Shimei-kan – A Sense of Purpose

What is a sense of purpose? When do you feel a sense of purpose? The Japanese word shimei-kan provides us with some answers.

If we take a closer look at the kanji characters that form the word shimei-kan, 使命感,  使 (shi) is used for the verb 使う(tsukau), meaning ‘to use’, and 命 (mei) means ‘life’. Thus, along with 感 (kan), we could understand shimei-kan as ‘the feeling or a sense of how you use or wish to use the life that has been given to you’.

What is it like to feel a sense of purpose? 

I believe it is subjective, and so the experience may be unique to each of us – though I imagine many people have a sense of excitement and possibility. This may manifest as an increased heart rate or a racing mind. On the other hand, it may be the opposite; we become focused, calm, and methodical in our actions, slowing down and acting with care. A sense of purpose may even compel us to take actions we would rather not perform but feel compelled to pursue because of our values. Personally, I feel a sense of purpose when my creative juices flow while working on a project or problem. I seem to think at a higher level and experience a state of flow. 

Intrinsic Motivation

In the context of ikigai, shimei-kan could be described as intrinsic motivation, where you do an activity for the inherent satisfaction it brings rather than for an external reward. In fact, this is exactly how some Japanese researchers define ikigai itself. For example, Dr Yasuhiro Kotera writes:

‘Our research has identified that people in a success-oriented culture tend to have high extrinsic motivation (a type of motivation that is activated by external rewards such as money and fame) and compromised wellbeing. Conversely, those in a quality-oriented culture tend to have high intrinsic motivation (a type of motivation that is activated by inherent joy and curiosity, where the activity itself is a reward) and higher wellbeing (Kotera, Van Laethem, & Ohshima 2020). These findings indicate that ikigai is deemed to be more associated with the quality-oriented nature and intrinsic motivation. Relatedly, Mogi reports that he experiences about 100 pieces of ikigai in his daily life: in having a cup of his favourite coffee, listening to his favourite music, reading and writing research papers, etc. He argues that not experiencing these moments in one’s life can result in lower wellbeing and health (Mogi, 2017), and that these effects are not limited to Japanese people.’

100 Sources of Ikigai

We can take inspiration from Mogi and identify 100 sources of ikigai to enjoy and appreciate in our day-to-day living. As a start, here are 10 of mine: brotherly banter and play fights with my son, surprising my wife with little acts of kindness, catching up with old friends, having meaningful conversations with my Ikigai Tribe members, creating riffs on my guitar, researching ikigai, sharing cuddles and purrs with my cat, listening to classic rock music, exercising, and reliving memories of my first stay in Japan.

All these activities give me both the feeling of ikigai and a sense of purpose. For example, when I am being a playful and loving father I have a sense I am connecting with and communicating to my son, expressing my affection to him so that he feels and knows that he is loved. I hope from these interactions that he will know that he can always turn to me for help or for a sympathetic ear – that no matter what happens in the future he can reach out to me without fear or worry. I am expressing the values that matter to me, which come naturally to me, through certain behaviours -- hugs, playful banter, and meaningful conversation. These behaviours are life affirming and make me feel I have a purpose -- I feel I am conveying a message of care and support to someone I love.

A sense of purpose

Feel is the key word here. It is how you feel that matters, not what you achieve. Living a life that we feel is worth living is one of the best indications that we are living with purpose – something described by Yohei Nakajima who believes that finding your ikigai is the most honourable and rewarding thing one can do. 

‘I think it's about a sense of purpose, feeling a sense of purpose. I specifically say “feeling a sense of purpose” separate from “purpose” because it is used casually. I can imagine being on a fishing boat with a friend and seeing the waves and seeing the sun and catching a fish and looking over and saying, “Wow, this really gives me a sense of ikigai!” It is this sense of purpose, of living in a moment that makes you feel alive. That's what I think ikigai is about. It's the sense of having a purpose and a sense of living, a sense of being present. I think for some people it can tie to your actual purpose in life if you do find one, but I don't think it has to be that by any means.’

Purpose can be derived not only from employment, reward (i.e., payment), or something grandiose – and if you focus only on these things, you will find yourself limited in your ability to feel purpose or ikigai-kan. 

The all-or-nothing fallacy 

This is a different take on purpose than the one we typically have in the West, where we tend to aim high, associating purpose only with the pursuit and achievement of big goals. This can result in adopting an all-or-nothing attitude, which neuroscientist Ken Mogi warns against:

‘I suspect with some people, maybe, they are aiming too high from the beginning, it's all or nothing. And if they cannot really win big they don't feel like it's worth it to try. But I am someone who really thinks it's okay to just do small things even if you don't achieve anything. Because it doesn't really matter. Social evaluation or utility functions of the things that you do is a bonus, it's not the main reward. The main reward is something that you define for yourself so even if nobody else recognizes your action and pats you on your shoulder and says “You have done a good job”. Even if nobody does that I am fine because I define my own utility function, my own reward.’

You can embrace this casualness that both Nakajima and Mogi describe, seeking a sense of purpose simply by being present during the small tasks you do regularly – the activities you enjoy, your daily maintenance routines, the things that make you feel alive.