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Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

In this blog we examine the Japanese concept of Ikigai - what it is, what it isn't and the simple steps you can take to life a fulfilled life.

The benefits of Ikigai include:

  • Live longer

  • Feel happier

  • Enjoy daily life

  • Feel and be connected to yourself and others

  • Get in flow every day

  • Lower anxiety and increase in wellness

  • More positive mood


Why could we consider Ikigai?

Because it can contribute to:

  • Fulfilment – living according to your core values

  • Satisfaction - making your unique contribution

  • Contentment – living with purpose and pleasure

  • Achievement – making things happen that are important to you

The gift called ’your life’ has been given to you. Your story is still being written. Every day you are creating more of your story. Ikigai is all about how to create your ‘most fulfilling life’ whilst you are actually living it.

I long to see the sea. One day I want to live by the sea. One day I am going to live by the sea. But when I get to live by the sea - will I still notice the sea?

There is a saying that ‘fish will be the last ones to discover water’ - why? Because in their busy, swimming in the fast stream, looking for food, doing their busy lives - they can lose sight of the bigger picture…

There’s another saying ‘I can’t see the wood for the trees’ … a saying that resonates when we are overstretched, over-busy, over-scheduled, living a hectic life in the present and stressing about the future - losing perspective and losing touch with our values – losing touch with what’s really important to you.

In his book 'How to be Here: A guide to creating a life worth living', Rob Bell tells the story of meeting his friend Cory for a coffee at a coastal café, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

Cory was busy, stressed, working all the time, lying in bed obsessing about his job.

When Rob pointed to the wide beautiful expanse of the ocean and asked Cory if he could see it … he couldn’t see it.

Is any of this familiar?

And what about your direction? Do you know where all this busy-ness is heading? When you get there – will it be where you wanted to get to?

Here’s a thought-provoking quote from Alice In Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)

Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

The Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

Alice: “I don't much care where”

The Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.”

There might be nothing more pointless than climbing the ladder of life to get to the top only to realise you have been climbing the wrong ladder.

Human beings are more motivated when, every day, we experience some pleasure and some purpose – too much pleasure and not enough purpose can be de-motivating. Conversely it can also be de-motivating to experience too much purpose and no pleasure and this can lead to dis-satisfaction wondering ‘where has my joy gone?’ and a feeling of not really knowing what is wrong in your life, except having a deep sense of knowing you are just not very happy.

Read more about motivation in this Shared Inspiration blog series

In the midst of busy-ness and hectic lives we can experience overwhelm and uncertainty - sometimes we are not sure which step to take next and how to go forward.

In the simply eloquent book,

‘The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse’ by Charles Mackesy, there’s a light bulb moment for me in the conversation between the horse and the boy.

The horse and the boy are walking through a forest …

I can’t see a way through’ said the boy. ‘Can you see your next step?’, ‘Yes,’ …’Just take that’ said the horse.

Amidst uncertainty, multi-tasking, busy-ness, potential overwhelm and lack of clarity about purpose, meaning, direction and next steps in life … the Japanese concept of Ikigai provides some fascinating and thought-provoking concepts and guiding principles that might just be very useful indeed.

Questions to ask yourself about life and Ikigai:

  • How shall I respond to this life I have been given?

  • What do I want to create?

  • What kind of world am I making?

  • What kind of life am I creating?

These are all very abstract, existential questions. Ikigai helps us to turn these questions into reality – how to lead your ‘most fulfilling life’ in practice.


Ikigai - what is it all about?

First of all – how do you pronounce it?

Some people say ‘eek – e- guy’ and some people say ‘itchy-guy’…

It is a concept about living harmoniously, naturally and easily in flow, leading the life you want to lead.

Ikigai is about living your life well - the life that makes your heart sing and gives you meaning, purpose and pleasure.

Ikigai is often said to be about ‘what gets you out of bed in the morning’ – knowing your core motivation in life – taking part in daily activities including leisure/pleasure/hobbies and work (paid and/or unpaid) that make you feel alive and well, fill you with joy, keep you engaged and motivated - giving you both purpose and pleasure throughout your everyday life. This is Ikigai.

In Japan there are whole communities (villages and towns) where the concept of Ikigai is very evident in daily life. Where no-one ‘retires’ in the western sense of the word and no-one sits still for too long. In some Japanese communities, people are very engaged from early morning to nightfall.

