a precious object at the time.6 According to Hasegawa, artists would decorate the shells for a game called kai-awase (the game of matching shells), which was a favorite aristocratic pastime in the 11th– and 12th-century Japanese court.7

Initial popularization of the concept

If the word ikigai and the breadth of its meaning are so familiar to Japanese people, it was not until 1966 that the concept was studied extensively and theorized.8 While treating leprosy patients in the late 1950s at the Nagashima Aiseien Sanatorium, Japanese psychiatrist Mieko Kamiya noticed a feeling of meaninglessness in life among patients with only mild symptoms.9 

Through her observations and interviews with leprosy patients, Kamiya identified ikigai as an essential factor in maintaining hope and meaning in one’s life despite terrible circumstances, such as severe illness. Kamiya’s study of ikigai in this context represents the first theorized model of ikigai in Japan, and it was thoroughly developed by the psychiatrist in her most influential book, Ikigai-ni-Tsuite (On the Meaning of Life).

Kamiya’s comprehensive study of ikigai has influenced the work of subsequent researchers and is still a point of reference for present-day Japanese researchers, professors, and psychologists.10

Okinawa island

In the rural north of Okinawa island, enveloped by lush forests in a soothing subtropical climate, lies the village of Ōgimi. Famous for the longevity of its inhabitants and its health-booster shikuwasa fruit, the village has sparked significant interest throughout time in its secret to a long and healthy life.

The Ōgimi villagers declared their rural home the “longest-living village in Japan” and even set their life motto in stone: “At 80, you are merely a youth. At 90, if your ancestors invite you into heaven, ask them to wait until you are 100—then, you might consider it.”

According to National Geographic journalist Dan Buettner, the secret to these Okinawans’ longevity is a strong sense of ikigai11 that imbues every aspect of their lives.

When asked, “What is your ikigai?” the villagers reply instantly. Whether it is to continue catching fish for their family, caring for their great-grandchildren, or teaching martial arts, the world’s healthiest, happiest, and oldest people know the reason they wake up each morning.

The rise of interest in ikigai in Japan

While the word ikigai has existed for centuries in the Japanese language, its meaning and interpretation as we know it today have evolved over time.

In his 1996 book, What Makes Life Worth Living?, Mathews writes about the absence of details on the history of ikigai as well as its representation in contemporary Japanese works (i.e., the 1980s) compared to how it was perceived before World War II. According to Mathews, before the war, ikigai related to the emperor and the nation.12

However, it was only a few decades later, as Japan’s economy and standard of living expanded, that the question of ikigai started to gain attention. Kamiya, the Japanese psychiatrist, as cited by Mathews, writes, “In the period immediately after the war, everyone was frantically searching for enough to eat. Probably no one had time to think about ikigai.”13

Mathews attributes the proliferation of ikigai to Japan’s economic rise and the increase in life expectancy over the post-war decades. With affluence and a higher standard of comfort, people began questioning what made life worth living.14

Ikigai, a eudaimonic dimension

Looking at how Japanese people pursue ikigai is the key to better understanding its complexity and finding our own. 

In Japan, well-being is viewed as including both happiness and ikigai. The term ikigai is commonly associated with specific experiences resulting from future-oriented actions and that provide a sense of worth and happiness. Ikigai is also associated with the feeling of fulfillment and joy that arises from the person’s perception of these experiences. So, what about happiness?

Outside of Japan, ikigai is considered similar to the concept of eudaimonic well-being, whereas happiness (shiawase) is closer to hedonic well-being. As opposed to hedonic well-being,15 which indicates a self-serving purpose focusing on the attainment of pleasure and the avoidance of pain,16 eudaimonic well-being is associated with the pursuit of meaning and self-realization. 

Studies17 on ikigai have indicated that engaging in inherently meaningful activities in everyday life, whether at work or in your community, builds a stronger sense of well-being and happiness than hedonistic actions.

Ikigai is a spectrum

When we think about finding our life’s purpose, we usually imagine something grand. Throughout history, philosophers and researchers have attempted to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Today, we live in a society where the expectation of being successful—in our careers, family life, or passions—puts enormous pressure on every one of us.

Stress levels, anxiety, and depression have reached an all-time high. Modern life places value on matters such as money, power, or fame, leaving us disconnected from our true selves. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that, for many of us, “What makes life worth living?” must be a concrete achievement, such as a career goal.

The Japanese concept of ikigai, however, encourages a different approach to life. Japanese neuroscientist Ken Mogi explains that ikigai is found in the realm of small things. According to Mogi, ikigai is a rich spectrum where one’s purpose in life may be small or big. Whether your ikigai is your cup of coffee, enjoying haiku, tending to your garden, or receiving worldwide praise for your work, all “reasons for being” are equally important.

A concept rooted in everyday life

The notion of ikigai is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. People speak of ikigai casually in everyday life,18 19 without attaching to it a higher sense. For example, the Western interpretation of ikigai as life’s purpose doesn’t align with the Japanese meaning of the word. In fact, ikigai aligns more with the Japanese word seikatsu, which refers to daily life rather than a lifetime (jinsei).

According to Mogi, in the Japanese language, ikigai refers to “the pleasures and meanings of life.”20 Furthermore, Mogi explains that ikigai is not necessarily tied to professional success; it may lead to it, but it is not a requisite. In this sense, ikigai describes the joy a person finds in the smallest things, which ultimately creates a sense of happiness in their life.21

Sources

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rendaku
[2] https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20170807-ikigai-a-japanese-concept-to-improve-work-and-life
[3] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11482-017-9532-9
[4] https://books.google.fr/books?id=20kAa87zzUYC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
[5] https://www.scribd.com/document/475035788/ikigai-yukari-mitsuhashi-epub
[6] https://ikigaitribe.com/ikigai/podcast01/
[7] https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/kai-awase-the-shell-matching-game/
[8] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338414773_Study_abroad_transformation_and_ikigai_a_case_study
[9] https://ikigaitribe.com/ikigai/mieko-kamiya/
[10] https://ikigaitribe.com/ikigai/mieko-kamiya/
[11] https://www.bluezones.com/exploration/okinawa-japan/
[12] https://books.google.fr/books?id=20kAa87zzUYC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
[13] https://books.google.fr/books?id=20kAa87zzUYC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
[14] https://www.jstor.org/stable/640520
[15] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317206800_On_the_Concept_of_Well-Being_in_Japan_Feeling_Shiawase_as_Hedonic_Well-Being_and_Feeling_Ikigai_as_Eudaimonic_Well-Being
[16] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11148302/#:~:text=Current%20research%20on%20well%2Dbeing,being%20in%20terms%20of%20the
[17] https://repub.eur.nl/pub/100484/
[18] https://books.google.fr/books?id=20kAa87zzUYC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
[19] https://www.academia.edu/43313933/Ikigai_The_Japanese_Secret_to_a_Long_and_Happy_Life
[20] https://www.scribd.com/document/555558577/Awakening-Your-Ikigai-How-the-Japanese-Wake-Up-to-Joy-and-Purpose-Every-Day-by-Ken-Mogi-Z-lib-org
[21] https://www.scribd.com/document/475035788/ikigai-yukari-mitsuhashi-epub

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