3 Ways to Tap Into Your “Ikigai” (Reason for Being)

Ulara Nakagawa
Oct 20, 2017 · 5 min read

Ramen mania in the West is palpable. The salty, slurpable Japanese soup noodle is making a huge culinary splash out here and people, frankly, can’t seem to get enough. I’ve lost track of how many eyes I’ve seen light up with the mention of it, or how many new ramen shops I’ve come across this year alone.

But I digress. Lately, I have noticed another Japanese export that is steadily trickling into western culture. And it’s more important than fancy fast food: ikigai.

Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means “reason for being.” It is the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. And according to Japanese culture, everybody has ikigai, but must undertake a deep and introspective exploration of the self to find it.

Renowned positive psychology coach Caroline Miller mentions ikigai in her (very good) new book on grit, and it’s also making the rounds online via a series of VENN diagrams. Here is one that popped up in my LinkedIn feed a couple of weeks ago:

Meanwhile, major media outlets including the BBC have lately published whole articles about ikigai—some even purporting that it could be why Japanese people live so long.

Ikigai is certainly a catchy idea. It makes sense that it is resonating with people around the world who are, like me, increasingly trying to achieve more happiness, purpose and authenticity in their lives.

In deciding to be overall more purposeful and intentional with my own career moving forward, I’ve been reading books on topics ranging from effective altruism to goal-setting for lasting happiness. I’ve also been talking to a handful of trusted advisors, mentors and friends. And through this all, I have discovered three particular questions that have helped me better realize my ikigai. Here they are, in no particular order, are 3 surprisingly simple ways that can help you uncover your reason for being:

1. If you could wake up tomorrow with one superpower, what would it be?

I’ll start with a fun one. I asked a good friend of mine, Sandy, this question recently. A dedicated and successful communications professional, she is currently leading PR at a hyper-growth tech startup. She thought about it carefully and answered, “To be able to communicate with anyone around the world with no barriers.”

As we chatted more, she began to realize that this is exactly what she was doing through her work as an artist and entrepreneur. Separate from her day job in PR, Sandy is also a talented muralist and illustrator. And the art business she founded with her partner has really started to take off over the past few years. It turns out that on evenings and weekends Sandy is already living her superpower. Her beautiful artwork cuts through language barriers and lets her and connect with people all over the world. After our conversation she felt more dedicated than ever to keep honing her superpower. I suspect Sandy’s art is more connected to her ikigai than her day job…

Try it out. What would be your superpower? Ask your friends, too. You might be surprised how much you learn.

2. What will you regret most on your deathbed?

According to Bonnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, the top regret dying people have is: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself.” What better way to avoid this than to get true with yourself?

I found a good tactic in approaching this is to prod deeper by asking: What are my proudest accomplishments to date? Really try to scratch beyond the surface with it. As I thought carefully about it, it became apparent that my true proudest accomplishments aren’t necessarily those I have outlined in my resume or LinkedIn profile. Ultimately, when I look at my entire life to date — as a whole — my biggest achievements are inextricably tied to my passion and deepest values: to help the beautiful animals and wildlife we share our planet with. Examples? Trying to help elephants through my latest initiative, Elephants in Japan: In Memory of Hanako. Traveling to the rainforests of Sumatra in 2012 to write a story about the threat to orangutans due to the destruction of the rainforest for palm oil farming.

Those are mine, but others have shared with me accomplishments including raising awesome children to taking bucket list trip or moving to a new city alone. What achievements make you feel that deep sense of warmth and grounding when you think about them?

The types of achievements you are most proud of today are likely the same ones that will stay with you 5 years from now, 10 years from now, and until the end of your life. So, it’s probably a good idea to start doing more of these types of things now.

3. What puts you in flow?

Many people by now are aware of the concept of flow. Introduced by the Hungarian Psychologist ‎Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (you can watch his TED talk on the topic here) flow is essentially a state in which you become so immersed in the activity you are doing, you lose all sense of time and space. It is also referred to by people as being “in the zone.”

In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

This could be when a musician is composing a song or playing to a crowd, or a professional athlete in the midst of a game or competition.

More importantly, Csíkszentmihályi suggests that enhancing the time spent in flow makes our lives more happy and successful. So ask yourself, what puts you in a state of flow? How can you find ways to increase that in your life?

It is for good reason a concept like ikigai is gaining popularity outside Japan’s borders. Having a reason for being not only will make you happier, it might also make you healthier. Studies have found that people who report having a greater sense of purpose and direction in life are less likely to get degenerative illnesses like Alzheimer’s, and are even more likely to outlive their peers.

These days many of us are are busier than ever. With technology like smartphones, distractions abound. But if there’s anything we can learn from stats like these, it is to take step back, take a time out, and get more ‘strategic’ about what life should be about.

I hope these questions help you better tap into your ikigai. They did for me. And if anything, they make good dinner conversation fodder. Perhaps even over a bowl of ramen.

Let me know what you come up with!

Ulara Nakagawa

Written by

Founder @ www.elephantsinjapan.com Ex-editor @diplomat_apac+ comms @hootsuite. Works to inform, inspire and ignite others to better the lives of animals.