The Power of Small Joys

There is a lot of joy to be found in the small things of everyday life if we have the mind to notice them and the heart to feel them.

This was something that I observed when I first moved to Japan and went out to eat with my Japanese friends. Whether they were eating a bowl of cheap ramen noodles or a small sliver of cheesecake, the glee on my friends’ faces and their expressions of appreciation for the food they had just eaten took me by surprise almost to the point of bemusement.

For someone who was often wondering how to score a second slice of cheesecake while still eating his first, I was beginning to learn how to find the maturity and presence of mind to fully enjoy my dining experience.

Ikigai starts from very small things

I continue to take lessons on this from my wife, who is masterful at finding joy in the little things and who often keeps my ambitious, externally motivated self in check. Indeed, for the Japanese, this is often where ikigai is found: As Ken Mogi shared with me, ‘Ikigai starts from very small things, like just having a cup of coffee.’

Mogi is touching on the appreciation of sensory pleasure. As he writes in The Little Book of Ikigai, to appreciate the small joys of life, you need to take the time to be in the moment. A morning cup of coffee is a great example. 

I used to make the mistake of drinking my morning coffee in front of my computer. After 30 minutes of preparing blog content or replying to emails, I would often find that my cup was still full and I hadn’t taken a sip; I wasn’t even managing to drink it, let alone appreciate it. 

Now, I make my morning cup of coffee a ritual. On most days, I will take the drink to my back deck so I can enjoy the warmth of the cup in my hands, the smell of the aroma, and the taste of each sip as I listen to the birds tweet and flutter about, and feel the morning sun’s rays bathe my body.

The accumulation of small joys

It’s these little rituals, this accumulation of small joys, that make our daily life worth living – and this is something that everyone can tap into to create more life satisfaction. Mogi described how he creates ikigai in his life by turning small actions into pleasurable rewards:

‘So ikigai is all about making these small actions into pleasurable rewarding experiences. You can start from your morning chore of taking a cup of coffee and chocolate. I personally do that every morning and then I immediately start doing some writing or reading in the morning and my day just goes on and on without resting or having an inactive period because I can do that because I'm in an almost constant state of flow.’

As a neuroscientist, Mogi can’t help but apply his knowledge of the human brain to the ikigai concept. He says that ikigai is proactive – in the sense of being ‘pro-active’ and emerging from the actions that we take. Mogi explains this unusual statement by describing the relationship between ikigai and dopamine.

The relationship between ikigai and dopamine

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that mediates pleasure in the brain, is sparked by stimuli such as taste, smell, sound, and the elements. Even something like a cold shower, as unpleasant as it might be at the time, can make you feel alive and experience a rush of pleasure once you get out of it.  That's what ikigai is about: involving yourself in a series of actions that result in the secretion of dopamine and the subsequent experience of ikigai-kan. Mogi says:

‘Dopamine is really proactive. You really need to take some action to release it, so that's the beauty of it. After all, practising ikigai is involving yourself in a series of actions.’5

This insight inspired me to think beyond my morning cup of coffee and create a whole morning routine of dopamine-releasing activities to feel ikigai. Rather than racing headlong into action, thinking I have to crush it or win the morning, I instead take the time to stretch, have a cold shower, and play the guitar (or even air guitar if I choose to listen to one of my favourite rock songs) in addition to enjoying my morning brew in the sun.

If we understand that ikigai lives in small things -- which are generally easier to accomplish -- we can stop deluding ourselves into thinking it only results from the achievement of something grandiose -- which is much harder and less likely for us to achieve. This view makes ikigai more accessible in our day-to-day lives and shows how even seemingly banal moments can be meaningful. As Mogi explains in his book:

‘Ikigai does not come from a single value system. It is not written in the orders of god. It comes from the rich spectrum of small things, none of which serves a grandiose purpose in life by itself.’

The joy of small interactions

Now, I would certainly not consider my role as a father as a small thing, but my relationship with my son comprises many small interactions –  e.g., a greeting in the morning, an occasional hug I’ll steal during the day, engaging in playful banter together, offering occasional guidance when he asks for it, expressing my love for him (in words or actions) – and being open to these small things may allow me to experience ikigai-kan from this relationship.

We can benefit from shifting our focus away from chasing material success, instead focusing on being present and savouring more of these small joys in our day. This will inevitably lead to a greater sense of appreciation and fulfilment – and appreciating these small moments of joy is the key to feeling ikigai.

In fact, it may soon strike you how easy it can be to access ikigai-kan if you simply remain open to the many little moments that collectively make up each day.