Ikigai [ 生きがい ] is a Japanese concept that means “a reason for being.” Everyone, according to Japanese culture, has an ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self. Such a search is important to the cultural belief that discovering one’s ikigai brings satisfaction and meaning to life.
The term is composed of two Japanese words: iki referring to life; alive; and kai, which roughly means (an) effect; (a) result; (a) fruit; (a) worth; (a) use; (a) benefit; a reason for living [being alive]; a meaning for [to] life; what [something that] makes life worth living; a raison d’etre; the realisation of what one expects and hopes for.
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. Secondly, the word is used to refer to mental and spiritual circumstances under which individuals feel that their lives are valuable. It’s not necessarily linked to one’s economic status or the present state of society. Even if a person feels that the present is dark, but they have a goal in mind, they may feel ikigai. Behaviours that make us feel ikigai are not actions we are forced to take—these are natural and spontaneous actions.
Unpacking the word and its associated symbol a bit further, ikigai is seen as the convergence of four primary elements:
- What you Love (your passion)
- What the World Needs (your mission)
- What you are Good at (your vocation)
- What you can get Paid for (your profession)
The word ikigai, that space in the middle of these four elements, is seen as the source of value or what make one’s life truly worthwhile.
The Question of Purpose
Many ancient indigenous cultures took time to honour the question of purpose through ceremony, vision quest and rites of passage in order to help reveal the essential role that each member was born to play in the greater tribe and story of life; though the space and reverence for this question does not always seem to exist today. For many, our decisions around life-focus unfold in a more reactionary way, propelling us into educational, professional and life-directional paths based less on deep inner calling or soul-inspired vision, and more on societal expectations, so-called ‘practical reality’ and what is required to survive in the systems we’ve created to live in.
Sacred Activism, encourages us on the other hand to find our purpose by ‘following our heartbreak’. Andrew Harvey calls us to discover that which is most deeply disturbing in our world and to use this as a catalyst to propel our actions and discover where we can make the biggest difference.
While each of these viewpoints are powerfully compelling in their own right, whether we are following our bliss, following our heartbreak, or that which makes us come alive (or a combination of all three!), for many of us there is also an apparent need to follow that which pays the bills each month and allows us to cover the basic necessities of life. So how do we balance all of these factors in the creation of a life which is meaningful, purposeful and aligned with our true calling? Is it possible to have it all? The essence of ikigai gives us a framework to balance these elements into a cohesive whole.
In the article named Ikigai — jibun no kanosei, kaikasaseru katei (“Ikigai: the process of allowing the self’s possibilities to blossom”) Kobayashi Tsukasa says that “people can feel real ikigai only when, on the basis of personal maturity, the satisfaction of various desires, love and happiness, encounters with others, and a sense of the value of life, they proceed toward self-realization.”