How the Japanese Concept of ‘Ikigai’ Can Help You Live More Intentionally

How many of us have thought, if I earn this much, I’ll be happier or if I owned that thing, I’ll be happier?

I’m willing to gamble more than a few.

So it’s refreshing that in recent years, as a society, we’ve started to move away from the idea that economic success, wealth and possessions are signs of achievement or the sole items responsible for our happiness.

Instead, we’re turning to other countries and their unique concepts of happiness beyond wealth. We’ve long turned to yoga and meditation for finding a center, and the sudden craze for the Danish concept of hygge is another great example of this search. Different cultures can offer a valuable alternative perspective on what happiness is, or could be. They offer us insights we might not otherwise consider and ikigai appears to be the next concept to take us by storm.

A new concept on the secret of a happy life.

Ikigai (pronounced ee-key-guy) is a wonderful Japanese concept that essentially means “a reason for being.” It’s made from two Japanese words: iki, meaning “life” and kai, meaning “effect, result, worth or benefit.” Combined: “a reason for living.”

Isn’t that rather beautiful?

Examples of ikigai are often related to aspects of social identity — including work and family life — but it’s often explained as something more than that. It’s the idea of seeking a purpose in everything you do in life. Hobbies, friendships, community and travel all add to your ikigai.

The end of last year saw a surge in books released about ikigai. The most recent being a beautiful little hardback by Hector Garcia titled, “Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.” After learning about the concept, Garcia (a software engineer) and writer Frances Miralles set out to find out whether there was any causal effect between ikigai and longevity. They traveled to Ogima in Okinara — nicknamed the “Village of Longevity” — to interview its residents. The book is the result of their findings and certainly makes for compelling reading material.

Hobbies, friendships, community and travel all add to your ikigai.

Despite Garcia’s, and many other recent books, ikigai actually served its hey-day in Japan in the 1970s. It seems the concept has become yet another cultural export from the East, usually quite detached from its original, core meaning in many of the offered readings. With that in mind, it might also seem easy to completely dismiss ikigai as a fad, as another export twisted and tainted for the purpose of selling a few books.

That’s where I think we might be wrong.

Seeking out a purpose.

According to Japanese culture, everyone has ikigai. It indicates the value that one finds in their life or the things that make someone feel like their life is valuable. It refers to both mental and spiritual circumstances that make one feel like their life has reason.

What really sings for me about ikigai is that it’s interchangeable. It’s unique to every individual and acknowledges that the idea of “happiness” is actually quite elusive. Ikigai, as a concept, is able to develop as you do. If one path of purpose ceases to exist, you can adapt, change and pursue new passions with purpose. Ikigai makes room for this.

There are many different facets to ikigai, but there is one fundamental part to it that really stood out for me: Even if your present doesn’t feel right, if you don’t feel truly valuable in your current state but you have a strong goal you’re striving towards, then you will have found your ikigai.

What really sings for me about ikigai is that it’s interchangeable. It’s unique to every individual and acknowledges that the idea of ‘happiness’ is actually quite elusive.

As creatives, and more than that — as women — we are so often our own worst enemies. We compare ourselves to others and when we see those around us apparently doing better than ourselves, we can feel like failures. We quickly forget what we are working towards. We dismiss the journey we’re on.

This is where I think ikigai can serve true value. If we follow the ideas of ikigai, then we’re drawn back to ourselves, to our own purpose and the path that we’re taking to get there. Ikigai is as much about changes, challenges and the mistakes we may make as it is about the “ultimate” achievement of a happy life.

The idea itself isn’t groundbreaking or revolutionary, but it is worth taking note of.

Ultimately, ikigai isn’t just about a long and happy life. It’s about acknowledging the journey you’re on and making it your own. Knowing what brings meaning and purpose to your life at any given time.

It’s about you.

How would you define your ikigai?

Images via Michelle Kim

Elaine is a freelance writer and creative, born and raised in London and currently residing in Perth, Australia. Since completing her studies in psychology and education, she’s been passionately interested in the ways in which we can learn from our experiences to become more authentic versions of ourselves.

  • Albany Craig January 26, 2018

    I am intentionally embracing the Buddhist and Danish concepts of living a more fulfilled life, but have never heard of this concept. Very good read!

    • Elaine Mead February 9, 2018

      Sounds great Albany! Would love to hear more about your experiences if you care to share 🙂 So glad you enjoyed the piece xx


  • Nadhirah Jalani January 21, 2018

    Good job woman!

  • Nicci Marquart January 20, 2018

    Absolutely wonderful and useful post. I learned so much and I agree that comparing is a safe way to unhappiness. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    • Elaine January 20, 2018

      Thank you Nicci! So glad you enjoyed the piece ?

  • Esther January 20, 2018

    Thanks for sharing Elaine! An absolutely timing and beautiful piece.

    • Elaine January 20, 2018

      Thanks for your comments Esther! So glad you found it valuable 🙂

  • Feli S January 20, 2018

    What a great read Elaine! This seems to be my theme for today. To find out what happiness means to me and not follow what others say what it means.

    Funny you shared this and the last paragraph was like WHOA YOU READ MY MIND. I have written something about my journey on the blog (to be published tomorrow morning!)


    • Elaine January 20, 2018

      Haha, thanks Feli! So glad it resonated with you and can’t wait to read all about your journey! Following are our own paths can often feel so difficult, for some unusual reason. I’ve learnt to just to sink into it. Even when it feels like it’s going a bit wrong – just go with the flow 🙂

  • It sounds like the new hygge! Will be interested to know more about it as the concept becomes mainstream. 🙂

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

    • Elaine January 20, 2018

      It could well be! But with a few very distinct nuances 🙂 Definitely read up a bit more about the history of the concept in Japan – it’s very interesting reading!!