Ikigai: the Japanese word that can hold the key to happiness in life and work

It's the reason you wake up in the morning. Combine what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for. It's one of those untranslatable words that we could learn a lot from


Life may go by at a crazy pace in Japan, but there are fundamental things that balance the scales. For Japanese workers in big cities, a normal day begins in a state of sushi-zume, a term that compares people crammed into a train to packed grains of rice for sushi. And the stress doesn't end there. The country's famous work culture means that most work long hours, under strict hierarchical rules. Thus, the last trains around midnight are full of people in office clothes. But how do they manage?


The secret may lie in what the Japanese call ikigai. Without direct translation, it is a term that embodies the idea of ​​the happiness of living. Essentially, it's the reason you wake up every morning.


For those in the West more familiar with the concept, it is often associated with a Venn diagram with four overlapping qualities: what you love, what you are good at, what you need, and what you can be paid for.


For the Japanese, however, the idea is somewhat different. Your ikigai may not have anything to do with income. In fact, in a 2010 Japanese survey of 2,000 men and women, only 31% of the participants viewed their work as their ikigai. For some, work can be very important. But his life is not limited to that.

Various values


In a research paper on ikigai, his co-author Akihiro Hasegawa, a clinical psychologist and professor at Toyo Ewia University, included the term as part of the everyday Japanese language. It is made up of two words: iki, which means life, and gai, which describes worth or merit.


According to Hasegawa, its origin dates back to the Heian period (794-1185). Gai comes from the word kai (shells in Japanese, which were considered very valuable) and from there ikigai was derived as a word that means value in life. There are other words that use kai: yarigai or hatarakigai, which mean the value of doing and the value of working. And ikigai can be seen as a broad concept that incorporates those values ​​into life.


Happiness, but different


There are many books on the subject, but Ikigai-ni-tsuite ("On the Ikigai "), published in 1966, is considered the bible on the subject. Its author, Mieko Kamiya, explains that as a word ikigai it is similar to "happiness", but has a subtle difference in nuances. Ikigai is what allows you to wish for the future, even if you feel bad in the present.


In that sense, Hasegawa points out that, translated as "the purpose of life", ikigai sounds very great, but he affirms that it is closer to seikatsu, which means everyday life. In her research, Hasegawa found that Japanese people believe that the sum of the little joys of everyday life results in a more fulfilling life, together.

Longevity key?


Japan is one of the countries with the highest life expectancy in the world. According to official figures from the country, 87 years for women and 81 for men. Author of "The secret of the blue zones: eat and live like the healthiest people on the planet", Dan Buettner, believes that the concept of ikigai contributes to that longevity.


One such blue zone is Okinawa, a remote Japanese island with a remarkable number of people exceeding one hundred. Probably the diet of its inhabitants has a lot to do with it, but Buettner believes that other things play a role.


He said, older people are celebrated. They feel compelled to pass their wisdom on to younger generations. That gives them a purpose in life, beyond themselves, serving their communities.


According to Buettner, ikigai is not exclusive to Okinawan residents, there may not be a word for it, but in all four blue zones, such as Sardinia (Italy) and the Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), the concept exists among people who live a long time.


Buettner suggests making three lists: your values, the things you like to do, and the things you are good at. The intersection of the three is your ikigai. But just knowing him is not enough.


In simple terms, you need an outlet. Ikigai is purpose in action. For 92-year-old Tomi Menaka, her ikigai is dancing and singing with her peers in the KBG84 group, as she told the Mainichi newspaper. For other people, it may be the work itself.


In a culture where the value of the team supersedes the individual, Japanese workers are motivated by being helpful to others, being thanked, and being esteemed by colleagues, says Toshmitsu Sowa, chief director of human resources consulting firm Jinzai Kenkyusho.


The head of executive recruiting firm Perecrobity Global Search, Yuko Takato, spends her days with highly qualified people who regard her work as their ikigai. According to her, they all have something in common: they are motivated and take action quickly.

Think small


However, that is not to say that working hard and long hours are key tenets of the ikigai philosophy. Almost a quarter of Japanese employees work more than 80 overtime hours a month, and this has tragic consequences with the phenomenon of karoshi (death from overwork), which causes more than 2,000 deaths a year.


What is karoshi, death from overwork that in Japan is a public health problem

Instead, ikigai is about feeling like your work makes a difference in people's lives. Finding meaning at work is a topic of great interest to management experts.


And a research paper by a professor at the Wharton School of Management, University of Pennsylvania, USA explains that what motivates employees is doing work that has an impact on the well-being of others and sees or meets the people affected by your work. That applies to life in general, using small gestures. So instead of fighting hunger in the world, you can start by helping, for example, a local volunteer center.


Diversify your ikigai


Retirement can bring a sense of great loss and emptiness for those whose ikigai is work. That can be especially true for athletes who have relatively short careers.


Japanese hurdles champion Dai Tamesue, who retired in 2012, says that when he stopped competing, what he asked himself was, What did you want to achieve by playing sports?


In my case, it was racing on track and field, and changing people's perceptions, he says.


Thus, he decided to create a company that supports sports-related businesses.


The Tamesue story shows the malleable nature of the ikigai and how it can be applied.


When it's time to retire, it helps to clearly understand why you do what you do, beyond picking up the pay envelope.


And keeping that concept in mind may help you live a fuller life.


* This note was published originally or in August 2017. We are republishing in the context of the Games Ol ímpicos Tokyo as a way to share information ng about the culture of the pa ís host.

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