As we navigate life on earth, many seek ways to live meaningful and purposeful lives, exploring ideologies and concepts to inspire and follow. If you’ve been on this quest, you’ve most likely come across the word, Ikigai. This age-old Japanese concept has helped many people to find their life purpose and fulfillment.
So, what does this Japanese concept entail? How can it help create a longer, happier, more fulfilling life? Most importantly, how can you apply this Japanese secret by discovering your own Ikigai?
Ikigai is a Japanese concept that people globally have recognized as the Japanese secret to a long and happy life. Although difficult to translate directly to English, Ikigai describes what makes one’s life meaningful and worthwhile.
The word, Ikigai, comes from two Japanese words. The first is iki (生き), and the second is kai (甲斐). Iki translates to “life” in English, while kai translates to “value, worth or reason.” When we merge these two words together, Ikigai translates to something that gives life purpose or your reason for living.
You’ll also most likely see Ikigai translated as one’s reason for being. In essence, Ikigai, the Japanese secret, is about finding joy in life, discovering purpose, and living a happier life. Similarly, many people see it as the thing that gets you up each morning.
Since Ikigai is not an English word, many people struggle to pronounce it. The correct pronunciation of Ikigai is ee-key-guy.
Amongst the Japanese people, finding little joys in everyday life brings fulfillment and contributes to one’s well-being1.
Many books about Ikigai have explored the idea and its benefits as people in the Western world began to adopt this concept. One of the most popular and currently top-rated is Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life (on Amazon). Héctor García and Francesc Miralles’ book is an easy read, highlighting the secrets to a happy and long life within Japanese culture.
It also explores how residents of a community eat, work, move and foster collaboration - all of which inform an understanding of how they find and apply their Ikigai to bring more meaning and satisfaction in life.
Further, their book asked 100 long-living residents of Ogimi, Okinawa, about what was essential to their life philosophy and what contributed to their longevity. Okinawa is renowned for having one of the highest proportions of centenarians as a percentage of the population, three times more than is typical in the US. Garcia and Miralles distilled their research into the ten rules of Ikigai:
For more background, this TEDx talk from Tim Tamashiro is a great short watch (~ 12 mins). Tim Tamashiro is a jazz singer and broadcaster; in his talk, he describes how his love of music carried him through a life full of it.
Tim has recently authored How to Ikigai: Lessons for Finding Happiness and Living Your Life's Purpose (on Amazon), which has become a #1 best seller.
Over the years, Ikigai has experienced many shifts in meaning. Contrary to popular belief in Western culture, Ikigai isn’t simply related to one’s profession; it pours into one’s well-being and contributes to living a meaningful life.
It also encompasses something that benefits others or society to accumulate as a life purpose. Many studies have tried to understand further the role of Ikigai in people’s life satisfaction.
Japan’s Central Research Services polled 2000 Japanese people in 2010, and less than a third shared that work is central to their life purpose or reasons for being3. The same survey also found that over 75% said they had a purpose in life. In America, researchers found that 83% percent agreed that their life had purpose and meaning4.
One 2022 study revealed that having an Ikigai has associations with reduced depressive symptoms and hopelessness2. This also poured into a greater sense of happiness, life satisfaction, and improved social outcomes.
We can understand the concept of Ikigai as evolving from traditional Japanese medicine’s basic health and wellness principles. The tradition highlights that one’s sense of purpose, as well as their mental and emotional health, affects their physical well-being.
Regarding the word, Ikigai, we can trace its origin to the Heian period of 794 to 1185. Clinical psychologist and a researcher in the Ikigai evolution, Professor Akihiro Hasegawa, spent many years studying the concept, publishing several research papers on the matter.
According to him, the word gai comes from “kai," the Japanese word for shell or shellfish (貝). During the Heian period, people greatly valued shells. Many artists would often hand-decorate these shells. People also used shells as part of a shell-matching game known as “kai-awase” (貝合わせ). During this time, it was only the rich people who could afford these valuable shells. As a result, down the line, people began to associate the word “kai” with benefit, worth, value, and benefit.
