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Ikigai: The Japanese Concept Of Finding Purpose In Life

Humans from the beginning of time have been struggling with one question in their lives. The question is: “what is our purpose in life, and why are we here?” We are sure you have asked yourself this too at some point and gone into a rabbit hole of existential crisis.

While many cultures have their own concept of finding purpose, the Japanese concept ikigai is gaining popularity in the West. Here is everything you need to know about it.

Ikigai Explained


The term ikigai consists of two terms: iki, which means life, and gai, which means worth or value. It is one of the oldest Japanese ideologies associated with the nation’s success and longevity. The term is all about finding joy in life through meaning and purpose.

In a nutshell, ikigai is what helps you get out of your bed each morning and keeps you going. In the West, the term ikigai encapsulates four qualities:

  • What you love
  • What the world needs
  • What you are good at
  • What you can be paid for

These four qualities embody the essence of ikigai for people in the West. On the other hand, for the Japanese people, the term has nothing to do with income. A survey done by Central Research Services of Japanese women and men in 2010 revealed that only 30% of participants considered work as ikigai.

Of course, your work can be your ikigai, but it does not have to be limited to that. Even your hobbies can be your ikigai if they are the reason you wake up and keep going.

The Origin Of Ikigai

Akihiro Hasegawa, an associate professor and clinical psychologist at Toyo Eiwa University wrote a research paper twenty years ago on the concept of Ikigai. According to him, the origin can be traced back from 794 to 1185, which was the Heian period. The origin of the term gai comes from kai, which means shell.

During the Heian period, shells were incredibly valuable, and that is where the terms meaning of finding value and worth in living comes. While there have been many books written on this popular Japanese concept, one book, in particular, is deemed to be accurate. The book is called Ikigai-ni-tsuite, which means About Ikigai, and was published in 1966.

About Ikigai was written by Mieko Kamiya, who explained that ikigai is the same as joy and happiness, but there is a subtle difference there. That is because ikigai helps you look at the future with joy even if your present is miserable. Japanese people are strong believers in the small joys of life cultivating a fulfilling and happy life as a whole.

The Four Qualities Of Ikigai

Let’s take a deeper look into the four qualities of ikigai and what they embody:

1.What You Love

The term is self-explanatory as it includes everything that brings you the most joy in life. These are the things that help you feel most fulfilled and alive. What you love doesn’t have to be your work as it can be anything.

For example, it can also include hobbies such as:

  • Writing
  • Painting
  • Reading books
  • Cooking
  • Spending time with friends and family
  • And much more

Anything that brings you joy and leaves you feeling energized and happy is what you love. So, think deeply about what experience helps you feel most happy and connected to yourself. Once you figure it out, find ways to incorporate more of it into your life.

2.What The World Needs

What the world needs might be the most confusing quality of ikigai as many people misinterpret it. The world here can refer to a small community you belong to, humanity as a whole, or anything in between these two things. The quality can be based on the needs expressed by other people or on your perception of what you think it needs.

For example, what the world needs can be anything from clean water to skilled nurses to better police and law enforcement. This quality is largely concerned with other people and doing good for others beyond what you need. In simple terms, it is serving others and going beyond your own desires and needs.

3.What You Are Good At

This domain of ikigai includes everything you are good at, such as your skills, talents, and hobbies. For example, you can be good at public speaking, playing the drums, showing compassion and empathy, painting, and much more. It encapsulates all your talents and capabilities that are a significant part of who you are.

You don’t have to be passionate about what you are good at or think about whether the world needs it or if you can get paid for it. It simply has to be your skills and capabilities. The rest works itself out eventually.

4.What You Can Be Paid For

The fourth and final domain of ikigai refers to the society and the world in the way that someone else is paying you for what you provide. Now, you may be excellent at cooking or painting, but it does not mean you can be paid for it. That is because what you can get paid for depends on market factors such as if your talent is in demand, the state of the economy, and much more.

The intersection of all these qualities also represents unique things. For example:

  • The intersection of what you are good at and what you can be paid for is known as your profession
  • The intersection of what you can be paid for and what you love is known as your passion
  • The intersection of what you can get paid for and what the world needs is known as your vocation
  • The intersection of what the world needs and what you love is known as your mission

So, if you want to balance ikigai in your life, it should involve something that drives you (your passion), the world needs, what you are good at, and for which you will get paid.

