When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing to pop into your head? Maybe it’s the email you forgot to send before you left the office yesterday, what outfit you’ll wear, the groceries you need to pick up for dinner . . . in our modern world of go-go-go, it’s nearly impossible to not have your brain in high gear during all your waking, and even sleeping, moments.
Leave it the the Japanese, the people who cleaned out our clutter and taught us to “spark joy” with Kon-Mari, to provide yet another solution to this question of purpose. Ikigai, loosely translated to “the reason for getting up in the morning” (iki means “to live,” and gai “reason”), is a life philosophy that encourages people to find what makes them truly happy in little and big ways, every day you wake up.
Related in a way to the Hindu concept of dharma, or one’s life mission, ikigai is a mentality already residing in us, it’s just something we have to discover and acknowledge to reap its effects. While the overall sensibility might conjure thoughts of hygge, last year’s lifestyle craze, ikigai is different in that you can’t necessarily achieve it with things like cozy socks and candles. Indeed, it’s unrelated to external signs of success or value, too: making a six-figure salary doesn’t increase your ikigai, nor can your job title be your source of ikigai (unless the job itself is the purposeful component).
In Japan, this concept is simply part of the culture–not something that needs to taught. You can measure the effect of an ikigai-based lifestyle with science: take, for example, the longer average lifespan of those who claimed to have a sense of ikigai in a 2008 study, or another 2015 study on those who have a “purpose in life,” who had a lower rate of mortality and cardiovascular disease.
Finding your ikigai is easier than it might sound at first glance. (The first of its Five Pillars is “start small.”) There are a number of books you can consult for a more in-depth explanation, but in the spirit of simplicity we’ll lay out here those fundamentals so you can start right now.
Start Small: Make the most of your mornings (hey, you are waking up for this, no?), when you’re most energized and productive, and fill it with your favorite foods, routines, and people so that the early-morning rush of happiness-hormones will kick-start your day. It’s also a fundamentally innocent and child-like mentality, for when you’re young big concepts about ambition and salary and five-year plans aren’t part of your worldview. Keep things simple, and they’ll make those big problems easier to handle.
Releasing Oneself: If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you’ve probably heard a teacher tell you to “let go.” Easier said than done. Per ikigai, this simply means surrendering yourself to the world around you—the sensory input, your own body and mind’s reactions to a situation—without imposing a narrative or interpretation (driven by the ego). If you consider the beautiful, thoughtful landscape and rituals of Japanese culture (tea or rice ceremonies are a great example), it’s easy to see how ikigai is built into daily routines and even functional tools in our day—you can admire a lovely bowl when you eat your meals, which makes the eating itself more mindful and pleasurable. You can also practice this pillar in a state of creative flow—and perhaps the activity you’re doing when you’re in that state is a key to what your ikigai is.
Harmony and Sustainability: Everything we do has an effect on ourselves but also the wider world. Being mindful about our relationship to the earth, and to each other, and ensuring that a safe and healthful place lasts for generations to come, is important when finding purpose in life. If you think about those big dreams for a moment, don’t they usually have to do with a broader reach—doing something that makes an impact on the world? The path to that kind of life-changing life is in this Pillar. It provides motivation for waking up every day; you have good work to do in the world.
The Joy of Little Things: Related to Pillar 1, this point encourages you to take on tasks you can complete with success and confidence, to being selective and reasonable when it comes to goals. That’s not to say you shouldn’t dream big, but rather it’s suggesting that small dreams (like organizing your closet or perfectly folding a sweater :)) are worthwhile too.
Being in the Here and Now: Realize that joy and happiness isn’t a constant state of being. It can come in fleeting spurts, so maintaining presence of mind is important if you want to catch it. The above pillars are all integrated into this final one, naturally—when you are focused on something intently, a small, beautiful object or an activity, those things add up to an immersive present moment.
It might be implicit, but it’s worth saying that comparing your ikigai to someone else’s is counterintuitive. The goal is to tap more deeply into yourself, finding an inner wisdom that you can project into the world, not imposing a wisdom or purpose that someone else said you should have. Releasing that sense of competition will make the Pillars more accessible, too, since you don’t have to worry about what other people will think of your small things, or why your “here and now” isn’t like your friend’s.
Hopefully after reading this your morning will be a little different tomorrow—and your day a bit brighter and more purposeful, too.
Do you know what your ikigai is? Share with us—and tips on how you found and cultivate it in your daily life!
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