Mieko Kamiya was one of the first researchers to study Ikigai applications in modern life. In 1966, she published a book called Ikigai ni tsuite. We can translate it to What Makes Our Life Worth Living, which many Japanese researchers and psychologists have praised as one of the most authoritative Ikigai works. However, although it was published a long time ago, it is yet to be translated into English.
Kamiya, noting that Ikigai is a term ingrained in the Japanese way over centuries, had two definitions of Ikigai. The first is the Ikigai source; the second is Ikigai-kan; that is, the state of mind of when one is feeling Ikigai associated with a source.
Within the book, Kamiya also elaborated on the 7 Ikigai needs. According to her write-up, for one to experience Ikigai-kan, one needs to satisfy these needs. The 7 Ikigai needs are:
Naturally, as people experienced culture in Japan and other Blue Zone areas, they began to explore what it was that helped people live longer and happier and what they could learn from it.
One of the early online mentions of Ikigai in the West was from Gordon Mathews. He came across Ikigai while living in Japan in the 1980s. In his book, What Makes Life Worth Living?: How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds (Amazon), he explores what makes life worth living. An excerpt from the book is as follows:
“Ikigai is what makes life worth living, and it’s something in your social works. It can be your family, your work, a hobby you’re passionately devoted to, or a religious belief”
Apart from viewing it as a secret to a happier life, Ikigai also attracts many for its connection to longevity.
When we zone in on the true meaning of Ikigai, it highlights the small things. Rather than viewing it as a grand mission, pay attention to daily living.
Ikigai points toward the little things that make living meaningful, worthwhile, and purposeful. When exploring your Ikigai, pay attention to the small things and moments that nourish you.
As Ikigai pertains to daily living, it’s not something we can directly measure. Essentially, Ikigai is not simply a diagram. Instead, it represents the little things that bring joy, satisfaction, and a sense of purpose.
Your Ikigai can be related to a host of things and experiences. Your focus could be on health, family, good friends, social role, and many other factors. As these things fuel a person’s Ikigai or a sense of purpose, they become motivated to live and feel a sense of control. In this light, we can capture the true meaning of Ikigai through these various factors.
The people who apply this to daily living discover their happiness and being in their Ikigai. Even while dealing with the stressors and pressures of daily living, your Ikigai brings balance. It also helps people stay grounded and rooted in their essence. As a result, Ikigai is a lifetime practice and can become a way of living.
By understanding your Ikigai, you can find a meaning for living or, as many translations put it, a reason for being. You can also experience Ikigai when in a state of flow. That is, during periods when you’re doing something you love, and that also adds value.
With a simple online search for Ikigai, you’ll find many blog articles and writeups on popular news sites. These outlets detail various stories in a bid to give their audiences an insight into what Ikigai entails. They also prompt people to feel Ikigai through exploration as a way to improve their way of life.
Entrepreneur, Marc Winn, created the widely referenced Ikigai diagram in 2014. That year, he wrote a blog post that merged two concepts, the Venn Diagram of Purpose and his understanding of Ikigai.
This model focuses greatly on the Western idea of purpose by highlighting four elements. The elements include: what people love, what they’re good at, what they can be paid for, and what the world needs.
These questions or points merge to highlight one’s passion, mission, profession, and vocation. The Ikigai diagram consists of four overlapping circles. The goal is to answer each question to find your purpose and transform your life. Below, we examine each element of the diagram.
At the top of the circle, you see the element highlighting what you love. This points us towards identifying the things that bring us joy. You can also view it as identifying your passion or what makes you feel most alive. One can argue that finding what you love is at the core of discovering your Ikigai.
People have different things they love. This can range from writing, singing, and dancing to helping people. This prompt takes you into deep reflection on what sparks joy for you.
After exploring and identifying what you love or what sparks joy, the next is what you’re good at. Some people spend time building their skills and expertise in something they love. This element prompts you to explore the skills or knowledge you’ve gained in a particular area.
