Ikigai: How Purpose is Essential to Happiness

Ikigai mean purpose
Purpose – *photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/akira_1972/


It’s the big day. Today you leave on your dream vacation. All expenses paid to a tropical paradise. Your bags are packed and waiting, your plane leaves in just a few hours, and in no time, you’ll be strolling the beaches, sand in your toes, sun on your face and an exotic drink in hand. You awake before your alarm goes off, pop out of bed, and head for the shower.

Contrast this.

Your alarm clock is blaring. It’s time to go to work. You reflect on the problems that await you, and the incompetent boss who will be there to hound you as soon as you arrive. You hit snooze and settle back into your warm bed. If only you could just stay where you are. You’re so tired.

Sadly, for most people the second scenario occurs much more often than the first. But the reality is that the scenario is identical in both cases. You’ve woken up and are anticipating the day. The difference is our perception of the future. In the first, we anticipate something good to come and it brings happiness. In the second we anticipate something bad and it brings something closer to dread.[Tweet ” “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” Friedrich Nietzsche”]

The good news is that things always change. Change is the one constant. Our task is to begin to nudge our lives in such a way as to wake up feeling like we would in the first scenario.

A key element in achieving this is having what the Japanese call ikigai, or the French call raison d’etre.

The people of Okinawa Japan have a particular claim to fame. It is their longevity. They are amongst those who live in the so called Blue Zones, places where typical lifespans are well above average. One of the characteristics of the people of Okinawa is called ikigai. In it’s simplest definition it means having a purpose in life.

Finding a purpose can be notoriously difficult. We have this idea that a purpose in life should be some grand mission. Something that will make them want to build a statue in your honor. Something that will make you famous.

In truth, a purpose can be quite simple. It can be to spend time with people you really enjoy being with. It can be a hobby that gives you personal satisfaction, whether it be working on puzzles or building your own airplane. It doesn’t matter that it is world changing.

Here’s a few clues to help you find a purpose.

If you can stand a few expletives, Mark Manson has some suggestions but his first is my favorite. What are you willing to suffer for? A long distance endurance runner is willing to endure tremendous physical discomfort for long periods. A writer is willing to sit at a computer, researching, writing, re-writing, editing, stretching their minds until it hurts, in a struggle to find the right words, and ideas. It’s just a fact that life involves some suffering. Better to suffer toward a satisfaction, rather than for nothing.[Tweet “Better to suffer toward a satisfaction, rather than for nothing.”]

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits suggests getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things, or as he puts it, “get outside your personal bubble.” I used to say I had a new hobby every week, or $300 into it, whichever came first. I’ve tried a lot of things over the years. After a while, I noticed patterns. In those patterns are clues to a purpose that may make getting up in the morning a little more exciting.

Here’s my 2 cents worth. What are you willing to really work at and not get paid for? If it requires real effort, and you find yourself doing it without a financial reward, I would think you may be on to something.

The Japanese believe that everyone has an ikigai. Find yours. Here’s wishing you a long and happy life.



  1. So often people confuse purpose with a profession and they spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to make a meaningless job mean something. Purpose is what excites you, what gets you out of bed in the morning, and yes…what you’d willingly do if no one were paying you for it. Great post, Archie!

    1. Well put Melody! Our lives can also become defined by our “purpose” or “profession”. With the former, it can lead to joy, but with the latter, to a life of drudgery. Thanks again.

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