Ikigai - Japanese Theory Of Happiness (History + Examples)

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In an age where many are on the quest for the meaning of life, the Japanese concept of ikigai emerges as a beacon. Rooted in Japanese culture, it presents a framework not just for finding purpose but for cultivating a fulfilling life.

Ikigai is the intersection of what you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you're good at. It's where personal passions and societal contribution meet, resulting in a life rich with purpose and joy.

Celebrated in countless articles, books, and seminars, ikigai seems to have tapped into a universal human longing for a more fulfilling life.

The Origin of Ikigai

peaceful japanese garden

When you think of Japan, many images might come to mind: the tranquil beauty of cherry blossoms, the bustling streets of Tokyo, or perhaps the dedication of a sushi chef perfecting his craft.

Among these cultural images, there's a philosophy that many Japanese people hold dear, one that helps them find meaning and purpose in life. That philosophy is ikigai.

The idea originates in Okinawa, a place in Japan that is known for the longest life expectancy in the world. It hosts the world's oldest populations, and they partly blame the Japanese philosophy of ikigai.

Historically, the term ikigai wasn’t confined to its current popular meaning. In older Japanese texts, the word ikigai simply meant "a reason to live."

It wasn’t particularly profound. Think of it like the feeling you get when you have plans you’re excited about. As centuries passed, it transformed into a philosophy encompassing one's purpose and reason to live.

Understanding ikigai doesn't need a deep understanding of Japanese culture.

Think of ikigai as having a compass in the vast sea of life. The compass doesn’t necessarily tell you where the treasure is, but it guides you, ensuring you sail in waters that resonate with your heart.

Ikigai is that compass. It's the blend of what you’re deeply passionate about, what you excel in, what the world needs, and what can sustain you — be it emotionally, mentally, or financially.

And while this concept has roots in Japan, its universality is clear. Everyone, no matter their background, benefits from identifying their own ikigai.

Ikigai offers insights to career direction, personal growth, or a deeper understanding of life.

A popular book that goes into detail of the history and philosophy is "Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life" by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles.

Understanding the Word

Japan has a gift for encapsulating profound emotions and concepts within single terms.

Words like "tsundoku" — the act of acquiring books and letting them pile up unread — or "komorebi" — the sunlight filtering through trees — hold within them layers of meaning that aren't always translatable into English.

In the same vein, ikigai combines two Japanese words: "iki" and "gai."

"Iki" primarily denotes "life" or "living." It's the heartbeat, the rush of blood in your veins, the inhale and exhale of breath. It signifies the very act of being alive, with all the moments — good or bad — that living entails.

It's about moments of joy and challenges alike, and everything between. When you think about your life, with its ups and downs, joys and sorrows, that's the essence of "iki."

On the other hand, "gai" stems from the word "kai," which translates to "shell," the kind once used as currency in Japan. In this context, "gai" represents value or worth.

Think of it as a metric, something that measures the significance of what you're doing or the impact of your actions.

Combine "iki" and "gai", and you have a term that translates to "a life worth living." But, as you now know, the meaning of ikigai goes beyond this simple translation.

It's about the harmony of your passions, skills, societal needs, and what can reward you. It's about navigating life with a purpose and identifying the unique value you bring to the world.

Recognizing your ikigai is like having a map alongside the compass we discussed earlier. It's one thing to sail in the right direction, but understanding your value and purpose, the "gai" in your life, ensures you have a clear destination in mind.

Ikigai's Four Parts

Embarking on a journey to discover your ikigai is a bit like assembling a puzzle. Each piece holds significance, and when combined, they provide a complete picture.

The magic of ikigai is at the crossroads of four fundamental components: Passion, Mission, Vocation, and Profession.

Let's break down these components to understand how they come together to form your unique ikigai.

Passion is what you love. It's the thing that ignites a fire within you, the activities or hobbies you lose track of time doing. Maybe it's painting, singing, or even a subject you've always been fascinated by. It's what brings color and excitement to your life.

Mission refers to what the world needs and what you can offer to fill that void. It's about identifying the gap or the need and figuring out how your passions or skills align with addressing that. If you've ever felt a calling or a pull towards a particular cause or purpose, that's your mission calling out to you.