This creates a sweet spot of merging what you love and are good at. This element specifically captures your capabilities or talents. It places you in the position of reflecting on and exploring the things you know you're good at. Sometimes, this may be something other people point out to you.
The diagram goes deeper to identify what the world needs. In this light, it goes beyond personal endeavors and instead considers how to be of service. Keep in mind that “world” here may not necessarily mean the global population. This could simply be a community you’ve identified, knowing a problem you can solve.
This Ikigai element allows people to connect with others. It entails doing good for others by combining what you’re passionate about and are good at. It prompts you to reflect on specific changes you’d like to make or how you’d like to impact lives.
Like the previous one, this element allows you to reflect on the external reception of something you do. It raises the question, "what are people willing to pay for?” As a result, this component prompts you to reflect on getting paid while exploring your passions and talents.
For some people, it’s easy to find the intersection of their passions, talents, and earnings from them. However, for others, this is a lengthier process.
From the diagram,
The illustration highlights the sweet spot of discovering your Ikigai as finding something you love, are good at, what the world needs, and you can earn from it.
Winn’s Venn diagram highlights certain elements to help you find your purpose. However, the problem here is that this diagram is not a direct translation of the Ikigai concept from the Japanese. Winn combined the Ikigai concept with a purpose-finding process that Spanish astrologer, Andrés Zuzunaga, invented in 2011.
In many English-speaking countries, this diagram became widely popular and took off as the authoritative reference for Ikigai. However, looking closely, you’ll discover that the chart can be interpreted as primarily pointing to one’s career path. Therefore, many people tend to confuse Ikigai with finding what you want to do for work. There’s no denying that it can help people find balance and fulfillment, and for many, work is integral to that. However, to reduce it to a work orientation alone and not a life blueprint is to misunderstand it.
There’s also the misconception that the only way to experience Ikigai is by meeting all four conditions. So, for instance, if you find what you love and what you’re good at but aren’t getting paid for it, then your work is not done.
Although Ikigai is at the heart of Okinawan culture, location isn’t the only thing that affects one’s Ikigai. You need to consider factors like activeness, social behavior, and health.
As mentioned earlier, the originating idea of Ikigai doesn’t have a great focus on profession or career. As a result, many people have found their Ikigai without a direct correlation with work.
For some people, their Ikigai lies in little everyday moments that bring joy. For others, it could be something grander. However, a person’s Ikigai could, of course, be linked to their work in our modern world. Below are some examples.
One person’s Ikigai could revolve around family love. Think of a father, for instance. In this case, a devoted family man’s full source of joy or reason for waking up each day could be his family.
Loving his wife and kids, watching the children grow up, and spending family time could be enough satisfaction. When you place this against someone whose mission is to save the world, it might seem lesser. However, a person’s Ikigai is personal and can be as simple as family.
Another person’s Ikigai could be more related to interacting with a wider audience. For instance, think of someone who loves interacting with people and motivating them.
Assuming the person discovers that they enjoy or love talking with people, are good at it, can inspire thousands of people, and can get paid for giving talks, they could have found their Ikigai.
In this case, we can see how this directly relates to the Western perspective of Ikigai by finding the sweet spot. The person has identified what they love, found that they’re good at it, identified something people need, and discovered the possibilities of earning from it.
From the two examples, it’s evident that Ikigai is not a one size fits all. It differs from person to person, from small things to bigger ones.
The concept of Ikigai has spread across the world. Many scholars, researchers, and the general population have taken an interest in it.
One primary research focus related to this concept explores the correlation between Ikigai and living longer. Apart from this, contemporary approaches also explore the areas of career and wellness. Some of the benefits of Ikigai or why people pursue this include:
One of the main reasons people pursue this path is to live in a state of happiness. Recall that we can understand this concept as your reason for being. Alternatively, you can also see it as something that gives you a sense of purpose and provides satisfaction.
Imagine living from this place every day, therefore waking up excited most days. If you’ve been able to identify what sparks joy, then it makes life more meaningful.
This, in turn, translates to happiness or happier moments. In essence, your Ikigai motivates you to get up each day and keep going.
