Ikigai (生き甲斐) (pronounced [ikiɡai]) is a Japanese concept that means “a reason for being.” The word refers to having a meaningful direction or purpose in life, constituting the sense of one’s life being made worthwhile, with actions (spontaneous and willing) taken toward achieving one’s ikigai resulting in satisfaction and a sense of meaning to life.
The term ‘Ikigai’ compounds two Japanese words: iki (生き) meaning “life; alive” and kai (甲斐) meaning “(an) effect; (a) result,” (sequentially voiced as ‘gai,’ resulting in “a reason for living [being alive]; a meaning for [to] life; what [something that] makes life worth living.”
“Your ikigai is at the intersection of what you are good at and what you love doing,” says Hector Garcia, the co-author of Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. He writes,“Just as humans have lusted after objects and money since the dawn of time, other humans have felt dissatisfaction at the relentless pursuit of money and fame and have instead focused on something bigger than their own material wealth. This has over the years been described using many different words and practices, but always hearkening back to the central core of meaningfulness in life.”
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)
In their book ikigai The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles break down the ten rules that can help anyone find their own ikigai.
- Stay active and don’t retire.
- Leave urgency behind and adopt a slower pace of life.
- Only eat until you are 80 per cent full.
- Surround yourself with good friends.
- Get in shape through daily, gentle exercise.
- Smile and acknowledge people around you.
- Reconnect with nature.
- Give thanks to anything that brightens our day and makes us feel alive.
- Live in the moment.
- Follow your ikigai.
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According to Hasegawa, the origin of the word ikigai goes back to the Heian period (794 to 1185). “Gai comes from the word kai (“shell” in Japanese) which were deemed highly valuable, and from there ikigai derived as a word that means value in living.”
There are many books in Japan devoted to ikigai, but one in particular is considered definitive: Ikigai-ni-tsuite (About Ikigai), published in 1966.
The book’s author, psychiatrist Mieko Kamiya, explains that as a word, ikigai is similar to “happiness” but has a subtle difference in its nuance. Ikigai is what allows you to look forward to the future even if you’re miserable right now.