The Japanese see ikigai as the secret to longevity. The best translation of the word into English is probably “the reason you get out of bed each morning”. It’s a cross between a state of mind, an approach to personal self-development and the art of living within a community. It’s about finding balance; within yourself, with others and with the world.
Why should I bother getting up?
We’ve all thought it, bleary-eyed and reaching to turn off our alarm. Duty is the reason most of us get on with our lives, we “have to” get up, go to work, and go about our business. We’re basically putting outselves in a position where we’re coping with whatever happens to us, rather than really experiencing each moment.
When you go to bed this evening, you may feel a kind of relief (phew, today is over), satisfaction (I did what I had to do, well at least some of it), pride (I’ve accomplished some good things today) or even contentment (as our speaker Florence Servan-Schreiber says, there are at least 3 good reasons – or kifs as she calls them – to enjoy each day). Ikigai is about switching around the moment when we take stock: don’t review the day after it has finished, but get yourself thinking positively as soon as it begins.
When what you love meets your reason for being
Thinking positively? Sounds a bit like the magical world of the Care Bears! For what it’s worth, those Care Bears do actually have superpowers, which should at least stop you from hating them to quite such an extent! By triggering a good mood on purpose, you can create positivity and happiness that will get you seeing life as a source of momentum, a form of self-motivation to keep discouragement at bay and keep you focused.
It’s not just about saying that the glass is half full rather than half empty, but about channelling your vital energy, taking control of your own life and the world around you. This happiness draws its strength from the second characteristic of ikigai: your “reason for being”. It’s not about being blissfully carefree; the optimism in ikigai has real meaning: it is about focusing on essential personal objectives that can channel happiness.
Engagement with the community, not conformity
Engagement is personal, it is a commitment to what matters to you, but it also depends on other people and the world around you. An individual’s own reason for being is projected by what the world calls skills, energy, ideas, and the ability to sow seeds or move mountains.
The ikigai way of life encourages people to play an active role in their community, because it can be a source of self-reinforcement (this has been demonstrated by positive psychology), and still respects individuality. Actually, a stable and balanced amount of self-knowledge protects you against the risks of excessive conformity, or even adherence to mainstream thinking.
It might seem like ikigai is about taking on a “critical attitude”, but that would be a knee-jerk reaction by our cartesian thought process and the famous cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)! Ikigai isn’t about “being oneself” in thought, opinion or belief, but in heart, body and mind.
The four quarters of a whole being: Passion-Profession-Vocation-Mission
Ikigai has been popularized in the West through a Venn diagram that brings together four dimensions of balance through four key questions:
- What do I love?
- What can I do well?
- What can I get paid for?
- What does the world need?
Where the answers to the first two questions overlap, there is your passion.
Where the answers to the second and third questions converge, there is your profession.
Where the answers to the third and fourth questions converge, there is your vocation.
Where the answers to the fourth and first questions overlap, there is your mission.
The holy grail is where all four elements come together, and that’s your ikigai!
A solution (among others) to our hopes for a more balanced and better-aligned life
While the diagram is refreshingly simple, it doesn’t quite cover the whole ikigai process. It really is more than a tool for personal development, it’s a global philosophy dating back to the Heian period in Japan, during which a personal and intimate style of literature flourished, now known as the “psychological novel”, the best example of which is The Tale of Genji. With today’s growing interest in the soul and individual personalities, ikigai has developed and become an art of living based on a more in-depth knowledge of the sensitive self.
Ikigai was rediscovered at the end of the 20th century, through the work of Professor Akihiro Hasegawa on the effects of the psyche on healthy longevity. In 2009, explorer Dan Buettner, an expert in “blue zones” (parts of the world where people are observed to live longer than elsewhere), drew attention to ikigai in the West with a TEDTalk that was translated into 32 languages and viewed more than 3.5 million times!
And personal development literature soon took hold of the concept! A few bestsellers later, and ikigai became the standout “well-being” trend for 2017-2018…
Is it just a fad? We’ll only really find out if the trend continues among those who practice it… But given the success of Japanese ikigai as well as Swedish Lagom, Danish hygge or Hawaiian Ho’oponopono, one thing is clear: people are hungry for a more harmonious, more aligned and more meaningful life.
Marie Donzel, for the EVE webmagazine.