As the sparkle of the holidays fade and you assess the year ahead, it’s a natural time to consider what it is that you hope for in the next twelve months. Maybe you have a vision of a year full of lofty aspirations or maybe it’s intentionally goal-free. Either way, it’s worth considering how you pursue happiness, and why. If a simple flip of the calendar is your only inspiration, sticking to those resolutions is probably going to be a struggle. Instead, try looking inward for a more compelling and fulfilling pursuit. The concept of ikigai can be extremely helpful in this exercise, and many adopt it as a guiding principle in their lives year-round.
Originating in Okinawa, one of the famed Blue Zones, ikigai does not have a direct translation to the English language but has gained wide popularity as a mainstay around which many have built fulfilling and long-lasting lives. In the West, it has been adopted and modified to suit our more work-centric culture as a means of identifying rewarding career paths or defining one’s life purpose. In a society that celebrates the combination of passion-driven work and accumulation of financial wealth, this can and does illustrate the source of ikigai for many people. However, ikigai is both much simpler and broader than this westernized definition. In essence, it is a lifestyle in which you pursue joy in the everyday, the byproduct of which is the sense that your life is worthwhile, even during times of hardship. Finding your ikigai is an entirely self-determined endeavor, and does not have to serve financial needs or fit into some grand concept of your life’s purpose. The rationale behind this perspective is that a life full of small joys will add up to a more fulfilling life. What you do specifically that brings you joy and satisfaction is guided by your personal value system and can be expected to evolve over time, just like you.
Ken Mogi, Ph.D., neuroscientist and author of Awakening Your Ikigai: How the Japanese Wake Up to Joy and Purpose Every Day (also published as The Little Book of Ikigai), explains the nuances of ikigai by condensing them into five pillars. Each of these pillars functions as part of an inter-dependent system that work together as a whole.
By focusing on achievable improvements, as incremental as they may be, joy can be found in the process of refining a skill or a task. While recognizing that perfection may be unattainable, there is still value in its pursuit. In this way, people can achieve their goals — one step at a time.
One of the most difficult hurdles in the pursuit of ikigai is learning how to get free of the tendency to compare oneself to others. Self-acceptance is key to fully engaging with life and pursuing one’s own happiness.
This applies to the individual and their community. Growth and happiness cannot flourish without acceptance of oneself and others. With this acceptance, however, inner peace may be achieved and pursuit of a meaningful life becomes possible. As long as the individuals within a group can sustain a harmonious existence, diversity can continue to thrive.
Cherish the small moments. These are opportunities to experience joy and happiness. Even seemingly trivial enjoyments accumulate over time and collectively form a protective buffer against the difficulties one may face.
Consider how freely children live and pursue their passions. Without concern for the future or the burdens of the past, they are free to create and explore solely for the joy of it, rather than in hopes of some future reward or recognition. Similar to the concept of mindfulness, being present requires a release of the ego in order to immerse oneself in the experience of life as it is happening.
Think of all the things you could do that would make you happy — big or small. Small things could be your favorite candy, a self-care ritual, or a hobby. Big things could be achieving a life-long goal, cementing your legacy, or anything that serves your core values.
Make this easy on yourself and start small. Light the candles. Drink the wine. Set aside 10 minutes to call up an old friend, and make it a regular habit. Review the big things often to keep them top of mind and consider the daily activities you’re already doing in the context of how they align with those priorities. Take advantage of opportunities to do more of what feeds these objectives.
After spending some time experimenting with what brings you joy, consider which ones delivered the most value to you and start allocating more of your time and effort to them. Remember, your ikigai does not have to be focused solely on one thing and can incorporate frequent simple pleasures alongside the concept of a larger life’s work.
Core to the idea of ikigai is a strong community network that fosters harmonious diversity. Reach out to friends, mentors, professional peers, and fellow enthusiasts to create a system of support and encouragement to help propel each other forward on your journeys.
Life is a dynamic force that pushes us along in constant evolution. Your ikigai can be expected to change with you, and its pursuit is a lifelong quest.