As a Millennial I subscribe to the idea that what I do, either at work or outside of it, needs to matter. Purpose is more important than a paycheck. While this focus is a shift from generations prior, this concept of finding joy in life's purpose is not new. Ikigai has been practiced in Japan for centuries, with the origin of the word dating back to the Heian period (794 to 1185).
But what is Ikigai? “A combination of the Japanese words “iki” (生き), which translates to “life,” and “gai” (甲斐), which is used to describe value or worth,...your ikigai is what gets you up every morning and keeps you going.” (Dayman). As you can see in the below diagram, your Ikigai is at the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs and what you can be paid for.
When I started to research Ikigai, I found the diagram above in most of the articles and images I was reviewing. However later it was brought to our team that this diagram is a more Western approach, focusing more on your purpose and not your Ikigai. Whereas the diagram below is considered to be more Traditional. This sparked a conversation within our team. Should we include the Western version or only the Traditional one? Should we leave it open to discussion? One of our team members, Zion, made a comment that we felt was important to share with our readers.
“I have personally learned Ikigai in the "Western" way. But I have learned this as a Japanese American, I did not get the same experience as someone from Okinawa. I think it would be great to acknowledge the many different ways and interpretations to practice Ikigai. I think the goal is to really get what you need out of it. The Ikigai we know today is made for a different audience. It's always important to realize that things change and adapt but it's also important to acknowledge and respect the roots.”
As Asian Americans, we are often tasked with straddling the Western versus Traditional versions of our culture. With this dual sided Ikigai practice, we run into this question yet again. Do I follow in the practice of those before me or use an approach that has changed with time? We’re going to leave that answer up to you. Feel free to explore which version helps you in your practice, or both if you’d like. There is no conclusive answer. No matter what you choose we hope that you find happiness in this practice.
So now you’d like to start practicing Ikigai, no matter the interpretation, but you’re not sure where to start,? Not to worry! There are multiple books and resources around this practice to help you get started, and you can take the first step in just ten minutes. Find a comfortable space where you can write, either by yourself or invite your partner or kids to join you. Think back on the past week and write a list of all of the things you’ve done over the week, then identify the top ten things you spent most of your time on. Once you’ve created that list, ask yourself the following questions;
Is this something that I love to do?
Is this something that contributes to what the world needs?
Is this something I am good at?
Is this something I can get paid for? If not, does the job that supports you financially a good trade off for your ikigai?
After answering these questions, you should have a handful of hobbies and activities that are your Ikigai.
To continue your Ikigai practice, Ken Mogi’s instruction is to start small. That is the first pillar in his book, The Little Book of Ikigai: The essential Japanese way to live a happy and long life. When you are doing something that you enjoy, no matter how big or small, fully devote yourself in that moment.
Mogi’s next pillar is about how accepting who you are is a key piece of your overall happiness. In a world where it’s so easy to compare our lives to those of others, this pillar is important for everyone, even if you aren’t practicing Ikigai.
Without understanding that life requires being there for and relying on other people, you will never be able to cross the bridge to your purpose. This third pillar encourages you to think of it as a bridge between yourself and your Ikigai.
In a hectic world full of so many things demanding our attention, your child's question on their homework or another zoom meeting, take a moment to pause, notice and appreciate the small details around you.
The final pillar in Mogi’s teaching. He encourages being mindful and present of the current moment you're in. Living in the moment is pivotal for fully understanding the Ikagi practice.
If you’d like more set guidelines in your practice, Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles created 10 rules in their book Ikigai The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life that can help you as you start your journey with the Ikigai practice.
By taking the time to identify your Ikigai and continue this practice, you’ll find yourself more fulfilled, happy and it can even have positive effects on your health. In fact, in 2017 the Japanese TV show Takeshi No Katei No Igaku worked with scientists to study 7 residents of Kyotango, a small town in Kyoto, all who were in their late 90s. After multiple blood tests and other health screenings they found that all seven subjects had high levels of DHEA. The Mayo Clinic writes “touted as an anti-aging therapy, DHEA is also claimed to ward off chronic illness and improve physical performance.” (Mayo Clinic). The one single thing all of the subjects had in common? They all had a hobby they enjoyed and practiced daily. “While the correlation between having a hobby you love and the increase of DHEA is yet to be proven scientifically, the program suggested that having this one thing that keeps you interested, focused, and gives you a sense of satisfaction in life may boost your youth DHEA hormone, thus leading to a longer and happier life.” (Dayman).
Those 7 residents of Kyotango aren’t the only evidence for this correlation. Osaka is thought to be the birthplace of this practice and is also one of the 5 blue zones in the world. Dan Buttner, the author of Blue Zones: Lessons on Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest writes that in all of the zones, “there might not be a word for it but in all four blue zones... the same concept exists among people living long lives.” (Oppong).
No matter if you are doing it for health reasons, as part of a resolution for 2021 or simply for the practice of mindfulness, Mogi reminds us that it doesn’t matter who you are. You could be “a cleaner of the famous Shinkansen bullet train, the mother of a newborn child or a Michelin-starred sushi chef – if you can find pleasure and satisfaction in what you do and you’re good at it, congratulations you have found your ikigai.”
If you are interested in learning more about the practice of Ikigai, you can find Mogi’s book here and Garcia/Miralles book here. We’ve also included a printable guide of the beginning steps and questions if you’d like to share this practice with your family and friends.