Activity of the day often starts with tending the garden and vegetable plot. In some Japanese communities every household has a garden that members of the family take great pride in - nurturing plants, flowers and edible foods. The active day starts very early, often around 6 am when this gardening takes place. Ikigai in Japan often involves a strong cultural sense of belonging in supportive communities, surrounded by supportive others – where community spirit is very much alive and well and no-one ever needs to feel or be alone. Interestingly in communities where Ikigai is very much evident in the daily lives of individuals and in the community as a whole – there seems to be a correlation with longevity. People seem to live longer.

In essence your Ikigai is – a ‘web of work and family and play and how you spend your time -it is also not static – it is a work in progress because you and your life are a work in progress’.

Ikigai involves a strong sense of living your life with ‘agency’ – tapping into your inner motivations, passions, choice, creativity, pleasure and purposes in your life. Ikigai is a creative ongoing process.

There are lots of ways your Ikigai gets worked out in your life. Some of your Ikigai may be evident in your paid work – some of your Ikigai might not be seen in paid work. Some of your Ikigai may be being worked out as we speak. And there is a high chance that your Ikigai is a work in progress – and will change over time.

This is all part of the amazing concept of ‘doing Ikigai’ – it is an active verb – ‘to do Ikigai’.


How to do Ikigai!

Think about your daily behaviours and motivations … and ask yourself some questions:

What am I a good at?

  • What gives me a sense of purpose and meaning?

  • What do I love to do?

  • What gives me joy?

  • What are my strengths?

  • How do I get in flow?

  • If I could choose – what could I choose to think, feel, be, do

  • What could be my next Ikigai step?

How to ‘do’ Ikigai is very much about how to get in flow (read more about In Flow here).

If you are doing Ikigai – you are definitely ‘in-flow’ as well. If you are in flow – you are also doing your Ikigai. The two go hand in hand.


Key things you can do that contribute to Ikigai :

In Japan where Ikigai is very much in evidence in many people’s daily lives, it is common to see people aged 100 and over still tending their vegetable plots in the early morning, actively connecting closely to friends and family and making a full contribution to the community.

What are they doing

  • doing daily activities that they love

  • attending to their overall health and well-being

  • eating light meals

  • nurturing friendships

  • getting enough rest

  • drinking vitalising beverages (water, green tea, herbal teas)

  • doing paid and/or unpaid work that promotes flow experience


8 helpful hints and tips about how to do Ikigai and be in flow:

1. Choose an activity or piece of work that is not too hard and not too easy – just the right level of challenge for you

2. Choose a task or activity that you feel passionate about, something you could love to do

3. Choose a task or activity that is important to you in terms of your pleasure and purpose

4. Pick a relatively quiet time and space when you can focus – clear away distractions (eg. turn off tv, put phone or devices down) not related to your chosen activity – have a clear desk if it’s work-focussed

5. Choose a single task or activity to focus on for a period of time and practise increasing the time involved - how long can you be absorbed in your single focussed activity? The longer the better for your contentment

6. Choose an activity that you can see your progress in over time – you can clearly see how you are increasing your skill and confidence

7. Practise and keep practicing your activity - notice how it gets easier to experience being in Flow and ‘doing your Ikigai’ the more you do your chosen activity

8. Enjoy the many benefits of being in Flow and ‘doing your Ikigai’ – including contentment, achievement, satisfaction, pleasure, relaxation, less stress, feeling a sense of overall wellness an

Ikigai - What it is:

  • A work in progress

  • An active process of being, doing and experiencing

  • Very much about being in flow – natural and fulfilling for you

Ikigai - What it is not:

  • Uncomfortable constant feeling of being ‘burdened’

  • Creating a stressful overloaded schedule

  • Constantly multi-tasking

What if you were able to do Ikigai?

Here’s a thought for the day:


Further recommended learning and reading:

IKIGAI: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.

Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles, 2016

How to be Here: A guide to creating a life worth living.

Rob Bell, 2017)

The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse.

Charlie Mackesy, 2019

'How to Ikigai' - A TEDX talk by Tom Tomashiro (YouTube 13 minutes)

Don't delay - Find your Ikigai!


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