Ikigai, Logotherapy and Gestalt Therapy

As mentioned in my blog post Ikigai Sources & Ikigai-kan, Kamiya’s explanation of ikigai and ikigai-kan references Viktor Frankl's ‘sense of meaning’ that he wrote about in his celebrated book Man’s Search For Meaning. 

Frankl was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and author, perhaps most famous for also being a Holocaust survivor. In the mid-20th century, he founded his own school of psychotherapy, logotherapy, which explores existential and humanistic psychology theories.

Contemporary psychologist and ikigai coach Dr Katharina Stenger also sees close links between ikigai and logotherapy, as well as another form of humanistic therapy called Gestalt therapy. 

As Dr. Stenger explains below in extracts from a conversation on my podcast, a key similarity amongst these different approaches is their acknowledgement of people as complex beings with many different characteristics and interests – the values, roles and relationships, leisure pursuits, work interests, and other characteristics we have been exploring throughout this chapter. 

Thinking about ikigai through the lens of these psychology approaches can help us integrate these many facets of the ikigai concept:

‘Both logotherapy and Gestalt therapy are part of the humanistic psychology school. Humanistic means that the human – the person – is the centre of the therapy, not the mental disorder. In Gestalt therapy, the human being is always seen in connection with its surroundings. This means as a psychologist, you understand the actions and the beliefs of a person as a complex interaction of experiences, values, beliefs, goals, dreams, etc. And, Gestalt therapy postulates that you are the creator – you are the “Gestalter” in German language – of your own life.

So you have control. You can be active. And you are able to find inner strength if you become conscious of your thoughts and your feelings in the present moment as well as the things that impact you from the outside world. I think that if you can make sense of these special connections between your past experiences, the person you are right now, and the goals that are still ahead of you, you will find purpose in the here and now. And you will feel ikigai. You could say that you can become the source of your ikigai.

In logotherapy, "logos" means purpose or meaning. So there's already ikigai in the name of the psychological approach. Logotherapy states that we are all free on the inside – free to make decisions, to change something in our lives, and to grow as a person every day. The therapy is about becoming conscious of this freedom, and also about taking responsibility for it. It's also about finding your true values and acting according to them, which is similar to ikigai. Logotherapy also says that you should take a step back from yourself every once in a while. At first, I had a hard time understanding that. It means you should try to let go of your status, your expectations, bad influences and stress from outside, and so on. Now I know that this sounds very similar to “releasing yourself” as it is a practice in Japanese traditional arts, right? Like in tea ceremony, for example, or in archery.

Then, both ikigai and logotherapy explain that pain and suffering are a part of life that we have to integrate, rather than to push away or suppress. Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy, was a Holocaust survivor in Germany. He spent a long time in a concentration camp where he lost his wife and almost his entire family. And even after he survived and became successful in his job as a psychologist, he was tormented by existential crises and apathy. But still, he used all of the negative energy in his life that he had to endure to create something so beautiful to help the world heal. That's very inspiring, I think.  I believe there are many connections between humanistic psychology and ikigai.’

Dr. Stenger goes on to explain how ikigai differs from these humanistic approaches in psychology in the perception of purpose and how it plays into our life:

‘This brings me to a difference between ikigai and humanistic psychology. For example, in ikigai, this sense of purpose can be very small, and you can find it on a day-to-day basis. In contrast,  I have the feeling that in Westernised psychology, having a sense of purpose is seen as a bigger thing, like, "What's your Lebenssinn?", as we say in German, “What's your sense in life, your purpose in life?”.  We have this pressure, that is, "Oh, this has to be something big." And I think this is where ikigai can help you to relieve this pressure. When you think smaller and truly appreciate these small things, you will find sense in them too. And I think that's beautiful.’

It is indeed beautiful that we can find a sense of purpose in the small and unburden ourselves with the false belief that purpose can only be found by pursuing ambitious goals or grand plans. This is what can make our day-to-day life feel worth living. This is also a point made by Ken Mogi, who perceives ikigai as a spectrum:

‘My biggest goal probably as a neuroscientist is to understand consciousness and also understand the foundations of creativity. These are big goals but at the same time, I can find joy as you described in the small things, like having a coffee or going for a run every morning or having a chat like this. So spectrum is a really important role, isn't it? It's the spectrum that constitutes our lives and ikigai is no exception.’

Ken Mogi describes how this perception of ikigai allows people to enjoy multiple sources of ikigai-kan – with the added benefit of providing a more robust experience by giving you ‘back-up’ options if, for whatever reason, any of your ikigai sources ‘fail’.

Even if you are just having a bad day or you don't feel a certain ikigai at a particular time, having a spectrum of ikigai means there is always something available that makes life feel worth living.