Ikigai starts with your values. You will feel ikigai if you live in harmony with your values – not those that you have inherited from or been pressured to accept by family, friends, institutions, or society, but those that you have identified for yourself.
If you live in conflict or are forced to compromise your values, then ikigai will remain elusive for you. This means it is important for you to engage in actions that express your values as often as you can. The more you do this, the more ikigai you will feel.
There is a consensus on this amongst all the Japanese authors and researchers I've spoken to or read on the subject of ikigai. Ikigai research pioneer Mieko Kamiya states that ikigai-kan is strongly linked to one's personal values. In his book The Little Book of Ikigai, neuroscientist Ken Mogi asks the reader, ‘What are your most sentimental values?
Ikigai experts like these emphasise the importance of values because it's only when you express your values that you can truly be your authentic self.
What is the authentic self?
This question could lead me down a very long rabbit hole. As such, I would like to offer a Japanese perspective on the self, with the phrase 自分らしい, jibunrashii, which translates to ‘like oneself’ or ‘worthy of oneself’. 自分, jibun, means ‘myself; yourself and oneself’ and らしい, rashi, means ‘-ish; like, typical of ...; appropriate for ...; becoming of’.
Breaking down the word further, 分, bun, means ‘part, portion or share’. We could understand 自分 jibun as your part, your self part. This indicates that your self is a part of something bigger: society.
Identity is derived from being a part of a whole
Japanese understand that their identity is derived from being a part of a whole, and that they belong to various groups in which they are interdependent with others; these interpersonal relationships allow them to feel that they have a proper place in society. In Japan, self-authenticity goes beyond the individual; Japanese know that one cannot be authentic without the help of others, or without being of service to others.
In the West, we often perceive the authentic self as something that we feel only we control, but as we all know, life isn’t easy and can throw challenges at us that put us under stress, often removing us from ourselves and causing us to act out in ways that contradict our values and the self we aspire to be. This suggests that we aren’t always in control of the self.
If we take the Japanese perspective – that the self is not independent but a part of a collective; a part of something bigger, a family, a society – we understand that our sense of self is defined and perhaps to some degree determined by others. Your authentic self is tied to the lives and influence of others. This is why we can lose our sense of self and sometimes even the desire to live when tragedy strikes.
Kamiya described how the collapse of one’s value system – often caused by a traumatic life event – can lead to the loss of ikigai. We could understand the loss of ikigai as the loss of one’s authentic self.
This is brilliantly depicted in Afterlife, a British black comedy television series by Ricky Gervais. Gervais plays Tony, a journalist at a local free newspaper, whose life is torn apart when his wife dies from breast cancer. He contemplates suicide but instead decides to live long enough to punish the world for his wife's death, by saying or doing whatever he wants with no concern for how his words or actions impact others.
Over time, he discovers hope and finds that life is worth living as he slowly forms new relationships. Through these new relationships, Tony is able to express his values, which gives him a sense that life is worth living. He returns to his authentic self.
What are your values?
Many people never stop to reflect on their values – pondering, for example, what they are, where they came from, and whether the expression of these values provides the feeling that life is worth living. It is essential to do this in order to identify ikigai and work towards feeling ikigai-kan, but it can feel a bit intimidating.
There are many tools to facilitate this task, but I recommend the Values in Action (VIA) Character Strengths Survey (viacharacter.org).
It was developed by psychologist Christopher Peterson, one of the founders of the positive psychology movement. It is a free, quick (completion takes under 15 minutes) questionnaire that helps you identify your main interests, skills, and personality traits – what makes you you, and helps you feel engaged with life.
The survey report – or, indeed, the output of whatever profiling tool you might choose to use for this purpose – can help you reflect on whether and how much you're manifesting these characteristics and values in your daily life.As you increasingly align your actions to your values, you will inevitably begin to feel more ikigai.