Searching for meaning in your life? This Japanese concept can help you find it
February 6, 2018 by PHILIP PERRY
A map of the ancient Japanese concept of ikigai.
In the post-modernist, Western world, religious life has decreased substantially, patriotism has been replaced with a widespread distrust of the government, and getting ahead has become exceedingly difficult. As a result, more and more people are falling victim to ennui. This dreadful feeling of bitter disillusionment stems from the loss of meaning in their lives.
A lack of purpose can increase the risk of mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, resulting in poorer sleep, worsening health, and in extreme cases, substance abuse and thoughts of suicide. Some have turned to the East, most recently, to the ancient Japanese concept of ikigai, which means, roughly, “to live the realization one hopes for.” Another interpretation, “that which makes life worth living.” Take note that there’s no exact English translation.
Iki means “life,” whereas gai means “value” or “worth.” Gai comes from the word kai meaning “shell.” This refers back to the Heian period (794 to 1185), when shells were considered valuable. We can interpret ikigai as finding value in one’s life or discovering one’s purpose.
In the West, self-help gurus and movements of one flavor or another have come and gone, and in the wake of each, though often lighter in the pocket, few of their participants find real solace. Perhaps rather than happiness, which is generally momentary and fleeting, we should seek a purposeful life. Exploring the concept of ikigai and the questions that come with it, can help one find a solid purpose and through this, contentment and drive.
The whole concept has been boiled down to four questions:
1) What do you love?
2) What are you good at?
3) What does the world need from you?
4) What can you get paid for?
Here’s a handy Venn diagram:
If you’re retired, you may not have to worry about what you can be paid for, so you can delete that one and focus on the remaining three. The idea is not only to find your purpose but the proper balance between all aspects surrounding it. Another consideration, one’s ikigai doesn’t affect the individual alone.
For the Japanese, the concept has a social element. It’s about getting comfortable with your role in your family, job, and society. It’s traditionally split along gender lines. While men usually associate their ikigai with their work and career, women (at least traditionally) associate it with motherhood and their role in the family. And even though ikigai has recently become the latest New Age buzzword in the West, this doesn’t make it any less effective for those who find themselves at a crossroads, with no sign to guide them.