It’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate the things I’ve learned simply from being raised in a Japanese family. I’ve found that there are words in the Japanese language that have shaped the way I think, and that some of these words don’t translate into English easily. Ikigai is one of those words.
According to Japanese Culture, finding your Ikigai is the most honorable and rewarding thing one can do. It’s the key to a long and happy life. So what exactly is Ikigai?
There is no English word equivalent to this Japanese word. Rather, understand that the word Ikigai represents a concept, rich with nuances, some of which I’ll try to explain. The literal translation is “the reason for which one lives”, which does the word justice. Your Ikigai can be your job, your lover, your family, your hobby, or anything else. It’s whatever brings you satisfaction and a sense of meaning to life. If you’ve ever woken up next to someone you truly love, you know the feeling I’m talking about. That’s why I also like the figurative translation, “the reason for which one wakes up in the morning.”
In order to truly understand the nuances of this word, you must know the different ways in which it’s used. Ikigai is something you can have, feel, search for, or find.
Having Ikigai is often used to describe someone else who seems full of life. Let’s say my friend John recently got a new job that he loves. He now wakes up early, excited to go to work. I might say to someone, “ever since John got his new job, he’s had a lot of Ikigai.” In this case, Ikigai is used to describe an ongoing attitude of positivity. You don’t have to know the reason for someone having Ikigai, to realize that they have Ikigai.
Feeling Ikigai is often used to express excitement about one’s own life. You can feel Ikigai in general, or feel Ikigai in a specific action or the existence of an object, person, or idea. Philanthropists, for example, can proudly say they feel Ikigai in helping people. In this case, it’s used to describe a sense of excitement. Interestingly, people often say they can feel Ikigai from being physically close to somebody that has it, hinting that Ikigai is contagious.
Searching for Ikigai is used when describing a person’s journey in finding a sense of fulfillment in their life. There was a period I jumped from one project to another, taking on different jobs, getting bored and switching quickly. You could say that I was searching for Ikigai. Again, the word is used to describe a feeling of satisfaction or fulfillment.
Finding Ikigai is the most satisfying thing one can do, and you know you’ve found it when you’re waking up every morning excited to start the day. If you have a friend who has a 9-5 job that they despise, and they haven’t been making an effort to exit this routine, you might want to tell them it’s about time they found their Ikigai.
It’s interesting to note that the word Ikigai is used casually in Japanese culture. Japanese people understands its meaning and nuances, but don’t make it up to be a grandeur concept of any sort. For example, in any social setting you might say, “What’s wrong? You seem a little quite today,” a Japanese person might say “What’s wrong? You don’t have any Ikigai today.”
If you haven’t noticed by now, Ikigai isn’t something unachievable, like Buddhist Enlightenment. It’s something that comes and goes. It’s something that’s different for each person, and even changes for each individual over the course of their lifetime. Some people have more than one Ikigai.
If it’s something that changes, comes and goes, how can Ikigai be the key to a long and happy life? It’s actually the secret to finding your Ikigai that’s the key to a long and happy life; and there is a real secret that works. The secret trick to finding your Ikigai is to find your role within a community, your community.
When I say your community, I mean the people around you that define who you are, every person you regularly interact with. Unless you actually live with a native tribe of some sort, your community can often be segmented into what many people appropriately call “tribes”. An average American middle aged man might have a work tribe, a family tribe, and maybe a fantasy sports tribe. A tribe is a small group of people who are unified through one idea, activity, or organization that regularly interact with one another. A tribe can be up to 150 people in size, usually much smaller, and can be as small as two people. It’s within these tribes that you can find your Ikigai.
In the past, we only had one tribe, but in modern culture, most people belong to multiple tribes. However, the same basic principles apply. People find Ikigai when they know and love their role in their tribe. A few examples include the charismatic CEO of a startup, the active PTA president, the jokester father, the caring grandmother, the responsible sorority sister, or the kicker of the football team. In each of the examples I listed, it’s easy to imagine the person enjoying every opportunity to fulfill their role within their tribe. If you think back toward simpler times, people were proud to be the blacksmith of the village or even the stable boy for a good king. They were happy because they found their Ikigai, by which I mean their role within their community.
It makes sense then that Japanese culture considers finding one’s Ikigai as the most honorable thing one can do. Finding your Ikigai is honorable, because in order to find your Ikigai, you must identify your role within your community. This means to find and actively pursue what you enjoy providing for your community. This is why finding your Ikigai can be considered both the most honorable and rewarding thing you can do.