Ikigai – Reason for being

What’s Ikigai?

I had written about Ikigai roughly 2.5 years ago in the article How to choose your career here on My Zen Path. I am reproducing some extracts and image from that article here for a quick recapitulation.

Ikigai is a fairly popular Japanese concept by now – it means ‘a reason for existence (or being)’. That’s same as Raison d’être in French. According to Japanese culture, everyone has an ikigai. Ikigai can also be translated as ‘a reason to get up in the morning’. The word ikigai is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile.

The following illustration shows these four circles and all their possible intersections as well. It’s a good idea to spend some time looking at this Ikigai illustration and ponder why the intersections are named the way they are given the circles (and associated questions) that they bring together.

Ikigai - Reason for being
Ikigai – Reason for being (PC:  Pinrest)

Recently, I came across a book titled Ikigai – The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García, Francesc Miralles and it caught my attention. While browsing through it casually I realized that authors have tried to connect Ikigai with few important concepts based on their interactions and experiences with centenaries in Okinawa, Japan. I have written about some of these concepts here on My Zen Path and it was nice to see how the authors have connected few dots.

Active life, no retirement

Interestingly equivalent word for “retire”, as in ‘leaving the workforce for good’ does not exist in Japanese. The Japanese people are quite active even when they grow older, they keep doing what they love for as long as they can do it, as long as their health allows. And that’s the most amazing part of that island of almost eternal youth – Okinawa, it has 24.55 people over the age of 100 (centenaries) for every 100,000 inhabitants. Okinawa holds first place among the world’s five blue zones – regions where people live longest.

Ikigai Diet and Exercises

The centenaries in Okinawa have few things in common – they eat only until their stomachs are about 80% full, their meals includes plenty of fruits, vegetables and anti-oxidants – they eat all colours of the rainbow in their diet. They have unhurried lifestyle and spend more time in community activities that build happy and strong relations.

As for the exercises, they are often moving – they believe in gentle movements, longer life. The authors mention ancient eastern practices such as yoga (India), tai-chi and qigong (China). These practices not only keep them active longer, but also help in improving metabolism. The diet as well as the exercises along with the relevant research and illustrations are discussed in-depth throughout the book Ikigai – The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life; but since that’s not our primary focus at My Zen Path, I am only mentioning them briefly here and not discussing them further. Instead, I am digging deeper in the reasons for their Ikigai – working happily for life.

Ikigai and Logotherapy

Logotherapy was developed by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. During the Holocaust in 1940, he spent 3 years in concentration camp. His book Man’s Search for Meaning is based on his experiences being an inmate in a concentration camp during World War II and his insights about human psyche & consequent human behaviour during extreme adversity, which ultimately impelled Frankl to do some path-breaking work on meaning that he termed as Logotherapy. Logotherapy is a form of psychotherapy oriented around finding meaning in one’s existence. Frankl’s logotherapy suggests that many forms of mental illness are rooted in a basic lack of meaning in life. Rather than power (Nietzsche, Adler) or pleasure (Freud), logotherapy (Frankl, Kierkegaard) believes that striving to find a meaning in one’s life that is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans. The following illustration shows Frankl’s famous logotherapy triangle.

Frankl - logotherapy
Frankl – logotherapy (PC: Frankl’s logotherapy video on YouTube)

I had written about Frankl and logotherapy in the article In search of meaning here on My Zen Path, you may refer to it for more details. This book Ikigai – The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life asserts that ‘Purpose in life’ is a crucial part of  long, happy life where people do what they love doing. The book also discusses some case studies of logotherapy including Frankl himself and famous example of an American diplomat who wasn’t convinced with psychoanalysis that was prevalent at that time.

This book also discusses Shoma Morita’s purpose-centered therapy, who was a psychotherapist and a Zen Buddhist. Unlike western psychotherapy, Morita therapy teaches clients to accept their emotions without trying to control them, since their feelings will eventually change as a result of their actions. Morita advised clients to do what they should be doing allowing them to learn from their actions. Both, Logotherapy and Morita therapy encourage you to reflect on personal experiences to find your Ikigai.

Ikigai and Flow

A large part of this book connects Ikigai with Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s  concept of Flow – I had written about flow in depth in the early days of My Zen Path. I am reproducing formal definition of flow from that article –

Flow: The mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

That is actually the essence of ikigai – something that you love doing, something that gets you in the state of flow. The following diagram illustrates flow quite well – when challenge and skills are optimal there is a state of flow. When challenge is far greater than skills, there is anxiety and when challenge is not at par with the skills, there is boredom. I think we all experience all these three states.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow illustration by Malcolm Ocean

This book cites several interesting examples of people who continued to excel in their work by consciously staying in their own flow zones. It also emphasizes that most people who have found their Ikigai prefer one thing at a time instead of multitasking and supports this argument with productivity stats. The single tasking approach helps to achieve flow as well. Another insightful strategy is “compass over maps”, suggesting that though the path to goal may not be straight, a clear idea of where you’re headed is far more useful and efficient in reaching there than a detailed, pre-planned route that could take longer or might even work out. I personally found this insight quite helpful and hope to keep it as my mantra.

