Ikigai, or the Art of Finding One’s Purpose in Life
Finding one’s place in the world and determining what will wake us up in the morning may be anyone’s most transcendental quest.
Few things are more difficult to find than a justification for one’s existence in the universe. One of humankind’s most essential explorations, such a search also has a more intimate dimension, and this implies the personal search that’s presented to everyone at some point in their lives. In Japan, a term describes this path, the search for the meaning in one’s life. It’s called ikigai. A review of the concept and its meaning may provide simple but essential information to better understand our own transits through the world.
Japanese words, often untranslatable, shine for their meticulousness and for their ability to describe deeply specific things, ideas, or sensations (examples are the 50 Japanese words for rain). The word ikigai results from a combination of two concepts: iki which means “life” and gai which, broadly speaking, might be translated as “value.” By its own turn, gai (in a voice from the Heian period in Japanese classical history) derives from the word kai, meaning “shell,” and recalling the marine objects then so highly prized.
An idea like “the value of a life” might sound, at first, both grandiloquent and difficult to assimilate. But in Japanese, what we call “life” (a term which encompasses both the time we spend literally alive, and that which we call “everyday life”) is described by two very different terms: jinsei, meaning “life,” and seikatsu, which refers to “daily life.” The concept of ikigai refers specifically to seikatsu, and this may help us both to better place the concept and to understand it as that which gives meaning to our everyday lives. Understood this way, ikigai could be a hobby, a job or, for example, the task of raising a child. In Japan, the term refers, then, to the sum of small pleasures (those of which Hermann Hesse once wrote so lucidly) and which, together, give meaning to our lives.
Those who’ve explored the concept in the West, have taken it to a more practical place, relating it to the work we do and how that may or may not be a source of personal satisfaction. This is why this concept has been used profusely by businesses and in educational courses for the employees of large corporations. For the Japanese, ikigai doesn’t necessarily concern the way we earn a living. For Westerners, the concept has come to be defined as the act of finding a job which gives meaning to our lives, at the intersection of what one loves and what one knows how to do, also a job that is the source of one’s income. The diagram below makes clear how ikigai has been translated on this side of the world.
For other scholars of the concept, such as the National Geographic writer and explorer Dan Buettner, ikigai is a source of longevity. In a Ted Talk on the world’s Blue Zones – places where the numbers of centenarians are most highly concentrated – Buettner states that one reason residents of the Japanese island of Okinawa live longer (an average age of 87 years in women and 81 years in men), beyond their healthy eating habits, is that their ikigai is very clear. The elderly feel a duty to share their wisdom with younger generations. This responsibility is their reason to live, transcending a person’s importance and resulting in a generous act which gives them the strength to get up every morning.
Finding the value in one’s life involves a deeply personal, courageous process. It’s an exploration that may take a long time and which may even constitute the highest search toward which a person might aspire. Thus, the concept of ikigai (whether by the definition of the East or the West) invites us to look for what we love and to not let it go (a bit of advice once spoken of by the mythologist Joseph Campbell). Perhaps finding the value in what we do as something transcendent can only ever result in a fuller life, and (then maybe even) in a longer one, too.
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