Happiness in Action: Probing the Parameters of Ikigai

Happy New Year! For many, myself included, the start of a new year is a time to take stock of our lives and the direction in which we’re headed, hoping to embed some good practices moving forward. While New Year’s resolutions are often a to-do list of multiple, wide-ranging items, this process of reflection and action has brought to my mind the larger-picture issue of the personal development of something that makes life worth living, summed up in the Japanese word “ikigai.”

While ikigai is a common word in Japanese, the concept can prove elusive in English and indeed it is sometimes deemed untranslatable. In the 1990s, cultural anthropologist Gordon Mathews set out to make a cross-cultural study of ikigai in Japan and the United States, conducting in-depth interviews with 52 Japanese and 52 Americans from a wide range of ages and occupations.

His first problem was in finding a way to express ikigai in English. Mathews notes that over an 18-month period, four major Japanese newspapers had about 50 articles dealing with ikigai. However, corresponding references to “a life worth living” or “that which makes life seem worth living” were rare in American newspapers and magazines.

Media alluding to the “meaning of life” were more common. Yet, when Mathews asked Americans what their meaning of life was, many could not answer him, and some even were driven to mention the 1983 Monty Python comedy film “The Meaning of Life” as their main point of orientation. Ultimately, Mathews settled for asking Americans a series of three questions: What relationship, activity, pursuit or dream is most important to you in your life? What do you feel is the center of your life? What makes your life seem worth living?

All this, to approximate the simpler “What is your ikigai?,” which was easily understood by the Japanese interviewees.

In the Japanese books and articles Mathews reviewed, the description of the essence of ikigai veered in two seemingly opposing directions. Some considered ikigai as related to “ittaikan”: a sense of oneness with a group, such as a family, team or company. Others regarded it as “jiko jitsugen”: self-realization through an individual pursuit. On the other hand, for most of Mathews’ Japanese interviewees, their personal sense of ikigai was poised equivocally between the two, a notion of themselves as individuals striving to find that which makes life worth living within a broader social context. It was not either/or, but rather both.

This apparent bifurcation seen in publications ended up not being much of a true split in the lives of normal people. However, social psychologist Michiko Kumano has identified another bifurcation, which might possibly affect how Japanese people respond to Western assessments of well-being: that between “shiawase” (happiness) and “ikigai.”

Kumano asked 846 Japanese people in their 30s living all over Japan with various types of employment status to rank from 0 to 10 how much shiawase they currently felt, and similarly, to rank how much ikigai they felt. The average shiawase score was 6.07, and that for ikigai was 5.75.

While the scores for the two terms did not differ much, most respondents viewed them as distinct. When Kumano asked the respondents, “Do you feel there is a difference between feeling shiawase and feeling ikigai?,” 79.8% answered affirmatively. Those who felt a difference were then asked, “What are the differences between feeling shiawase and feeling ikigai?”

Kumano found that shiawase was associated with pleasure, tranquility and love. It was transient, personal and entrenched in small happenings. Conversely, ikigai correlated with action: dedication, single-mindedness, accomplishments and objectives.

Based on this, Kumano suggests that ikigai corresponds to eudaemonic well-being and shiawase to hedonic well-being. She further posits that this quotidian splitting of well-being into two divergent types of feelings in Japan might be the reason that Japanese people do not apprehend the broader term “well-being” as straightforward as Westerners, which might be a reason that Japanese often score lower on tests evaluating one’s well-being.

Is ikigai leisure? Leisure and well-being researcher Shintaro Kono and two colleagues set out to determine the link between leisure and ikigai. They asked 27 students to select up to 10 photos from their phones that represented ikigai to them and submit them to the researchers. A total of 247 images were obtained, and they were sorted into 15 categories: hobby/ leisure, relationships, possessions, organizational activities, nature, self, physical environment, education, values, technology, pets, future aspirations, occupation/work, daily necessities/activities and miscellaneous. Multiple categories were possible.

In subsequent interviews, the students were also asked to classify the photos they had submitted as leisure or non-leisure. A few of the collective assessments appeared to contradict typical conceptions of leisure.

For example, although most of the photos fell into the hobby/leisure category, with 61.5% classified by the researchers as such, 32.2% of these photos were categorized as non-leisure by the students. Kono and his colleagues suggest that many Japanese student club activities require a commitment and effort consistent with ikigai, which does not feel like a leisure activity.

Along the same lines, the relationships category was the second most common category overall, at 51.0%, and this group was more often labeled as non-leisure by the students themselves, with 59.8% slotted as such.

On the other hand, the researchers note that the findings suggest that leisure is frequently social, leading them to expect that photos of people being together would be considered leisure. Evidently, ikigai-identified actions that outwardly appear to be leisure might not be experienced as such.

In the end, perhaps meaning is found in seeking out and relishing a sense of ikigai. It’s a notion that enriches life far beyond the self-improvement tasks we set for ourselves, although those, too, can spur us to actions that might contribute to finding or developing our ikigai.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.