The original word ikigai goes back to the Heian period (794 to 1185). Clinical psychologist and avid expert of the ikigai evolution, Akihiro Hasegawa released a research paper in 2001 where he wrote that the word “gai” comes from the word “kai” which translates to “shell” in Japanese.
During the Heian period, shells were extremely valuable, so the association of value is still inherently seen in this word. It can also be seen in similar Japanese words like hatarakigai, (働きがい) which means the value of work, or yarigai ~ga aru (やり甲斐がある), meaning “it’s worth doing it.” Ikigai is what gets you up every morning and keeps you going.
Gai is the key to finding your purpose, or value in life. The best way to really encapsulate the overarching ideology of ikigai is by looking at the ikigai Venn diagram which displays the overlapping four main qualities: what you are good at, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and of course, what you love.
Boiling it down to its most basic theory, it’s within the crossover of these points where ikigai stands.
Is this Japanese concept the secret to a long, happy, meaningful life?
What’s your reason for getting up in the morning? Just trying to answer such a big question might make you want to crawl back into bed. If it does, the Japanese concept of ikigai could help.
Originating from a country with one of the world’s oldest populations, the idea is becoming popular outside of Japan as a way to live longer and better.
While there is no direct English translation, ikigai is thought to combine the Japanese words ikiru, meaning “to live”, and kai, meaning “the realization of what one hopes for”. Together these definitions create the concept of “a reason to live” or the idea of having a purpose in life.
Ikigai is often associated with a Venn diagram of where the following elements overlap:
- What you love
- What you are good at
- What the world needs
- What you can be paid for
What you find at the intersection of those four lists is your ikigai. If you’ve already retired, you can remove “what you can be paid for” from those elements and you can still find your ikigai from the remaining three.
In fact, a paying job might not have anything to do with your ikigai. In a survey of 2,000 Japanese men and women conducted by Central Research Services in 2010, only 31 percent of participants considered their work as their ikigai, the BBC reported. Plenty of Japanese retirees find greater purpose in their hobbies after leaving the office, which not only keeps them active but also gives their lives a sense of meaning after ending their careers.
In his book, Garcia says that studying the ikigai ideology has changed the way he shapes his day.
“I have improved my morning routine to start my days doing what is most important to me before getting busy with others.” In other words, he prioritizes the duties that give him purpose. “This means that I have a cup of green tea, do 15 minutes of easy yoga poses, and then write for one hour. Before leaving home, I have dedicated time to my health and one of the activities that give ikigai to my life: which is writing books.” Though it may sound career-focused, ikigai is not always about financial endeavors. Having a hobby that you can dedicate your time to, raising a family, or being able to work and make steps towards diving deep into that passion project you’ve always fantasized about, are all ikigai.