In her work with the Aisei-en lepers on Nagashima Island, Mieko Kamiya found that the experience of ikigai-kan, the feeling of ikigai, depended on seven conditions – or, to use her word, seven ‘needs’.
This is expressed in Japanese as yokkyu, and in kanji it is written as 欲求. The first character, 欲 (yoku), represents ‘desire’, ‘craving’, and ‘want’; and the second character, 求 (kyu), comes from the verb 求める (motomeru), meaning ‘to request’, ‘to demand’, or ‘to ask for’.
Psychologist Ronald Miller articulates how we could understand what the combination of these two kanji characters represents:
‘A need is the lack of something experienced as essential to the purpose of life, it expresses itself as suffering, if the person is aware of the existence of a way to stop suffering, the need expresses itself as a desire.’
The seven needs identified by Kamiya are:
- life satisfaction
- change and growth
- a bright future
- and meaning and value.
Not all survey participants from Aisei-en sanitarium required all seven needs, and different patients required different combinations of needs to experience ikigai-kan. Overall, however, these seven needs were consistently the most desired amongst the patients she studied.
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Kamiya viewed life satisfaction as being the most fundamental need. It can be met when someone feels that their life is moving in a better direction or toward a better state. She suggested that extroverts can satisfy the need for a sense of fulfilment by being proactive in life, doing many tasks, and having many relationships, while introverts can find life satisfaction in private pursuits that may seem trivial to those around them and tend to limit their relationships to family.
While I am the extrovert in my marriage, juggling many activities and building many new connections, my wife finds plenty of life satisfaction in her private pursuits of various crafts and quirky hobbies that she keeps to herself. In both cases, we enjoy a sense of fulfilment.
Kamiya also noted that negative states of mind and emotions like fear, anxiety, and resentment can sabotage life satisfaction and lead us astray.
Change and Growth
Kamiya wrote that a sense of fulfilment is closely linked to the desire for change. As humans, we have a desire for new experiences. Boredom can indicate a poor mental health state, where one feels their life has become stale. As a result, the need for change becomes desirable. Kamiya argued that we want to avoid stagnation and boredom, and instead grow – which can only be achieved when we embrace change.
A Bright Future
The need for a bright future refers to one’s expectation that life will unfold in a new direction. If you genuinely believe your life is moving in a positive new direction then this need is satisfied, helping you get through daily struggles and deal with negative life events. Kamiya pointed out the importance of setting and pursuing both short-term achievable goals and long-term life-defining ambitions in order to effectively satisfy this need.
Resonance is the need to feel that what one is doing connects with one’s surroundings. This need is really about social affiliation, the desire to build and maintain meaningful interpersonal relationships and to be treated by others in an accepting manner. Kamiya believed that dedicating oneself to a significant other and expressing and reciprocating love is one sure way to satisfy this need.
Kamiya wrote that the relationship between freedom and ikigai-kan is like that between air and breathing, in that it is indispensable – and we often can't tell how much it's needed until it goes missing. She related the need for freedom with the feeling of agency and autonomy, stating that despite the many restrictions of life, we must realise that as humans we are given the freedom of choice.
To add to this, Kamiya also noted that we sometimes choose not to be free in the present for the sake of our freedom in the future – and that we can also sacrifice our own freedom for the sake of someone else. As these are choices we may make, they are expressions of freedom, where we are freely choosing inconvenience. Kamiya also noted that the responsibility of freedom can drive us to run away from making these choices.
To satisfy this need, one must dedicate themselves to one cause, a personal mission, that they feel in some way they are obligated to pursue and that they feel is unique to them – something that only they can do.
The need for self-actualization is where our most unique ikigai comes to life. Kamiya believed that it is not only people with special talents that make unique contributions to various aspects of culture. Rather, this was possible even for those who pursue ‘modest literary activities, weaving and cooking’, all of which can be done uniquely by any one person.
Simply put, self-actualization is the joy of creativity. Kamiya stated that to create something new that has not existed before becomes an emblem of one's own life and a confirmation of the meaning of one's own life that leads to the seventh ikigai need: meaning and value.
Meaning and Value
Kamiya postulated that every human being has a desire or need to feel meaning and value in their life, and that this urges people to constantly reflect on, and justify the meaning of, their life. According to Kamiya, whether we know it or not, we are constantly asking the meaning of our life in every experience. We may receive a variety of answers, but if they are not ultimately ‘life-affirming,’ we won’t be able to experience ikigai-kan.
For example, people with a deep religious faith often feel that God provides the answers to their most important questions; this gives their life meaning and value. Likewise, highly social individuals may find meaning and value in the acceptance of other people. In contrast to this, there are people who have a hard time discovering meaning and value in their own lives – perhaps because they struggle with a sense of inferiority and/or cannot accept the affirmation of others.
Kamiya noted there were many people who could not answer when asked, ‘what are your sources of ikigai?’, believing, as she observed, that they were less likely to become fully aware of their ikigai sources and corresponding ikigai-kan because they were so deeply embedded in their everyday lives.
On the occasions when people did consciously reflect on these two aspects of ikigai, Kamiya identified ‘four major questions’10 that people tended to ask themselves:
- ‘What am I living for? Or, by whom am I needed?’
- ‘What is a life goal unique to me? Am I doing my best to achieve it?’
- ‘Overall, do I deserve to exist?’
- ‘In general, is life worth living?’
As we age and come to understand the precariousness of life, we tend to face these or similar existential questions more frequently. I have often asked such questions over the course of my life, in particular ‘What is a life goal unique to me?’. I haven’t always had the answers, but I think allowing myself the freedom to explore them has been helpful and led me to where I am today.
As life often gets in the way we can fail to ask these questions by being preoccupied with our immediate everyday tasks. We may also avoid these questions as we feel intimidated or lacking if we don’t have the answers.
Having clear answers to the questions is perhaps not what is important. But rather reflecting on them and contemplating possible answers is likely to help us understand our meaning and value. As these questions help us understand who we are, Kamiya noted that they are also asked during adolescence when a person is developing his or her sense of self.
Kamiya’s research suggested that ikigai-kan results from satisfying some combination of these seven needs – and, in some cases, some additional needs that may interact with this core group to bring fulfilment.
I make it a practice to think about which of these seven needs am I lacking. I find it helpful to start by focusing on one and then move on to another rather than trying to satisfy all seven at once.