'Ikigai': The Japanese Secret To Finding Your Purpose

'Ikigai' (pronounced ee-kee-guy) is an ancient Japanese concept with no direct English translation- and it might just be the burst of motivation you have been looking for.  

What Is Ikigai?

Ikigai captures a concept, more than a meaning. At its core, ikigai is the reason why you get up in the morning and what keeps you going. It has also been translated into 'reason for being'

To break it down ever further, we're deferring to clinical psychologist and Ikigai champion, Akihiro Hasegawa. In 2001, Hasegawa wrote that the word “gai” can be traced to the word “kai” which translates to “shell” in Japanese. In the Heian period in Japan (years 794-1185), shells were very valuable. Therefore, ikigai represents seeking the value, or purpose of our lives.

You may have seen ikigai around the internet, represented as a venn diagram with 4 overlapping qualities:


Ikigai has been associated with longevity of life in certain areas of Japan and increased happiness and overall satisfaction. It also provides a different perspective for those of us who are overwhelmed by the idea of 'getting it right'.

The Sum Of Small Joys Makes Life Fulfilling

When we think of 'purpose' our mind tends to adopt big-picture thinking. This can be overwhelming. The future holds infinite unknowns. What if we somehow define our purpose 'wrong'? Or take  a direction we should not have?

The concept of ikigai offers an alternative: we can find purpose in every day life. The sum of these small joys adds up to an overall purposeful life. Moreover, our purpose can shift as life goes on! We can diversify our ikigai because what we are ultimately seeking is what adds value to our lives. By this measure, a retiree who who found their ikigai through work can seek it in their hobbies after retirement. As long as we are seeking value, we can find ikigai in life

In 2021, Our Thinking Needs Some Structure

Many of us have done more personal reflection in this past year than we have done in our entire lifetime. All of these free-floating and sometimes overwhelmingly existential thoughts can take a toll on our wellbeing.

Doing anything in a constant way tends to become exhausting. And here we are, contemplating life, reflecting on our past experiences, and being mindful of all our emotions and reactions. Our minds and bodies have been doing some heavy lifting!

We need to structure our thinking a little, and guide our thoughts into channels of flow. This is why we love journaling prompts. Guided reflection gives us structure. And pouring into a vessel is always easier than fashioning your own.

When we reflect using a structure or framework, our thoughts and ideas tend to be more clear and less tarnished by self-doubt and that signature pandemic scatter-brain mode that always seems to be switched on these days.

Also, if you have been doing more existential thinking lately you are not alone! Many of us are reflecting more deeply on our life's purpose, and what we are doing to a) discover it b) fulfill it.

Ikigai is not only about seeking our purpose though- it is our purpose in action.

A Guide To The Ikigai Diagram

Ikigai is the common ground and central position between 4 intersecting factors: what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for.

When using an ikigai diagram for yourself, you would fill in each factor based on your own experiences and understanding of the world.

Some of these factors may come easily, while others may require some more reflection. This doesn't have to be done in one sitting. It might even be better to take your time with it.

We can use an ikigai diagram as a life check-in every once in a while. Also, if we are struggling to fill our diagram with genuine content, that information in and of itself can be insightful. Maybe we need to engage more with our lives and community?

Below, we offer a few prompts to help both ignite and structure your thinking in these categories.

What you love

In this category, think about what you truly love and are passionate about. You don't have to be good at it (we'll get to that later). Try not to be concerned about practicality, or become consumed by self-critical thinking in this area.

  • What brings you joy in life?
  • Think of the last time you felt alive, energetic, or fulfilled. What were you doing?
  • What are your biggest passions?
  • Is there something that makes you feel happy in your life, right now?

What you are good at

Don't be humble here, or drag yourself down!

  • What are your talents?
  • If you had to write a story about your greatest strength, what would it be?
  • Reflect on the positive feedback you have received throughout your life. Are there any common themes?

What the world needs

This category speaks to how what you love and are good at can affect your wider community (or the world). It goes beyond our own needs.

  • What do you think needs to change in the world (or on a smaller scale, in your community?
  • Is there an issue that touched your heart or keeps you up at night?

What you can get paid for

Finally, we can talk about the practicality side of things

  • Reflect on what you have written above: what can you offer the market?
  • Is there something you can get paid for but have been too afraid to take a risk and explore that option?

On the ikigai diagram above, you'll also notice that:

Where what you love and what you are good at meet is your passion

Where what you love and what the world needs meet is your mission

Where what the world needs and what you can get paid for meet is your vocation

Where what you are good at and what you can get paid for meet is your profession

Reflect On What You Have Written

Take a few days and come back to your diagram. Are there are any themes? Do you see obvious intersections between the categories or does the diagram seem a bit more scattered? This is okay by the way- not everyone will have an 'aha' moment or see clear solid links directing them to their purpose.

After you have spent some time studying your diagram, it can be very helpful to get some outside feedback from trusted others. Seeing ourselves objectively is not easy! Try asking friends and family about your best qualities.

Some people find that the things they take for granted about themselves stand out to other people. For example, you may take your deep capacity to be empathetic for granted. Others, however, may have been touched with your ability to empathize with others. Perhaps they admire this about you more than anything else! This knowledge is so valuable. The things that come naturally to us feel automatic, and we may not even recognize their value until someone one does.

We can only leverage our strengths when we recognize them!

Wrapping Up

This past year, many of us have felt a strange pressure to figure out our life's purpose. When the world came to a halt, it made room for this type of thinking.

However, it's important to give these thoughts a a vessel (i.e. structure), otherwise they become quite overwhelming...even more so because the world is still in a state of flux and the activities we can do to fulfil our purpose might be limited.

I want to hear from you: Have you tried out the Ikigai framework? What was your experience like and would you recommend it to a friend?

Until next time!

Zainib Abdullah


WellNest Psychotherapy Services