Vocation is what you're good at. These are your innate talents or skills you've honed over time. It could be your knack for understanding complex theories, your ability to connect with people, or a craft you've mastered. It’s the zone where you feel effortlessly competent.

Profession encompasses what you can be paid for. It's the practical aspect of the equation, ensuring that what you do can sustain you, be it financially or in terms of resources and recognition.

Visualize these components as overlapping circles, much like the sections in a Venn diagram. At the connection of all four circles — where Passion meets Mission, Vocation, and Profession — there lies your ikigai.

This intersection is the sweet spot, the place where you feel a deep sense of purpose and alignment in what you're doing.

Finding this convergence might not happen overnight, but the journey itself is enlightening.

As you navigate through each component, you not only gain clarity about your purpose but also understand yourself better. And in this self-awareness and alignment, you'll find a life brimming with meaning and fulfillment.

Discovering Your Personal Ikigai

cherry blossom tree

Unraveling your personal ikigai isn't about looking outward but inward. While external inspirations and stories can provide guidance, the essence of this journey is introspective. Let's look at some questions that will help you find your ikigai, and thus a meaningful life.

To start, focus on Passion. Ask yourself:

  • What activities or subjects make your heart race with excitement?
  • When do you feel most alive or invigorated?
  • Which tasks make you lose track of time, immersing you so deeply that the world fades away?

Transitioning to Mission, contemplate:

  • What causes or issues tug at your heartstrings?
  • Where do you feel the world needs help, and how can your skills or passions address it?
  • Have there been moments when you felt a strong urge to contribute or make a change?

When pondering over your Vocation, reflect on:

  • What tasks or activities come most naturally to you?
  • Have others ever commended you for a particular skill or ability?
  • What challenges or tasks do you tackle with ease, while others might struggle?

Lastly, for Profession, check:

  • Are there tasks or roles people would willingly compensate you for?
  • What skills or services can you offer that are in demand?
  • How do your passions align with potential career paths or income sources?

As you answer these questions, remember there's no rush. The journey to discover one's ikigai is deeply personal, and it may take time. It's okay if the answers aren't immediately clear or if they evolve over time. Life is dynamic, and so are you.

Once you've reflected on these aspects, try visualizing how they combine. This visualization can be mental, or you could even sketch it out, using circles as described earlier. The overlapping sections will offer insights into your unique ikigai.

Real-Life Examples of Ikigai

Often, abstract concepts like ikigai become tangible when we observe them in action. By looking at real-life examples, we can see how this philosophy takes shape in diverse ways.

From artists to scientists, philanthropists to entrepreneurs, many have found that sweet spot where their passions, talents, societal contributions, and professional pursuits merge. This gives them a clear reason for living.

Let's explore a few noteworthy figures and how their lives reflect the essence of ikigai.

Frida Kahlo

The celebrated Mexican artist wasn't just known for her iconic self-portraits but for her deep passion for art. Through her works, Kahlo communicated pain, love, and the intricacies of life.

Her art (Passion) addressed societal issues and personal experiences (Mission), showcased her immense talent (Vocation), and eventually brought her recognition and financial reward (Profession).

Steve Jobs

The co-founder of Apple had a clear vision for technology. Jobs believed in creating products that were both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

His love for innovation (Passion) aimed at changing how the world interacts with technology (Mission).

His ability to imagine and create innovative products showcased his vocation, and of course, Apple's success is a testament to his success.

Malala Yousafzai

A global advocate for girls' education, Malala's journey is awe-inspiring.

Her passion for education (Passion) led her to address the gap in educational rights for girls in certain regions (Mission). Her ability to inspire and advocate, even at a young age, highlighted her vocation.

Her story and advocacy have not only earned her the Nobel Peace Prize but also many opportunities to influence global policies (Profession).

Marie Curie

The pioneering scientist had an undying curiosity (Passion) to understand the mysteries of the natural world. Her research had significant implications for medicine and science (Mission).

Her unparalleled skills in the lab and her scientific intellect marked her vocation, and her groundbreaking discoveries secured her place in history and led to material rewards (Profession).

Each of these figures, despite their varied fields and backgrounds, found their unique ikigai. Their stories are a testament to the fact that when one aligns passion, mission, vocation, and profession, not only is personal fulfillment achieved, but the world also stands to benefit.

