The Temporal Dimension of Ikigai

Reflecting on my first year in Japan can generate an array of memories that act as ikigai sources. I can go back to these meaningful moments from the past whenever I want to, mentally relive them, and experience ikigai-kan in the present.

It is a wonderful feeling – and it is an example of how ikigai is not just about engaging in the present, or anticipating the future, but also finding meaning in the past.

The Constituent Elements of Ikigai

This temporal dimension of ikigai was the focus of research undertaken in 2001, by Professor Akihiro Hasegawa, who I interviewed on first episode of my podcast. Hasegawa-sensei has created a model called ‘The Constituent Elements of Ikigai’  to reflect the complex relationships between the things that lead us to feel ikigai (‘objects’, which may be found in the past, present, or future), the experience that results from engaging with these objects (‘feelings’, or ikigai-kan), and what mediates this process – the ‘agent’ (our selves). 

Hasegawa defines ikigai as ‘the workings of the mind’ which integrate the object and the feeling(s) when a person is asked, ‘What is your ikigai?’. In other words, ikigai is a cognitive process that enables us to experience satisfaction and meaning derived from various aspects of our lives.

Akihiro Hasegawa - Constituent Elements of Ikigai

Feeling ikigai with time

In studying people’s experiences of ikigai, Hasegawa was intrigued to find that many felt ikigai-kan when remembering the past – for example, a previous life role or time spent with a friend or family member who had since passed on. 

These could be as meaningful as ikigai objects/sources from the present (e.g., health, hobbies, roles and relationships) and those anticipated for the future (e.g., a grown family, future desirable events, other imaginings). 

As the self agent, we experience ikigai-kan (in the right side of the graphic above) when we can identify our various ikigai sources in the three temporal time frames. To some degree, where the bulk of ikigai lies may depend on age.

If you are young and have your whole life ahead of you, your ikigai sources are likely to be in (the imagination of) the future. On the other hand, if you are older, let's say enjoying retirement, much of your ikigai would be tied to the past - past roles, life milestones and memories of bringing up a family.

Feeling Ikigai in the present 

Regardless of your age, you can of course always find ikigai in the present, in your roles and in the activities you do simply because you enjoy doing them. Having a healthy balance across all three temporal fields is ideal, as it would avoid sacrificing/neglecting present ikigai sources/opportunities and prioritising past or future events that now live only in your mind.

In these temporal dimensions, we have an abundance of ikigai sources to draw ikigai-kan from, thus making life more fulfilling. What is important is having a feeling of agency over our life -- some sense of control and freedom to choose where we pursue our ikigai.

As there are, of course, no set rules on what an individual can define or identify that makes their life worth living, you get to decide for yourself.