Ikigai (Explained in 4 Minutes): Find Your “Reason for Being” (生き甲斐)

Ikigai Cover

What is ikigai? What is the meaning of this Japanese word and concept? Can it help you live a better, happier life, and if so, how?

Hi! My name is Nik. I’ve been a writer for almost a decade, and I summarize books for a living. I also love Japan, and I went to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka in 2013. Last year, I read three books about ikigai. Today, I’ll share everything I know about it with you in just 4 minutes.

The Meaning of the Word “Ikigai” (生き甲斐)

The closest appropriate English translation for the word “ikigai” is “reason for being.” It is pronounced “e-key-gaa-e” (ekeygaae). In Japanese, the word is a compound of “ikiru” (生きる), which means “to live” or “to exist,” and “kai” (甲斐), which means “worth,” “value,” or “reward,” but also “fruitful” and “worth doing.”

The Japanese language is richer and more open to interpretation than Western languages. Therefore, “ikigai” has more than one meaning. From the above definitions alone, we could interpret it as “life purpose,” “value of life,” “fruits of life,” “reward for existing,” and more.

In the West, people tend to jump on the “purpose of life” definition because that’s a concept they’re familiar with, but ikigai is a lot more — and a lot more useful — than just this limited point of view. 

What Is Ikigai?

Here’s a description that I hope will do the word justice: Ikigai is anything that makes your life worth living. Whatever makes you feel happy and grateful to be alive — big or small — can be your ikigai.

A common translation is “reason for getting up in the morning,” which, while elegant, only captures the “big” side of ikigai. But ikigai can also be small. If you love your work, that’s great, but if you don’t, you can still feel ikigai on a daily basis.

A janitor might not get up in the morning because they love taking care of their school building, but if a student compliments them on their work, they enjoy their walk during lunch break, or feel at ease while gardening at night, that janitor still has ikigai.

Ikigai: Giving Every Day Meaning and Joy by Yukari Mitsuhashi is the best book I have read on the subject. It is short, simple, and captures all of ikigai’s facets. For one, Mitsuhashi explains that “life” as in “iki” aligns more with “daily life” than “lifetime:” “In other words, ikigai can be about the joy a person finds in living day-to-day.” It can be the smell of your morning coffee, your coworker greeting you when you get to work, or your spouse making dinner for you after a long day.

In one study, 75% of 2,000 Japanese people indicated they had ikigai, but only 31% said they gain this feeling from work. Most people find ikigai in their hobbies, close relationships, voluntary activities, and social interactions — and everyone gets their ikigai from multiple sources.

Whether it’s the big things or the small things that make you feel your life has meaning and joy doesn’t matter. All that counts is that you develop an awareness of these things and make a habit of savoring them.

How Can Ikigai Improve Your Life?

When you have and practice ikigai in your life, you will be calmer, happier, and more content. You will either love your work or at least find comfort in its meaningful contribution to other people’s lives. You’ll enjoy and focus on the little things rather than worrying about big achievements, what’s going on in the world that you can’t control, and what other people think of you.

In The Little Book of Ikigai, Ken Mogi describes 5 pillars of ikigai, each of them equally able to give us meaning and happiness:

  1. Start small: Use routines to ground yourself. Focus on details and small positive actions. Examples: Getting up early, carefully preparing a meal, going the extra mile to make someone’s day.
  2. Release yourself: Accept who you are. Let go of your ego. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Examples: Enjoying a hobby, like painting, without worrying about outcomes or taking care of a loved one who is struggling.
  3. Practice harmony and sustainability: Try syncing with nature. Spend time outside. Work with a community. Examples: Daily group stretching exercises; walking to work instead of driving.
  4. Focus on the joy of small things: Make an effort to recognize the little things. Examples: Savoring the taste of a dish, closing your eyes while standing in the sun, fully appreciating the free fortune cookie after lunch.
  5. Be in the here and now: Immerse yourself in reality. Don’t rush through life. Examples: Activities that put you in flow, holding back on judging others, meditation.

Ikigai is about being present, making an honest effort, and living life one day at a time. As long as you do the best you can with what you’ve got without burning yourself out, you can go to bed each night with a sense of fulfillment.

Once again: Ikigai is anything that makes you feel your life is worth living. It can be an event, a habit, a person, or an item. From the sunrise to your breakfast to your spouse or your gaming console, almost anything can be a source of ikigai.

The Infamous Ikigai Diagram: What Ikigai Is NOT

The most problematic book about ikigai is also the most popular. Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Hector Garcia Puigcerver and Francesc Miralles has sold over four million copies. It is a wonderful book full of great advice on how to live a long, healthy, happy life. It just misrepresents ikigai.

Right on the first page, the authors define ikigai as “the happiness of always being busy.” But ikigai has nothing to do with our Western cult of busy! Is it good to be engaged with life? Of course! But that doesn’t mean you should chase to-do list items 24/7. The wording isn’t great.

Similarly, they claim that “Our ikigai is hidden deep inside each of us, and finding it requires a patient search.” That’s also not true. Mogi and Mitsuhashi stress: Ikigai comes from your actions. Purpose is something you create by dedicating time and attention to otherwise inconsequential things.

The authors also share a Venn diagram which, after a blogger slapped the word “ikigai” on it, went viral (full story here). Now millions of people believe that Spanish astrologer Andrés Zuzunaga’s “theory of purpose” is ikigai. But ikigai is neither about getting paid nor about changing the world. So please, if you ever come across the following Venn diagram, enjoy it for what it is, but remember: The 4-part theory of purpose is NOT ikigai.

Ikigai: This Venn Diagram Is NOT Ikigai

Where Can You Learn More About Ikigai?

The #1 book I would recommend is Ikigai: Giving Every Day Meaning and Joy* by Yukari Mitsuhashi. You can buy a copy on Amazon.* It’s short, clear, and inspiring.

As a close second, I would recommend The Little Book of Ikigai,* sometimes called Awakening Your Ikigai,* by Ken Mogi. You can buy it here.*

That’s it! I hope you’ll find this concept useful, and if you have any questions, just tweet @fourminutebooks!

Thank you for reading, and may your life be full of ikigai! 🙏🏼

Last Updated on June 19, 2023