Recognize that ikigai isn't confined to any particular profession or passion. It's a universal concept, awaiting personal interpretation. Whether you're an artist, an educator, a technophile, or a nature enthusiast, there's an ikigai for you, ready to be discovered.

Comparisons with Other Philosophies

illustration of Okinawa

Understanding a philosophy often becomes clearer when compared to other ideas. Ikigai may seem unique in its approach, but many cultures have pondered over the idea of life's purpose and fulfillment.

By comparing ikigai to some Western philosophies, we can bridge the gap between cultures and gain a holistic view of life’s true meaning.


In the West, the Ancient Greeks introduced the concept of Eudaimonia.

Aristotle often spoke of this term, which loosely translates to "human flourishing" or "blessedness." At its core, eudaimonia is about living by virtue, fulfilling one’s potential.

While ikigai focuses on the intersection of passion, mission, vocation, and profession, eudaimonia emphasizes the alignment of one’s actions with their moral virtues and personal excellence.

Carpe Diem

Carpe Diem is a Latin aphorism often translated as "seize the day." It is another Western philosophy that encourages individuals to make the most of the present moment. Most importantly, without deferring things into the future.

Unlike ikigai, which provides a roadmap for holistic life satisfaction, Carpe Diem is about grasping immediate opportunities without undue delay.

American Dream

The American Dream, though more of a cultural ethos than a philosophy, shares some parallels with ikigai. It's rooted in ideals of freedom.

The American Dream si the belief that through hard work, courage, and determination, anyone can achieve prosperity and success. Both ikigai and the American Dream emphasize the significance of purpose and the pursuit of happiness.

However, where the American Dream often ties success to material wealth and upward societal mobility, ikigai is more about internal satisfaction and finding meaning in everyday life.


From the Eastern perspective, there's Dharma from Indian philosophy. Dharma encompasses duty, righteousness, and one's moral path.

While both dharma and ikigai focus on life's purpose, dharma often has religious undertones and is tied to one's role in the societal and cosmic order.


In drawing these comparisons, it's evident that the quest for purpose and a sense of fulfillment is universal.

Each culture, in its unique way, grapples with life's big questions. While ikigai provides a distinct framework, its essence resonates with many global philosophies.

It serves as a reminder that, despite cultural nuances, humanity shares the yearning to find meaning, purpose, and joy in life.

Incorporating Ikigai in Daily Life

Embracing the philosophy of ikigai isn't about an overnight transformation. It's about embedding it in your daily rituals and thought processes.

Incorporating ikigai is less about radical changes and more about subtle shifts in perspective and habits. Here are some actionable ways to integrate this life-affirming concept into your routine:

1. Morning Reflections

Start your day by taking a few moments to think about what you're looking forward to.

This doesn't have to be monumental; it could be as simple as reading a book, having a meaningful conversation, or working on a project. This sets a positive tone and aligns your day with purpose.

2. Mindful Activities

Engage in activities that help you stay present. This could be gardening, painting, cooking, or even meditating. When you're wholly immersed in an activity, it aligns with the passionate aspect of ikigai.

3. Continuous Learning

Always nurture your curiosity. Whether it's picking up a new hobby, attending workshops, or reading, continuous learning feeds the soul and keeps you aligned with your passions and vocations.

4. Social Engagement

Find or create your community. Engage in social activities, volunteer work, or group hobbies. Being part of a community not only provides support but also offers avenues to contribute, resonating with the mission aspect of ikigai.

5. Balance Professional Pursuits

Reevaluate your career and professional engagements. Are they in line with your skills and passions? Remember, ikigai isn’t about working endlessly but finding joy and purpose in what you do.

6. Health and Wellness

Incorporate a balanced diet, practice mindful eating, and engage in regular physical activity. A healthy body often houses a contented mind.

7. Set Clear Boundaries

While it's essential to be engaged and passionate, it's equally crucial to set boundaries. This ensures you have time for relaxation, self-reflection, and activities that you love.

8. Journaling

Maintain an ikigai journal. Write down what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what can be financially or emotionally rewarding. Over time, you'll see patterns, helping you identify your unique ikigai.

9. Embrace Change

Remember, as you evolve, so might your ikigai. It’s okay for it to shift or transform as you journey through different life stages.

Challenges and Misconceptions

With the surge in popularity of the ikigai concept, it's inevitable that misunderstandings would arise.

