Ikigai – what does it really mean?

2 February 2022

Ikigai [i]s a sense of being alive now, an individual's consciousness as a motive to live.'Ikigai' is work of the mind integrating an "object of IKIGAI" and "feeling of IKIGAI" - Akihiro Hasegawa, Associate Professor at Toyo Eiwa University. 

Ikigai is a concept that combines the Japanese terms iki, meaning “alive” or “life,” and gai, meaning “benefit” or “worth.” When combined, these terms mean that which gives your life worth, meaning, or purpose. Ikigai is similar to the French term “raison d'etre” or “reason for being".

Often referred to as the ikigai diagram, the ikigai chart or the ikigai symbol, the Venn diagram above is not the ikigai concept but rather the Purpose Venn Diagram. The framework does not accurately represent the concept of ikigai. Japanese don’t follow this framework, nor contemplate the four questions when they think about their ikigai.

The Venn diagram of Purpose was developed by Spanish author and psychological astrologer, Andres Zuzunaga.

The Zuzunaga Venn Diagram of Purpose

The framework of doing something that you love, that you are good at, that the world needs, and that you can be paid for is the Purpose Venn diagram. Full credit should go to Andrés Zuzunaga, a Spanish astrologer and entrepreneur, who created the diagram in 2011


Ikigai Westernised

The Westernised version of Ikigai is based on the idea there are four components one needs to complete in order to achieve ikigai.

These four components are represented by the four questions:

The misconception being perpetuated is that one can only achieve ikigai and true happiness by meeting all four conditions, so if you are doing something you love, but it isn't generating you money, then you haven't achieved ikigai - this is false.

The four questions in the framework are not questions Japanese ask themselves when they are contemplating their ikigai(s). If you were to show this Venn diagram to a native Japanese, they would not recognise it as ikigai.

Ikigai is a multifaceted concept that Japanese come to understand as they live life and grow older. It is not something they learn about from a framework.

Ikigai Is Not About….

You could call the Venn diagram a Westernised version of ikigai, but the truth is, it is a misrepresentation of ikigai. Your ikigai does not lie at the centre of those interconnecting circles.

It’s not about making money.
Ikigai is not the pursuit of professional success or financial freedom. Most Japanese would not associate making money with ikigai. Success and the accumulation of wealth could be a by-product of your ikigai, but it would not be the focus.

It’s not what the world needs from you.
Ikigai is not about what the world needs from you. Ikigai lies in the realm of community, family, friendships and in the roles you fulfill. When you pursue your ikigai, you are not out to save the world. It is more about connecting with and helping the people who give meaning to your life - your family, friends, co-workers and community.

It’s not about what you're good at.
You don’t have to be good at something to find your ikigai. Ikigai can be a very simple daily ritual or the practice of a new hobby. Ikigai is more about growth rather than mastery.

It’s often not about what you love.
Ikigai can be something you love or are passionate about, but you can find ikigai in areas of your life you would least expect. Ikigai is more about living your values and finding meaning and purpose in daily living regardless of what constraints you may have.

The problem with interpreting ikigai as the Purpose Venn Diagram is that it creates the illusion that ikigai is a lofty and formidable goal to achieve. In many ways, ikigai is the opposite of this - embracing the joy of little things, being in the here and now, reflecting on past happy memories and having a frame of mind that one can build a happy and active life. It's not about professional success or entrepreneurship.

The beauty of ikigai is you can have more than one, it changes as you grow, and most importantly is considered to be essentially the processes of cultivating one’s inner potential. You discover your ikigai after self-reflection, so really you already have your ikigai, you just have to give yourself the time and space to find it. 

What does ikigai mean to the Japanese?

Japanese use the word casually in conversation and understand its meaning and nuances, but don’t make it up to be a grandeur concept of any sort.

There are a number of Japanese psychologists, professors and authors who have studied ikigai extensively.

Akihiro Hasegawa is an Associate Professor at Toyo Eiwa University, a professional psychologist and has published several studies and research papers on the ikigai. His diagram of the constituent elements of ikigai is below.

Noriyuki Nakanishi of Osaka University Medical School succinctly defines ikigai in several paragraphs:

“The word ‘ikigai’ is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile (for example, one might say: ‘‘This child is my ikigai’’). Secondly, the word is used to refer to mental and spiritual circumstances under which individuals feel that their lives are valuable. There is a difference between ikigai and the sense of well-being. Ikigai is a more concerned with the future: for example, even when one feels that one’s present life is dark, possessing a desire or goal for the future allows one to feel ikigai.”

“Ikigai gives individuals a sense of a life worth living. It is not necessarily related to economic status.”

“Ikigai is personal; it reflects the inner self of an individual and expresses that faithfully.

It establishes a unique mental world in which the individual can feel at ease.”

In conclusion

Ikigai refers to the mental and spiritual circumstances under which individuals feel that their lives are valuable as they move forward towards their goals. Finding ikigai is the processes of cultivating your inner potential as you actively pursue what you enjoy doing in service of your family, tribe and community via your life roles.

Kay Dunkley
AMA Victoria Coordinator of Doctor Wellbeing


Further reading

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