There is a passion inside you, a unique talent that gives meaning to your days and drives you to share the best of yourself until the very end. – Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles
We’re picking up where we left off from our previous post, The Hidden School, wherein Dan Millman concludes his Peaceful Warrior saga in Japan.
So today, we’re turning Japanese. And we’ll learn about a famous Japanese concept: “Ikigai”
What is it? It comes from the words ikiru, meaning “life,” and kai, which means “the realization of what one hopes for.” Put together, Ikigai translates as “a reason to live.” It’s the secret that co-authors Hector and Francesc discovered from immersing themselves into the lives of people on the island of Okinawa, where there are 24.55 centenarians (people over the age of 100) for every 100,000 inhabitants.
In the book, they take us further into Ogimi, a rural town in Okinawa with a population of 3,000, which has the highest life expectancy in the world – a fact that has earned its title The Village of Longevity.
It’s given that nurturing relationships, healthy-eating, regular exercise, and ample rest all contribute to longevity. But at the heart of living not only a long but also a happy life is discovering ikigai.
As Hector and Francesc write, “Those who discover their ikigai have everything they need for a long and joyful journey through life.”
Are you ready to discover yours?
Your Reason for Being
Having a clearly defined ikigai brings satisfaction, happiness, and meaning to our lives.
One surprising thing you notice, living in Japan, is how active people remain after they retire. In fact, many Japanese people never really retire – they keep doing what they love for as long as their health allows.
Another translation that Okinawans have for ikigai is “the reason we get up in the morning.” It’s the reason for being. We could say it’s a reason for living, but it’s really more than merely “making a living.”
Did you know that there’s no Japanese word for “retirement”? Because having an ikigai – a purpose in life – is central to their culture that the idea of retirement simply doesn’t exist in Japan. And they believe that everyone has an ikigai that we carry within ourselves. It’s a matter of discovering it or more so, realizing it.
Here’s a helpful chart in discovering it:
Don’t sweat it. You don’t need to figure it out all at once. And even if you did, don’t get boxed in. Just like you, your ikigai will evolve over time. So simply start where you are with what you know now. Maybe with whatever piques your interest at the moment. That’s your clue!
The mind has tremendous power over the body and how quickly it ages. Most doctors agree that the secret to keeping the body young is keeping the mind active – a key element of ikigai – and not in caving in when we face difficulties throughout our lives.
Dr. Grayson is one of those doctors who assert the tremendous power of our mind, which he expounds in his book Your Power to Heal. The active mind is not to be confused with the monkey mind or the ego. It refers to keeping the mind’s awareness active, aware of which thoughts serve us or not.
A study conducted at Yeshiva University found that people who live the longest have two dispositional traits in common: (1) a positive attitude and (2) a high degree of emotional awareness. These are people who have a positive outlook and are able to manage their emotions in the face of challenges.
Having a stoic attitude or equanimity – serenity in the face of a setback – also helps in keeping you young as it lowers stress levels. This is apparent in people who have unhurried lifestyles.
Logotherapy pushes patients to consciously discover their life’s purpose in order to confront their neuroses. Their quest to fulfill their destiny then motivates them to press forward, breaking the mental chains of the past and overcoming whatever obstacles they encounter along the way.
Derived from the school of psychology conceptualized by Viktor Frankl (bestselling author of Man’s Search for Meaning), Logotherapy differs from conventional psychoanalysis in that instead of asking patients about things that are hard to say, it asks about things that are hard to hear.
Statements like: “Why do you not commit suicide?” (Talk about tough love. You’re the man Frankl!)
Tough as it sounds, Logotherapy makes people face themselves so they can come up with a straight answer: their reason to live – their ikigai.
Logotherapy is also able to address existential frustration, which arises when life is without purpose. It doesn’t view frustration as mental illness, but rather as spiritual anguish that can be considered a positive thing for it becomes a catalyst for change.
Morita Therapy is not meant to eliminate symptoms; instead it teaches us to accept our desires, anxieties, fears, and worries, and let them go.
Similar to Logotherapy, another approach cited in the book is the purpose-centered therapy developed by Shoma Morita to address neurosis, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress.
Here are the basic principles of Morita Therapy:
- Accept your feelings. As feelings come to us, we have to accept them, meaning we allow ourselves to feel every feeling, including those we don’t want to feel. Morita likens emotions to the weather. We can’t predict or control them. We can only observe them.
- Do what you should be doing. Don’t focus on eliminating the symptoms. They will recover on their own. Focus instead on the present moment. And if there’s suffering in this moment, accept that suffering. Don’t intellectualize what is happening. Morita Therapy doesn’t offer explanations or advice on what to do. It allows patients to learn for themselves and do what they feel is necessary for their recovery.
- Discover your life’s purpose. It’s also the overarching strategy advised by Eric Maisel in Overcoming Your Difficult Family. Our actions are something under our control. That’s why it’s important to find our ikigai. Our ikigai guides us on what actions we should be taking. Morita’s mantra is “What do we need to be doing right now?”
The Flow State
There is no magic recipe for finding happiness, for living according to your ikigai, but one key ingredient is the ability to reach this state of flow and, through this state, to have an “optimal experience.”
In order to achieve this optimal experience, we have to focus on increasing the time we spend on activities that bring us to this state of flow.
The book draws insights regarding this state of “flow” from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (How’s that pronunciation for flow? Hah!) book of the same title, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, wherein he defines flow as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Here are strategies we can employ to increase our chances of achieving flow according to researcher Owen Schaffer:
- Choose difficult task (but not too difficult). Choose tasks that take you outside of your comfort zone but not beyond your capability. Brian Johnson calls it “the stretch zone” in his rubber band analogy. You wouldn’t want to stretch yourself outside your stretch limits, or you’d snap!
