What is ikigai and why is it important?

The word “ikigai” comes from two Japanese words: “iki,” or life, and “gai,” which means “value or worth,” as explained by BBC. In his 2001 research on ikigai, clinical psychologist Akihiro Hasegawa said that, while ikigai could mean “life’s purpose,” that definition may be too broad. Instead, he feels ikigai relates to how Japanese people find joy in everyday, small things and that the total of these things can deliver a more satisfying life as a whole. Hasegawa told Ikigai Tribe, “I would describe it [ikigai] as the feeling that one is alive here and now, and the individual awareness that drives him or her to survive.”

Finding out what your life’s purpose might be is important, no matter how you might choose to uncover it. But the road diverges somewhat when it comes to understanding the Western and Japanese understandings of ikigai. Forbes describes the life philosophy as a convergence of what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can earn money from. To discover your ikigai, Westerners encourage you to create a Venn diagram so you can identify how your passions and talents might best come together with the things the world needs and what people might be willing to spend money on. But is that what it really is?

Japanese practitioners say ikigai is more than just a Venn diagram

Japanese ikigai practitioners say they are confused by the use of the Venn diagram because the concept is not what Westerners believe it to be. Ikigai Tribe says the practice is neither about making money nor about what the world needs from you. Instead, you should be looking to connect with the community and the people around you. It isn’t about what you’re good at, as you don’t have to be expert at something to find your ikigai. And it isn’t about doing what you love because ikigai can come from parts of your life that you least expect.

As ikigai practitioner Ken Mogi pointed out (via Ikigai Tribe), “Japanese do not need a grandiose motivational frameworks to keep going, but rely more on the little rituals in their daily routines.”

So ikigai can be experienced by being in the moment and savoring a piece of chocolate or nursing the perfect cup of coffee. It can also be as grand as a vision to change the world. Whatever it is, ikigai is loosely defined as something that makes you get out of bed in the morning and keeps you going. And if you need a Venn diagram to identify your ikigai, that works too.

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