Like any philosophy, when taken out of its cultural context or oversimplified, its essence can sometimes get lost or misrepresented.

Here are some common misconceptions.

1. Overemphasis on Profession

While the professional component is a part of the ikigai framework, it's crucial not to over-prioritize it. Reducing ikigai solely to career success or financial gain misses out on its holistic nature. Remember, it's about the confluence of passion, mission, vocation, and profession.

2. The Pressure for Perfection

Discovering your ikigai doesn't mean you've found the "perfect" path. Life is dynamic, and so are we. Your ikigai might evolve over time, and that's perfectly alright. Embrace the journey without pressure.

3. Overlooking Cultural Context

Ikigai is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. While its principles are universal, it's essential to approach it with respect for its origins. Avoid oversimplifying or commercializing it, which can dilute its profound meaning.

4. Immediate Results Expectation

Unraveling your ikigai is not an instant process. It requires introspection, patience, and sometimes even trial and error. It's a continuous journey rather than a final destination.

5. Rigid Interpretations

While the Venn diagram representation of ikigai is popular, it's not the only way to interpret or understand it. Be open to diverse interpretations and find the one that resonates with you.

6. Neglecting Self-Care

While pursuing passions and missions, self-care shouldn't take a backseat. Balance is key. Your well-being, both mental and physical, is most important.

7. Isolating from Community

Ikigai is as much about individual purpose as it is about societal contribution. Engaging with a community, understanding societal needs, and fostering connections enhance the journey.

8. Fear of Change

Once you've identified an ikigai, don't be afraid to reevaluate and change if it no longer resonates. Growth and change are intrinsic to life.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about Ikigai

zen garden

1. What does "ikigai" mean?

Ikigai is a Japanese term that combines "iki" (life) and "gai" (value or worth). It represents the intersection of what you love, what the world needs, what you're good at, and what you can be paid for. Essentially, it refers to one's life purpose, or reason for being.

2. Is ikigai all about career or work?

No. While the professional aspect is a component of ikigai, it's not solely about one's career. Ikigai includes passion, mission, vocation, and profession, making it a holistic approach to finding purpose and fulfillment in various aspects of life.

3. How is ikigai different from other life philosophies?

While ikigai shares similarities with other philosophies, its unique focus is on the convergence of passion, skill, societal need, and professional reward. It provides a framework for holistic life satisfaction and purpose.

4. Can I have multiple ikigais?

Absolutely. As life is dynamic and ever-changing, your passions, missions, vocations, and professions can evolve. This means you might discover different ikigais at various life stages.

5. How can I find my ikigai?

Finding your ikigai involves introspection, self-awareness, and sometimes even trial and error. Reflect on what you love, what the world needs, what you're good at, and what can bring rewards (emotional, societal, or financial). Over time, patterns will emerge, helping you identify your unique ikigai.

6. Can anyone, irrespective of cultural background, embrace ikigai?

Certainly. While ikigai is rooted in Japanese culture, its principles about purpose, passion, and life satisfaction are universal. Anyone can interpret and incorporate ikigai into their lives.

7. Is there a specific age to start exploring one's ikigai?

No, the quest for purpose and fulfillment is timeless. Whether you're in your teens, mid-life, or older age, it's never too early or late to explore your ikigai.

8. Does discovering my ikigai guarantee happiness?

While ikigai can guide you towards a happy life full of purpose and joy, happiness is multifaceted. Ikigai can undoubtedly enhance life satisfaction and meaning, but individual experiences and challenges will always play a role in one's overall happiness.


The quest for meaning and purpose is as old as humanity itself. Ikigai, a gem from Japanese culture, offers a beautiful framework for this timeless pursuit.

While its roots lie deep within Japan, its branches extend universally, touching anyone eager to infuse their life with passion, purpose, and joy.

As you've journeyed through the history, principles, examples, and practical applications of ikigai, you've not just discovered a philosophy but a potential roadmap for your life.

While the path to finding one's ikigai might be deeply personal and ever-evolving, the rewards of such a pursuit are immeasurable. Embracing this concept doesn't promise a life without challenges, but it ensures a long and happy life lived with meaning, resilience, and fulfillment.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, October). Ikigai - Japanese Theory Of Happiness (History + Examples). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/ikigai/.

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