- Have a clear, concrete objective. But focus on the process of getting there. Keep your goals in mind but don’t obsess over them.
- Concentrate on a single task. Multitasking is ironically counterproductive. In fact, we can’t really multitask. It appears we do, but what we’re really doing is switching back and forth between tasks quickly. Focus on the task at hand. Prioritize. When you’re done with one, move on to the next. But do it one at a time.
What do Japanese artisans, engineers, Zen philosophy, and cuisine have in common? Simplicity and attention to detail. It is not a lazy simplicity but a sophisticated one that searches out new frontiers, always taking the object, the body and mind, or the cuisine to the next level, according to one’s ikigai.
The book features several “takumis” or artisans in their respective ikigai. And though their ikigais are unique to each of them, something they do have in common is sophisticated simplicity – a sophistication that comes from their attention to detail.
Toyota, the Japanese automotive manufacturer, employs artisans who are expert in a particular manual skill. These are exceptional people who do what only they can do – their ikigai.
Turntable needles are another example of an artisanal product that is almost exceptionally made in Japan. I personally am a huge fan of Japanese audio brands. Woot!
Even Steve Jobs is a big fan of Japan too! He visited Sony factories in the 1980s and adopted many of their methods when he founded Apple.
Indeed, in creating a masterpiece, as Leonardo da Vinci put it, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Focus on enjoying your daily rituals, using them as tools to enter a state of flow. Don’t worry about the outcome – it will come naturally. Happiness is in the doing, not in the result.
Flow is mysterious. It is like a muscle; the more you train it, the more you will flow, and the closer you will be to your ikigai.
In Japan, how you work on something is more important than the final results. Why? Because how you work is what brings you into a state of flow, and this flow state is what brings you closer to your ikigai.
Quoting Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” It all boils down to habits.
Part of my ikigai is writing book. The only way I can achieve that is by making writing a habit. One of the reasons why I blog is to practice my writing. I work on my book when I’m not blogging. Reading is another daily ritual I have. Not only do I gain insights, I also learn different writing techniques and my vocabulary expands. And these are things I really enjoy doing, which made it easier to turn them into habits.
So a really good place to start is doing what you enjoy, and enjoy when you’re doing it. That, by itself, is the cycle of happiness that circles around your ikigai.
One thing that everyone with a clearly defined ikigai has in common is that they pursue their passion no matter what. They never give up, even when the cards seem stacked against them or they face one hurdle after another.
Resilience is our ability to deal with setbacks. The more resilient we are, the easier it will be to pick ourselves up and get back to what gives meaning to our lives.
Hector and Francesc say that resilience isn’t just about perseverance. It’s an outlook we can cultivate by staying focused on the important things in life and keeping ourselves from being carried away by negative emotions.
Resilient people focus on their objectives and on what matters. They concentrate on things they can control and don’t worry about those they can’t.
How can we become more resilient? The book adopts central tenets from Buddhism and Stoicism. They are: enjoying life’s pleasures but not getting attached to them and staying present in the moment knowing the impermanence of things.
Ichi-go Ichi-e, Wabi-sabi
Ichi-go Ichi-e teaches us to focus on the present and enjoy each moment that life brings us. This is why it is so important to find and pursue our ikigai.
Wabi-sabi teaches us to appreciate the beauty of imperfection as an opportunity for growth.
Two Japanese concepts we’ll come across with as we pursue our ikigai are Ichi-go Ichi-e, which translates as “This moment exists only now and won’t come again,” and Wabi-sabi, a concept of seeing beauty in things that are impermanent, flawed, and imperfect.
This concept is the essence of the Japanese art known as Kintsugi or Kintsukuroi:
Reminds us of an insight from The Unbelievable Happiness of What Is, where Jon Bernie tells us that the broken parts of ourselves are not to be thrown away, but rather to be recycled. Because when they heal and transform, those mended parts are what make us beautiful.
Life is pure imperfection, as the philosophy of wabi-sabi teaches us, and the passage of time shows us that everything is fleeting, but if you have a clear sense of ikigai, each moment will hold so many possibilities that it will seem almost like an eternity.
What happens every time you get broken? You become anti-fragile, a term Hector and Francesc borrows from Antifragile, where Nassim Taleb uses the word fragile to describe people or things that are weakened when harmed; resilient for those that are able to withstand harm without weakening; and anti-fragile for those that get stronger when harmed.
Resiliency is strong enough and good enough. But antifragility goes beyond that. While resilient stays the same, anti-fragile gets better.
Any lasting positive change we want in our lives will require antifragility because change is painful. It’s going to break you. But remember that what breaks you only makes you better.
So keep going. As Hal Elrod says in The Miracle Morning, at first it will be unbearable, then uncomfortable, and then finally you become unstoppable.
One morning you just might wake up realizing you finally have it – your ikigai – and you realize you had it all along.
It was you! You are the reason you get up in the morning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
HECTOR GARCIA is a citizen of Japan, where he has lived for over a decade, and of Spain, where he was born. A former software engineer, he worked at CERN in Switzerland before moving to Japan, where he developed voice recognition software and the technology needed for Silicon Valley startups to enter the Japanese market. He is the creator of the popular blog kirainet.com and the author of A Geek in Japan, a #1 bestseller in Japan.
FRANCESC MIRALLES is an award-winning author who has written a number of bestselling self-help and inspirational books. Born in Barcelona, he studied journalism, English literature, and German, and has worked as an editor, a translator, a ghost-writer, and a musician. His novel Love in Lowercase has been translated into twenty languages.