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Purpose isn’t enough - Embrace Your Ikigai

“The graveyard is the richest place on earth, because it is here that you will find all the hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled, the books that were never written, the songs that were never sung, the inventions that were never shared, the cures that were never discovered, all because someone was too afraid to take that first step, keep with the problem, or determined to carry out their dream.” Les Brown (motivational speaker, author and US politician)

One of the truths that binds the human race together, regardless of culture, race, gender, age or ethnicity is no-one has all the answers. On a deep and fundamental level we all strive to understand purpose, the meaning for it all. Across our evolution and cultural growth this fact has given rise to popular religion, political ideologies and unique cultural norms/behaviours. Whilst commonality and cohesion is hugely important, what happens if we actually start to given credibility to the idea that there is no ‘one size fits all solution’? There is no common purpose that we all possess. Sure, there are shared responsibilities; ecologically and socially we each have a responsibility to each other and those that come after us to ensure our behaviour is supportive, beneficial and provides for a common longevity. However this is not purpose. It is responsibility.

Purpose is more than this, it is the why behind the what. It is the drive that gets us out of bed in the morning. Whilst many will share what appears to be a common purpose, questioned individually it becomes evident that the individual interpretation of this ‘common purpose’ is very different. In the end we are all products of individual experiences, interpretations, actions and reactions. We all have a different weighting of priority and attribute value in an unique, individualistic manner. Purpose can then only ever be an individual drive, your emotional drive, interpretation, self belief and personal value set is your own. The question is why do the majority of us never recognise our purpose? Why, as Les Brown suggests, do we retire with a raft of unfilled hopes and dreams? These hopes and dreams are the tangible, physical manifestation of that purpose and yet we either never recognise them or pursue avenues that don’t ever quite fulfill them.

In 1999, the British Geriatrics Society published a article by Noriyuki Nakanishi entitled ‘Ikigai on older Japanese People’ (Source: This article detailed the plan of the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare to introduce a programme encouraging a healthy lifestyle and sense that life is worth living (ikigai), to their rapidly increasing elderly population (Source: National Health Promotion Active 80 Health Plan). ‘Ikigai’ was suggested to contribute to health in older people, “being linked to creativity and being indispensable to well-being.”

Ikigai (pronounced ‘icky guy’) is used to describe and indicate the source of value within an individual’s life. It essentially is used to refer to, “the mental and spiritual circumstances under which individuals feel that their lives are valuable.” Ikigai is the individual purpose for the future, a personal reflection of the inner self. Ikigai behaviours are spontaneous, neither forced or actions contrary to the will of the individual. As the article suggests, ikigai is,

“It (ikigai) establishes a unique mental world in which the individual can feel at ease.”

This article further suggested that people may find ikigai in one or more aspects of their life, proposing that there were seven needs associated with ikigai (Source Ikigai-ni-tsuite, Kamiya 1966):

the need for a fulfilling existence

the need for change and growth

the need for future perspectives

the need for self actualisation

the need for receiving responses

the need for freedom

the need for significance and value

These needs are fundamentally reflective of the desires of a human being; physically, socially and spiritually.

The popularity of this term ‘ikigai’ was further supported and driven by Akihiro Hasewaga, a clinical psychologist, in a 2001 research paper (Source:

Hasegawa, related the term to happiness although also determined that there was a subtle difference between the two. Ikigai has a perspective towards the future, whilst happiness is very much concerned with the present state. Hasegawa through research also linked the concept of ikigai with everyday life, determining that Japanese people believe that the sum of small joys everyday ultimately result in a more fulfilling life as a whole. Ikigai, is then both life’s purpose and everyday life combined.

Across the past few years much has been written and suggested regarding the concept of ikigai, the venn diagram below often being the conceptualisation that most people associate with the idea:

In this representation ikigai is the intersection between four fundamental qualities:

What you are good at

What you love

What the world needs

What you can be paid for

The idea and drive here is that for ikigai to be existent, each of the four qualities needs to be present. However there is a fundamental difference between this and the Japanese idea. An individual’s ikigai may have nothing to do with income. Sure, money and means are fundamental to survival in modern societies, however the value in one’s life may be related to work, however is it certainly not limited to that factor.

Author Dan Buettner, (Source: Blue Zones:9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, 2008) suggests that many of the cultures across the globe who have the highest volume of elderly people, possess an ikigai type of concept within their psyche. (The actual word to describe may not exist in the culture, however the broad principles are common). Buettner suggests from his research that ikigai (or the principles of purpose) are based on three common qualities:

your values

the things you like doing

the things you are good at

He further suggests that the intersection of these three fundamental areas is your ikigai. However, in Japan there is an understanding that ikigai is also about feeling that your work makes a difference. Ikigai, is about contributing and understanding that what it is you do makes a difference to the lives and well-being of others.

One final point, returning to Les Brown quote here,

“To sit on an idea or fail to act on a goal is not really goal-setting, but wishful thinking.”

Understanding your ikigai is not enough, there is a requirement for action. Ikigai is malleable, it can change overtime and should be something that is revisited and refreshed. However knowing a purpose, setting a goal or identifying a path is relatively meaningless unless you live that purpose, undertake action to achieve that goal or start the journey along that path. Action provides purpose, live your purpose through what you do.

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