Nathanael Garrett Novosel, July 8 2020

Ikigai: A Japanese Philosophy of the Meaning of Life

Ikigai is a term that roughly translates into "the meaning of life" due to its belief that it originates from words meaning “to live” and “the realization of what one hopes for”.  While this is a word that has many possible interpretation, in this post we're going to break down the two popular ways that people understand/define this concept and what its benefits are.

Let's start by defining what this means.  There are two popular models of Ikigai:

Source: Nimbosa on Wikimedia Commons; derived from works in the PUBLIC DOMAIN by Dennis Bodor (SVG) and Emmy van Deurzen (JPG)

Let's take a look at both models and how this fits into the meaning of life.

In Model 1, this is clearly helping people figure out how they can contribute to society.  While this is a great way to summarize it, it doesn't apply to all areas of life and focuses mainly on work (which is why Model 2 proponents argue that Model 1 is incorrect).  In other words, Model 1 is simply a great way to move from just finding a job that pays the bills to finding something that you will enjoy doing.

Most people make the tradeoff between something that pays well (and, therefore, the world wants or needs—while the fact that people are willing to pay for it by definition means that people want or need it, they're separating them for situations where necessities—e.g., food, water—are inexpensive) and what you like to do and/or are good at.  For example, some people get promoted to manager from an individual contributor role they excelled at because it paid more even though they're bad managers (note: this is popularly known as the Peter Principle) and never really wanted to be one.

What this model reminds people of is that you don't want to get trapped in the "golden handcuffs" (i.e., doing something you hate only for the money) or the struggle while doing something that really means something to you (i.e., the "starving artist").  It's a good model to push you into considering doing something that balances the four areas vs. sacrificing one for the other if the end result for you is a greater degree of satisfaction with your job and your life.  A high income isn't worth it if you're miserable every day, and a job that you're passionate about isn't worth it if you can't live a normal, healthy life given the low income you're able to get from it.  You can always shift roles to get closer to the center if it takes you closer to a fulfilling career.

Why does this model work?  Well, the meaning of life is growth, and so something you're good at and want to improve at will get to you being the best version of yourself in your role in society, while the fact that it enables others' growth and allows you to financially support your other growth areas (e.g., social, familial) optimizes your overall growth in life.  In short, if you can match your skill, will, contribution to others, and support for your other areas in life, you can get the most from your effort in the workplace.  It's a good model, though it only applies to your job/career/contribution to society.

So let's take Model 2: finding joy, meaning, and fulfillment every day.  This is very similar to the mantra that Buddhism and many New Age philosophies tout about living in the present, becoming your true self (or being true to yourself), and finding joy and meaning in what you do.  This is basically the idea that life is a series of choices that you make every day to contribute to society, do things that matter to you and the people you care about, and to appreciate life as much as possible.  This model has value as well, as if you make the most of each day and find meaning in everything that you do, it will lead to overall fulfillment.  The only risk here is that it doesn't cover how to identify long-term goals and plan out ways to incorporate experiences that will help you progress toward them.  While there is nothing wrong with living in the moment, someone may follow it too exactly and run into a "can't see the forest from the trees" kind of situation without some long-term future goals in mind.

Both models above have value to you if you're looking to find meaning in life.  In Model 1, you're making sure that you're getting everything you need to find fulfillment in your job.  While I mention in a previous blog that you don't necessarily need to meet all these criteria to find your job meaningful, it is not the worst thing to make sure you're finding all four of those components in what you do.  In Model 2, you're making the most of each day and finding meaning and fulfillment in them, which will add up to finding more meaning and fulfillment in your life.  While sometimes you need to take action to make progress toward your goals, other times it's just a matter of your mindset and attitude in the moment.  This model provides a reminder of that and help reframing your view of your current life activities and responsibilities, but it isn't necessarily helping you if you need a new direction or new goal in life.

Overall, the two Ikigai models provide good recommendations, but I would take them with the caveat that the philosophies themselves might be too narrow in scope for you if you are looking for a well-rounded overall meaning in life.  As long as you factor in a broader view of purpose while using model Model 1 and hold a longer-term, more complete vision for what you want to accomplish in life while using Model 2, they should serve you very well to keep you moving forward in your life.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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