How To Find Your Ikigai: A Short Guide

Now that you understand the basics of ikigai, it is time to apply it in your daily life. Here is a step-by-step process of how you can cultivate an ikigai mindset in your life:

1.Ask The Right Questions

It is all about asking the right questions and being honest with yourself to discover your ikigai. The four qualities are the foundation of ikigai, which is where you should start. Ask yourself what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

Keep in mind that the answers will not come to you automatically, although that may be the case for some people. That is why you should turn inwards and let the insights and realizations come to you as part of the process. The key here is to be entirely honest with yourself.

If you can’t seem to find clarity in those four questions, here are some other specific questions to ask yourself:

  • What is your reason for getting out of bed in the morning each day?
  • What is something in your life presently that makes you happy?
  • What are some changes you would like to see in the world?
  • Have you had a moment of clarity that changed your life?

Once you have the answer to these questions, you need to start connecting the dots and form a pattern. For example, is there a recurring theme in your answers? If you can’t connect the dots at first, it is okay, you can try again.

2.Get Outside Feedback

If you still can’t find links and patterns in your answers, it is always fantastic to get an outsider’s perspective. After all, we have our blind spots that we don’t seem to notice unless someone else points it out. You can ask your closes friends and family about your qualities and what they like the most about you.

You can also ask them if they think you have any talents or skills that they admire. Sometimes we take our capabilities for granted, but others can notice them instantly. So, don’t be afraid to reach out to people close to you and ask them some questions about yourself.

3.Do Some Mind-Mapping

Once you have reflected on these answers and taken feedback from your support system, you can map it all out. Do what makes you feel the most comfortable and visually makes sense to you. For example, some people make Venn diagrams, and others make flow charts.

You can work by mapping out what your ideal day would look like and the activities it would involve. Remember, God is in the details, which is why you should not forget to include small details. One great way is to visualize your ideal day and focus on how energizing or positive it makes you feel.

After that, you need to create small habits and changes in your life that bring you closer to your ideal day and life. For example, if you love to paint, but you have a regular corporate job, you can set out two to three hours in a week to focus on your painting. In this way, you can keep adding hours and find ways to monetize from it to earn from your passion.

4.Listen To Your Gut

Many of us don’t seem to give too much importance to our intuition, but it is an important aspect of ikigai. If something doesn’t feel right to you, it means it probably isn’t. So, when reflecting on your mind-map, slow down and understand how your body reacts towards the idea.

One way to implement this is to map out your ideal day and ask yourself these three questions:

  • How confident you are in the idea
  • How much do you like the idea
  • If the idea fits in your current life

Once you ask these questions, your body will also begin to respond, and so will your mind. If something doesn’t sit right with you, then you can create a different scenario and ask these questions again until you find something that clicks. Keep in mind that your ikigai will also grow as you evolve as a human.

5.Live Out Your Ikigai

After finding your ikigai on paper, you need to apply it practically. Introspection is useless without consistent action, which you need to incorporate more in your life. You have to make relevant changes to live your ikigai in the best way.

The process is not easy in any way because we are used to being in our comfort zones and living life in a certain way. As you try to live out your ikigai, you will have to shift your priorities and let go of certain old habits and patterns. However, once you are through to the other side, you will find life more fulfilling as you will be living out your authentic purpose.

6.Have A Support System

Life is nothing without the support of other people. That is because you will be making significant changes in life, and you will need the support of other people during this phase. The people in your support system should uplift you and help you with living out your ikigai.

If there are people in your current life that don’t fit in line with your ideal life or day, it is okay to let them go. As you live out your ikigai, the authentic and positive people in your life will be more in tune with your purpose.

Final Words

While this doesn’t nearly encapsulate the essence of ikigai, it will help you come closer to living a fulfilled and happy life. You will lose many things and connections during this process, but the reward will be you living a meaningful and authentic life. Once you start living your ikigai, you will feel much at ease and begin to flow with the rhythm of life.


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