Ikigai, Life Satisfaction & Happiness

Is your life satisfying?

In my podcast conversations with neuroscientist and ikigai author Ken Mogi, I learned that one can have many sources of ikigai. Mogi told me that he can identify 100 sources of ikigai in his daily life – from his morning cup of coffee and chocolate to his daily run, from researching to having thought-provoking conversations with friends or other researchers.

For Mogi, ikigai is not only found in the pursuit of life-defining goals, but also – and perhaps even more – in the accumulation of little things that give us joy or, to use the term described by Kamiya to express the most fundamental need of ikigai, life satisfaction. 

This phrase is written as 存在充実感,  sonzai-jūjitsu-kan.  存在, sonzai, means ‘existence’ or ‘being’;  充実, jūjitsu means ‘fulfilment’; and 感, kan as you have already learned, means ‘sense’ or ‘feeling’.  Altogether, then, this phrase literally translates to ‘a sense of fulfilment from existing or being’ – what we might call life satisfaction. 

We should take a moment to address the concept of happiness – specifically, what it is, and how it is different from ikigai.

What is happiness?

There is no universally agreed definition of ‘happiness’; most people would be willing to agree that it is a ‘positive emotion’ – but, then again, there is also no universally agreed definition of emotion. Broadly speaking, emotions can be considered psychological states caused by the release and activity of chemicals in the nervous system; the effects of this process typically last no more than 90 seconds, which means that, technically, sensations like happiness are fleeting.

This is why many psychologists prefer to use ‘happiness’ more specifically in the context of shorter-term experiences (e.g., a rush of jubilation after winning a game, a mellow contentment after completing the day’s work), substituting the term ‘well-being’ to describe the feeling of achieving, to use Aristotle’s term, eudaimonia, or ‘flourishing’.

These two timescales are joined up in the definition of happiness provided by positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, who describes it as ‘the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.’

It is challenging to reconcile terms from such different languages and traditions, but it is important to try so that Westerners can understand both the limits and possibilities of the concept of ikigai.

Ikigai = Happiness?

I personally avoid using ‘ikigai’ and ‘happiness’ interchangeably. The sensation is not something momentary or extreme, like joy or bliss; while it can be associated with a sense that life has meaning, there is no guarantee that this feeling will last forever. I argue that ikigai is deeper and more extensive, providing an ethos and means of orienting towards fulfilment and life satisfaction, rather than ensuring that those feelings will be permanent. 

In the West, we tend to associate ‘happiness’ with our achievements – e.g., hitting our goals, getting accolades, and receiving social recognition. While these can be momentarily enjoyable experiences, they do not satisfy our craving for ikigai because they are ultimately somewhat shallow and self-centred, whereas ikigai positions us to explore our potential and engage in a process of self-discovery that eventually allows us to make connections and contributions to the world outside ourselves.

Conflating happiness and ikigai could lead us to chase ego-driven representations of satisfaction, which could lead to a hollow and unfulfilling existence.

Happiness is Fleeting

My own personal experience of studying Buddhism has taught me that happiness is fleeting, and, therefore, not to be overvalued as the be-all and end-all of our existence. One quote I have memorised to remind me to avoid placing too much emphasis on happiness is:

‘Complete happiness is thought to be hazardous because 'the gods' (or Ways of Heaven) will cause whatever is thriving to deteriorate or disappear.’ - Hiroshi Minami