Ikigai: The Most Misunderstood Secret to A Happy Life

May 24, 2020
Created by the author — original image from Reynardo Etenia Wongso on Unsplash


Who wouldn’t want to live a life where they are rich, passionate, talented, and changing the world? It sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Yet it’s unrealistic and not the only way to live a life of meaning.

The Japanese have a beautiful concept to guide their lives called ikigai. I learned it from karate masters on the beautiful Japanese islands of Okinawa. Researchers have claimed ikigai is the reason why the islands have the highest density of 100-year-olds in the world.

Ikigai is the reason to be and reason to live.

I want to demystify ikigai for you to help you live your version of your best life. I will clear the confusion of the Western understanding and make you realize it’s within your reach.


Ikigai is Not Four Circles

Now ikigai is most famous in the West for a four circle Venn diagram. The internet is full of claims it is about finding a perfect sweet spot between:

  • What you love
  • What you care about
  • What the world needs
  • What you can get paid for
Left: Winn, Marc. Ikigai Venn Diagram. What’s Your Ikigai?, The View Inside Me, May 14, 2014, http://theviewinside.me/what-is-your-ikigai/. Right: Zuzunaga, Andres. Proposito. 2011, https://www.cosmograma.com/proposito.php


This could be great advice but it’s nonsense to call it ikigai. The diagram creator, Marc Winn, admitted he watched one TED talk then changed one word on another concept. The famous ikigai diagram is really psychological astrologer Andres Zuzunaga’s theory of purpose!

So if you’ve been following this model, thank Zuzunaga and stop calling it ikigai. Awkward right?

Now let us explore how to promote your reason for living.


Your Ikigai Doesn’t Need to Make You Rich

Your career does not need to be your ikigai. Many books have hijacked the concept and sold it as career advice. There is more to life than work!

In a large study, only 31% of Japanese people who said they had an ikigai said it was work-related. Bear in mind Japan has one of the most extreme workaholic cultures in the world. They even have a word for death by overwork, karoshi! Hobbies, family, and friends all scored higher than work when asked about their ideal ikigai.

Some of the greatest living instructors taught me karate in Okinawa. For weeks I spent 4 hours training every day in the sweltering heat. Do you know how much it cost? $20 to help pay for the upkeep of the dojo. The people who taught me refused any payment except for a box of matcha flavored treats. Sensei Kinjo explained they are here because of the joy it brings our lives, not for money.

They all had other normal jobs such as being teachers, policemen, and postmen. They could choose to make a living from their skill but it would spoil it for them. Addiction to monetizing everything can get in the way of our ikigai. Stop to think about whether keeping your passion as a hobby adds more value to your life.

Many elderly Okinawan women were housewives. Their ikigai was their family and a close group of friends. Would you dare to tell them their lives had no purpose because they didn’t make money?

If your career is the reason you get up in the morning then awesome. Yet if it’s not, there’s no need to despair. It is okay for work to just allow you to make the most of what you do enjoy.


Your Ikigai Doesn’t Need to be Found

If you take only one thing from reading this, let it be the knowledge your purpose in life is not floating in the air waiting to be caught. Your reason to live comes from inside and you decide what it is.

Self-doubt plagues even some of my most successful friends. Why? Because they haven’t found the magical purpose they read about. The idea something is out there to make our lives perfect is a lie. It’s comforting to begin with but destructive when the chase seems eternal.

I wonder how many of the Okinawan masters knew at the age of 3 when they started this would be their reason to live. I think you know the answer. Our purpose can come into our lives accidentally and we grow to love it.

My day job in the tech industry puts fire in my belly now but I was sure I wanted to work in a bank when I was younger. It doesn’t mean I am free from the odd mundane task. Yet I make a game out of these to create challenges and enjoyment.

Stop seeking to do what you enjoy, instead enjoy what you do. It’s a simple mindset shift yet so powerful. What is a task you hate? How can you make it more enjoyable?

We should be mindful that doing more of what we enjoy doesn’t always mean we will be happier. A passion for running doesn’t mean it needs to dominate your life. Running 5km at the weekend is not the same as the brutal schedule of a professional runner. You may already have the ingredients for your perfect life. You just need to allow your senses to guide you to the right proportions.


Your Ikigai can be Multidimensional

The idea of one pure purpose in life is enticing. Yet most of us don’t live like this and we can find joy in many parts of our lives.

