Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on South Asian health and wellbeing.
All of us want fulfillment, joy, and contentment – Sukham – in our lives. Who wouldn’t? Getting there often seems difficult, however. As we go through life, one thing or another seemingly thwarts our attempts to reach that goal. Sometimes we fear it’s unattainable. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a prescription; a roadmap to guide us around those obstacles that life throws at us, and succeed in being happy and feeling fulfilled as we go about our daily lives? Attain that which seems just out of our grasp?
Many consider Ikigai – a thousand-year-old Japanese ideology – to be just that prescription. Translated as “a reason for being,” the concept of ikigai refers to having a direction or purpose in life and obtaining a sense of fulfillment, by taking actions that give satisfaction and a sense of meaning. Ikigai refers to the pleasures and senses of life; it is that which makes us want to get up each morning. Gai, or “the reason,” is the key to finding value in your life.
Andrew Barry writes that our values are the driving force we need to live a better life, to be happier, and to make better decisions. “Clarifying your values is more important than setting goals,” he argues. Clear identification of one’s values is central to the Ikigai concept. Noriyuki Nakanishi of Osaka University Medical School, also quoted by Barry, explains it this way:
The word ‘ikigai’ is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile (for example, one might say: ‘‘This child is my ikigai’’). Secondly, the word is used to refer to mental and spiritual circumstances under which individuals feel that their lives are valuable. There is a difference between ikigai and the sense of well-being. Ikigai is more concerned with the future: for example, even when one feels that one’s present life is dark, possessing a desire or goal for the future allows one to feel ikigai. Ikigai gives individuals a sense of a life worth living. It is not necessarily related to economic status.
People willingly do things for which they feel ikigai, Nakanishi says; they do not need to be forced. Ikigai is personal; it reflects the inner self of an individual and expresses that faithfully. It establishes a unique mental world in which the individual can feel at ease.
How do you go about finding your own ikigai?
Pillar 1: Start small
Start small with whatever you do; dedicate time and effort through each step until it reaches the best shape. This mindset is influenced by the Japanese culture of Kodawari that emphasizes and highly values pride in what we make, always striving to create the best.
Pillar 2: Release yourself
Release yourself to sensory beauty, flow, and creativity. Develop the ability to break free and open up to the sensory universe and its beauty. The Japanese pay close attention to detail and recognize the time and effort devoted to a task. Paying attention to the sensory experience is key to enhancing your work, whether it be craftsmanship, high-tech manufacturing, or just about any task you carry out. That attention to sensory experience releases flow and creativity. You derive pleasure when you are so much into the activity, that everything else ceases to matter. In this state, recognition for your work, payment, or other rewards cease to matter; the satisfaction you derive from the task becomes paramount and enhances your wellbeing regardless of other outcomes.
Pillar 3: Harmony and sustainability
Japan is a collectivistic, group-oriented society that values sustainability over self-fulfillment, personal autonomy, and freedom of choice. This cultural mindset places a high value on nature, and on the need to be in harmony with both people and the environment.
Pillar 4: The joy of little things
This pillar emphasizes deriving pleasure and value from little things –watching the sunrise, savoring a favorite dessert, observing children at play, and countless other things.
Pillar 5: Being in the here and now
Staying focused and mindful on the present activity without distractions of the past or concern about what is to come is a well-understood and valued concept.
A common, ‘western’ interpretation of ikigai is to find the Venn-diagram intersection of what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. True ikigai is about striving for the best in everything you do, regardless of reward or recognition, pouring yourself into the task at hand, unleashing your creativity, finding beauty and harmony in things big and little, and being in the here and now. Ikigai seeks to cultivate a mindset that opens the pathway to happiness. It’s not about money or achievement. Taking care of the little things will lead you to your bigger goals. Ikigai is unique to each of us; we will discover it once we know and understand ourselves really well. Embedding it in our lives will strengthen our enthusiasm and zest for life, and help us find fulfillment, joy, and happiness in our work, our relationships, and our lives. Each of us needs to discover the passion and talent that gives us meaning, and then live it accordingly.
García and Miralles describe 10 “rules” to follow in Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life: stay active and don’t retire; take it slow; don’t fill your stomach; surround yourself with good friends; get in shape for your next birthday; smile; reconnect with nature; give thanks; live in the moment; follow your ikigai.
The Japanese are well known for their longevity. Okinawa – once called the land of immortals – is one of five places in the world named Blue Zones, where people live longest and are healthiest. Okinawans possess the driving force of ikigai; despite hardships, they have a reason to live, purpose in life, strong social networks, and a lifelong circle of friends. Ikigai is embedded in their lives, careers, relationships, and hobbies.
Ikigai is about attitude, purpose, activity, simplicity, focus, connection, and an understanding of self. It is an integral component of health and wellbeing.
Nakahashi says the desire for ikigai is a universal human experience. What’s your ikigai?
Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides curated information and resources on health and well-being, aging, and life’s transitions, including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death, and bereavement. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
With sincere thanks to Ken Mogi and to Oriento at Unsplash for the use of their images.