The Philosophy Behind Ikigai

People have always wondered whether there is a special way of life out there that would make them truly happy. There must be an ancient secret, something yet to be discovered, that we working humans are entitled to. However, our everyday lives keep us occupied most of the time, leaving no time for thinking about it any further. The ikigai philosophy is a concept that might hold the answer to speculation. But what is the philosophy behind the ikigai?

Wisdom of the Far East

You might have heard that Okinawa is a place where one of the longest living people in the world resides. The recipe for their long and happy life lies in the ikigai philosophy. Ikigai is an age-old concept, a motivational supersystem that could be translated to English as “that which makes life worth living”. The term consists of two elements: “iki”, which translates to life and “gai”, which means value or meaningfulness. Ikigai philosophy, therefore, highlights the value of the activities you do for yourself. These are the ones that keep you immersed in the moment creating a feeling of contentment. The original concept of a meaningful life for the Japanese is very modest and down-to-earth. They focus on accepting what they have and are grateful for it. 

Ikigai philosophy

Western philosophy and ikigai

Purpose and meaning in Western societies are described through the concepts of happiness and wellbeing. Happiness has even gained political recognition in the past ten years as something that societies should aim for. On the other hand, people do not perform their best when they lack motivation. You might think that some companies went too far when they introduced wellbeing coaches, but the happiness of workers is in the employer’s best interest when it comes to deliverables. The driving force of the consumerist West is the reward that comes after the blood, sweat and tears. We expect happiness to come later in life as career success, or as a grand monetary gain after many years of working. By default, we are allowing our busy routine to push out meaning in the here and now. Consequently, we desperately need reprogramming to put satisfaction and substance in what we do. The craze which followed opened the thought market to various lifestyle concepts which can potentially boost our happiness:

  • The Danish “hygge” – well-being, calmness, cosiness
  • Swedish “lagom” – balanced and moderate living
  • South African “ubuntu” – seeing oneself through others
  • Japanese “ikigai philosophy” – that which makes your life worth living 

These historical and modern concepts were then universally exploited from life coaching to furniture design. But did we get happier? 

Truth in the middle

The ikigai philosophy faced the Western world with the substance it lacks. The Okinawans do not contemplate happiness and well-being in life, nor do they set happiness as a final goal. Their happiness and well-being lie in their skill to find small joys in the most mundane moments, and that is what keeps them going. In our terms ikigai philosophy might sound career-focused, but ikigai is not always about financial endeavors. Focusing on your children, being actively present in the lives of your dearest, having a hobby, putting your passion to work, learning a new skill to progress at your job, or slowly realizing a long-delayed project. These are what the ikigai philosophy describes as the things that make your life worth living.

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How to implement ikigai philosophy in your everyday life?

Before you can age well like the Japanese, you need to focus on living well. You need to start experiencing everyday life, enjoy even the simplest of activities, such as having a cup of tea and treat that moment with respect. Ken Mogi in his The Little Book of Ikigai explains the five pillars of ikigai. Following his concept can easily put you in the mindset to start implementing ikigai philosophy in your everyday life. 

Start small

Take small steps towards reaching your goals and emphasize the process. Regardless of whether you succeed at landing a job, or winning a bake-off competition, you’ve tried your best and that is the experience from which you’ll learn. 

Release yourself

Accept yourself and be comfortable with how you engage with life. As soon as you start realizing that we are all born unique, you will embrace your ways of handling problems, life situations and people.

Harmony and sustainability

Think beyond your selfish needs and build positive relationships with people. Sustainability does not always refer to nature. Your actions always have a wider impact on society as well. 

Joy in the little things

Create a habit of enjoying little pleasurable moments. If you want to start the day with coffee and chocolate, do it. You should create a routine of these small experiences of happiness. 

Being in the here and now

Release your inner child. Being mentally present in whatever you do is a first step towards self-actualization. Devour the moment like the child in you devours a chocolate bar. 

Dive deep and discover more

The ikigai philosophy does not end here. As a matter of fact, it never does. If you are reading this now, your ikigai is referring to your current status in life. There is a lot of reading material out there that might spark your interest to read along about the ikigai philosophy to take you a step further. I suggest checking out Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles books: Ikigai – A Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, which now has a sequel The Ikigai Journey: A Practical Guide to Finding Happiness and Purpose the Japanese Way. If you are a fan of Japanese films, there is a whole Ikigai film series. And do not forget to do a semi-regular checkup of your ikigai.

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