Is a happy person cheating on their ikigai if they love their family and their work? Of course not. We want different areas of our lives to be reasons for us to get up. This gives us stability so our peace is not fragile. A person who finds joy in different areas of their lives will rarely fail to jump out of bed.

In martial arts circles, there is a weird purity argument where people want to prove their style is the best. Yet the Okinawan karate masters themselves train in karate, kobudo, and judo. After training, I have seen for myself they also love the company of their friends and some cheeky karaoke!

Titans of humanity such as Nelson Mandela may be used to argue a single life purpose is important. When we dive a bit deeper, Nelson Mandela had many things to give his daily life meaning. He did an exercise routine and cranked out hundreds of push-ups even at an advanced age. He had letters and visits from his family. He shared his prison sentence with some of his closest friends.

There is an obsession with making sacrifices to be happy. Often this is to take one of our purposes to the extreme and to “grow”. You can have a family, friends, hobbies and a happy career. When making sacrifices, it is best to first pause and self-reflect.

Imagine your daily life when you’ve reached your goals. Does this lifestyle align with what you enjoy? I’m guilty of thinking about a single event where I would feel happy rather than the daily routine. If you can see your days will be full of enjoyment then steam forwards.


Your Ikigai can Change

Change is the only constant in life. It makes sense what gets us out of bed when we are children is different from when we are elderly.

We must allow our purpose to evolve when our situation changes. Our body physically changes over time but so does the way we view the world. Maybe parkour gives you a reason to wake up when you are young but it won’t go too well for you when you aren’t. When we cling onto our past selves, we can’t enjoy the present moment.

In Okinawa, I trained with people who were monsters in their physical prime. This was the place the most dangerous man in all of Japan learned his craft. Their focus shifted with age from the ecstasy of their training to the delight of students growing. Before they trained to be the best in the world and now the best in the world come to train with them.

In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Hariri explains our authentic self is a rationalization our brain creates from a series of events. We can change anything including our principles. A person who hates animals, can later in life have a pet which lights up their day. I can confess I thought I would never do yoga because I wasn’t that type of person. Now it is a key part of my life.

Don’t limit yourself out of loyalty to a person you no longer are. It’s ok to accept you’ve changed as isn’t this part of the whole point of growth? Allow yourself to try new things and who knows it could be a source of ikigai for decades to come.


Your Ikigai can be Simple

Your ikigai isn’t about impressing other people. You don’t need to shout it at everyone you meet. It’s what is important to you not who other people would like you to be. Not everyone can be an Olympic athlete or billionaire.

Ken Mogi, a neuroscientist, makes ‘the joy of little things’ one of his pillars of ikigai. Yukari Mishuhashi, a journalist, says you can uncover your ikigai by asking simple questions:

  • What brings happiness to my everyday life?
  • What puts a smile on my face just thinking about it?
  • What would I continue to do even if I had enough money to live happily ever after?

One of the instructors in Okinawa was a postman. How many of you dream of being a postman? Yet he loved his life. He was active and saw the city every day. He would stop for a chat when he delivered to his friends’ houses or passed by someone he knew. So many of us chase career success to make us happy but I wonder how many of us are happier than this postman.

For the Japanese, ikigai can be a practice in gratitude. We can tend to get caught in what we don’t have yet rather than what we do. Many of us won’t need to make drastic life changes to enjoy ikigai. All we need to do is give value to what is already in our lives without shame.

Don’t compare yourselves to others when working out what wakes you up in the morning. Enjoy the simple things in life such as a gentle walk or good book. Be grateful for the small things and you’re less likely to lose your head in the clouds.


All You Need to Know

If you had heard of ikigai before, I hope I’ve changed your mind on what it is. For those new to the concept, I hope I’ve given you the freedom to express yourself away from the toxic rules society can impose on us.

I don’t know who you are but I know you have a reason to live. I know your life has value. You already had ikigai but now I hope you are more conscious of it and don’t let it slip.

Here’s my ikigai cheat sheet:

  • Ikigai is not four circles
  • Your ikigai doesn’t need to make you rich
  • Your ikigai doesn’t need to be found
  • Your ikigai can be multidimensional
  • Your ikigai can change
  • Your ikigai can be simple

Thank you for reading and have a wonderful day!

Amar's Letter

Real talk on driving impact as an imperfect human.