Remember when you were eight? Your mother was yelling at you, you had homework to finish and you were tired from a full day of school. Yet, nothing in the world could stop you from meeting your friends in the neighborhood park for your daily game of cricket. It was such a great feeling: the sense of purpose that coursed through every nerve of your body and the excitement that seemed to nourish you more than food did.
Maybe cricket wasn’t the thing that made your boat float. Maybe it was books or painting or your singing lessons. Everybody had something in their life that gave them pure, unadulterated joy. It was the one thing that made you feel happy to get up in the morning and unfortunately, in our fast-paced world, we often lose this wonderful feeling as we feel bound by a sense of duty.
That wonderful feeling is what the Japanese call ‘Ikigai’. Pronounced ‘ick-ee-guy’, it is a Japanese concept that roughly translates to ‘reason to get up in the morning’. The French have their own phrase for this: ‘raison d’être’. In a TED talk, Dan Buettner revealed that Ikigai is one of the reasons the people of Okinawa in Japan live such long, productive lives.
Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and New York Times bestselling author, talks about exactly how we can achieve this. In his TED talk about longevity, he identified many zones around the world where people are contented, productive and healthy and analyzed their lifestyles.
These areas were:
Loma Linda, California, USA
Nicoya, Costa Rica
Even though these places are scattered in the four corners of the world, the people in these areas had a lot in common.
1) They all led active lives and exercised naturally with activities like walking, gardening and playing sports and rarely visited the gym.
2) They followed a plant-based diet. Almost 95% of their diet consisted of legumes, beans and fresh fruits and vegetables and only 5% of their diet came from animal sources.
3) Their main beverage consisted of water and the occasional wine that consisted of a high percentage of flavonoids.
4) They had a strong sense of self and were very active in the community and socialized often with their friends.
Apart from these factors, he specifically mentions that Ikigai is one of the significant reasons that people in these areas led long healthy lives. So how can one identify one’s Ikigai? The term Ikigai is composed of two Japanese words: ‘iki’ referring to life, and ‘kai’, which roughly means ‘the realization of what one hopes for’. Ikigai is seen as the convergence of four primary elements:
What you love (your passion)
What the world needs (your mission)
What you are good at (your vocation)
What you can get paid for (your profession) The word Ikigai is that space in the middle of these four elements. Finding this blissful state takes deep thought and practice.
Kobayashi Tsukasa, who has done some research about Ikigai and has written about it says, “People can feel real Ikigai only when, on the basis of personal maturity, the satisfaction of various desires, love and happiness, encounters with others, and a sense of the value of life, they proceed toward self-realization.”
One needn’t be happy or be in exceptionally positive circumstances to feel Ikigai. It usually refers to any activity or thing that lends value to a person’s life and one needn’t always feel joy to feel this state of mind. It is not linked to the state of the economy nor is it related to professional success or fame. Even if a person feels like their present situation is bleak but they have a specific goal in their mind, they feel Ikigai. People who feel Ikigai pursue their goal naturally and not out of duty or habit.
Dan Buettner gave examples of a 102-year-old karate master who still practiced, a 100-year-old fisherman and a 102-year-old who said that holding her great-great-great-granddaughter, a century her junior was the most beautiful thing in her life. Ikigai is not necessarily the same as ambition but it can be.
So how exactly do you find this elusive Ikigai?
Canadian entrepreneur and motivational speaker, Neil Pasricha, discusses the importance of having Ikigai and suggests how to find one. He recommends that people do the ‘Saturday Morning Test’ or in other words, “What do you do on a Saturday morning when you have nothing to do?” This, of course, does not include watching television or sleeping right through the morning.
Simon Sinek in his TED talk also emphasizes the importance of purpose. He expanded the purview of purpose or Ikigai to include organizations that have stood the test of time and are highly successful. He gave examples of Apple as well as the Wright Brothers and Martin Luther King. All had a very clear sense of purpose. He explains that while most people are good at identifying what their job is and how they do it, they are rarely clear about why they do their jobs and this is the difference between being good and being exceptional. This is what sets inspirational people apart from the rest of the crowd.
Another writer suggests identifying what you feel like doing after you have eliminated work and family. There is a good chance that this activity is your Ikigai. This doesn’t mean that your work or your family can’t be your purpose. It’s just that our professional lives and our family take such a large chunk of our time, that removing them from the equation makes it easy to identify what we love.
In fact, work can be the Ikigai for a lot of people and work needn’t always be interesting. If the whole world just wanted to be musicians, writers, doctors, entrepreneurs and actors, there would be no accountants to do our taxes or sanitation workers to collect the garbage. Boring jobs can be your reason for getting up in the morning if the compensation is good or if you have a great set of colleagues. In that case, probably making money or social connections is your Ikigai.
Research shows that working for even an extra year after retirement age brings tremendous mental, physical and spiritual benefits. The Japanese know the benefits of working till old age well and hence never retire. They continue doing what they do and love even after they have officially retired from their professional lives.
In a totally contrarian viewpoint, Andrew Harvey in his book, Radical Passion actually tells us to ‘follow our heartbreak’ and not our hearts. According to him, the thing that is most disturbing to us is what we can use to choose our purpose in life and thus make a big impact in our lives and those of others. Many social activists and doctors have chosen this path to discover their Ikigai in life.
If all else fails, do what philosopher and civil rights leader Howard Thurman says, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”