Some days, things might feel out of control. Whether you’ve found your Ikigai or not, there’s no denying that life comes with its struggles. People face pressures from time to time and struggle to come out of them. Without having something that keeps you grounded and balanced, you can quickly run into a crisis.
In this light, for many people, their Ikigai is what serves as a pick-me-up. Having a purpose can provide clarity and guidance and make you feel rooted in something. So, when things feel confusing, your Ikigai is something that can provide a sense of balance.
Ikigai serves many purposes. It brings joy, happiness, meaning, and purpose. However, many studies also explore its health benefits.
As a result, you’ll find that many people pursue Ikigai to achieve better overall health, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
Some studies have discovered specific cases like lower risk of disability in old age, better immune functioning, and recovery from injuries. These results could also be linked to the fact that Ikigai promotes health-improving habits or behaviors5. Apart from physical health, this practice can also improve one’s mental and emotional health.
Many writers and researchers have explored and shared steps to aid the journey of awakening your Ikigai you might like to explore in depth. Pursuing your Ikigai doesn’t have to be overly grand, elaborate, or stressful. However, you’ll find some simple practices to guide your discovery process below.
Instead of putting pressure on yourself to find that one thing that you love that’ll change the world, start small. For many people who embrace Ikigai, it means paying attention to the little things that matter. It’s easy to ignore the small everyday moments where your Ikigai might reside in pursuit of something bigger.
However, you might ignore the beauty of the smallest of things, a sip of green tea and a beautiful view. Ikigai is not a one size fits all. As a result, you might find something by paying attention to detail and savoring everyday moments. Many people have found purpose and satisfaction in the little things in life.
Joy is at the core of living a meaningful, happy, and satisfactory life. It makes people feel whole and renewed. Also, joy makes waking up each day worthwhile.
As part of your journey, one of the greatest practices you can embrace is reflection. In this instance, it entails asking yourself what brings you joy. Listen to the things that boost your sense of satisfaction and gratitude. After highlighting these things, reflect on whether you prioritize them daily. If not, this could be a window to begin to incorporate them more into daily living.
The diagram is easy to recreate by drawing four overlapping circles and filling them in with answers to each prompt. It offers a hands-on way to reflect and discover answers. Fill it in with what you love, are good at, what the world needs, and what you can earn from. As you fill the diagram, pay attention to the commonalities between the circles.
Sometimes, people find the sweet spot in the middle that gives a sense of purpose. However, if you can’t find something that fits right in the middle, it’s not a lost cause. Using the diagram can provide you with answers and serve as a guide as you continue your journey so that you can continue to reflect and build on clarifying the middle over time.
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to continue in a state of self-discovery. The more you learn about yourself, the greater your chances are of finding what sparks joy. This usually occurs while trying new things and exploring new ideas. As you learn, you’ll most likely find yourself in moments that spark a new sense of purpose and happiness.
Finding your Ikigai is a personal journey that has many benefits. From giving you a new sense of purpose to boosting your health, it’s a lifestyle many have taken up. It’s all about paying attention to the things that make existence worth it while embracing them wholeheartedly.
Kumano, Michiko. (2017). On the Concept of Well-Being in Japan: Feeling Shiawase as Hedonic Well-Being and Feeling Ikigai as Eudaimonic Well-Being. Applied Research in Quality of Life. 13. 10.1007/s11482-017-9532-9.
Ikigai and subsequent health and wellbeing among Japanese older adults: Longitudinal outcome-wide analysis, Okuzono, Sakurako S. et al. The Lancet Regional Health – Western Pacific, Volume 21, 100391
Public Opinion Survey on “Ikigai,” (in Japanese) Central Research Services (Japan), report no.636.
What Americans Think About Poverty, Wealth, And Work (pdf), Cato Institute National Survey, 2019.
Kotera, Yasuhiro & Kaluzeviciute, Greta & Garip, Gulcan & Mcewan, Kirsten & Chamberlain, Katy. (2021). Health Benefits of Ikigai: A Review of Literature.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.