Japan respects its Takumis (artisans) and value their skills, craft greatly. Steve Jobs visited Japan frequently and was impressed by their engineers (especially at Sony), philosophy (Zen), cuisine (especially Sushi) and artisans. Jobs adopted many of these practices in Apple. He was particularly fond of an artisan Yukio Shakunaga famous for his porcelain work. Jobs was curious about the fabrication process and type of porcelain that Shakunaga used. Shakunaga explained that he himself extracted white porcelain from the mountains. Jobs asked him to make something special for him, Shakunaga came up with 150 teacup ideas and sent best 12 cups to Jobs – that was his last purchase from the artisan.

Another fascinating story is about Jiro, who has been making sushi for more than 80 years and own a small restaurant in Tokyo. His restaurant is in a quiet, peaceful environment and he serves just 10 patrons at a time. He is not interested in expanding his business and doesn’t have any branches of his restaurant either. (ahem!) However, he and his son go every day to the famous Tsukiji fish market to choose best fish for his restaurant – similar to Shakunaga, their work begins at the source, right from procuring the best fish. Jiro and his son are culinary artists – they find their flow in the kitchen. Making best sushi in the world is their happiness, their ikigai. Their story is captured in the documentary titled Jiro dreams of sushi.

As the authors suggest, whether an artist, an engineer or a chef sets out to create something, during that process, the artisan becomes one with the object and flows with it. Japan respects and nurtures such artisans.

The book narrates few more of such stories of flow and ikigai including Hayao Miyazaki of studio Ghibli, who kept on drawing until the day he died. It also describes microflow – finding flow in mundane, daily tasks. Apparently Bill Gates finds it in washing dishes to relax and clear his mind. There is also an unbelievable anecdote about Richard Feynman, who enjoyed microflow by painting the office walls when he didn’t have something important to do. The investors at Thinking Machine offices joked about it – “You have a Nobel laureate in there painting walls and soldering circuits.”

Here is a beautiful quote from the flow chapter of this book –

The happiest people are not the ones who achieve the most. They are the ones who spend more time than others in a state of flow.

Ikigai, Resilience and Antifragility

Resilience has become an important concept in psychology – it is an ability to bounce back after a setback. The people with clearly defined ikigai are resilient – they never give up, they pursue their passion against all odds. They know how to pick themselves up, and get back to what gives meaning to their lives. They understand how to stay focused on their objective despite hurdles that one inevitably encounters during the course of life. The book Ikigai explores resilience through the lens of Buddhism and Stoicism, both of which insist on mindfully living in the present moment. Impermanence is one of the important tenets as well – since they know things are always changing, the flexibility to accept and adapt becomes their strength. In my opinion, sustaining passion for life won’t be even possible with resilience.

Antifragility is a concept introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, Antifragile. According to Taleb, antifragility is fundamentally different from resiliency (i.e. the ability to recover from failure) – antifragile gets better, stronger after shock, attack or failure. The book Ikigai gives some examples of antifragility – some establishments that actually got better after the tsunami. More importantly, the authors give some practical suggestion about achieving this through investment strategies, creating more options with two jobs, or parallel careers, cultivating stronger relationships and so on.

While talking about Ikigai context however, the book Ikigai – The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life does not delve much into ‘What the world needs’ and ‘What you can be paid for‘ aspects of ikigai, but otherwise it shows a wonderful kaleidoscope of ikigai including longevity diet, lifestyle and exercises. You can get a glimpse of this book below –

More on Ikigai

Sandeep Gautam has written an interesting article Extending Ikigai: The 6P framework, where he is proposing 6P framework of thinking about what factors should or do affect career choice: Pay, Pleasure, Power, Potential, Purpose and Passion. He is connecting this with Amy Wrezesnewicki’s job, career, calling distinction that I had discussed in the article How do you look at your work? here on My Zen Path.

There are numerous talks and videos about Ikigai on YouTube, but I found this one particularly intriguing. Gangadharan Menon is an author, advertising professional, documentary film maker and professor at Rachana Sansad, Mumbai. In this TEDx talk, he talks about finding his own Ikigai at the age of 52, after spending 28 years in advertising industry. Do watch.

Update 24 July 2020:

Business leader & author Tanmay Vora has created a wonderful illustration about the 10 principles of Ikigai on his site QAspire, and I am including that illustration here with his permission.

Ikigai Sketchnotes by Tanmay Vora
Ikigai Sketchnotes by Tanmay Vora from QAspire


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