Yarigai – What is Worth Doing?

If there is one phrase in Japanese that you should memorise and use as a daily mantra, it is this: 

Yarigai ga aru.

  • Yaru is a verb meaning ‘to do’, so yarigai means ‘something worth doing’. 
  • Aru means ‘is’ or ‘exists’, and ga acts as a subject marker. 

Thus, the phrase yarigai ga aru indicates that something holds value or is worth doing. The expression yarigai ga aru is far more common in Japanese conversation than the word ikigai. 

The common usage of the word yarigai helps Japanese people make sense of their daily life activities and challenges and guides them to do things that are worthwhile; it also supports them in appreciating the efforts of others and gives them motivation for future challenges.

What is worth doing?

Often the things in our daily life that are worth doing are challenges – the things we don't want to do but know we should. This could be getting up early in the morning and braving the cold to exercise outside, spending several hours a night studying a subject or a language instead of enjoying a movie or computer game, or taking the time to listen to your partner or children when you are tired and just want to switch off.

We could see these tasks as little ‘chores’ worth doing. In the context of daily living, they quickly add up and have a compound effect on wellbeing: In the first instance, you achieve something worthwhile (e.g., becoming healthier through exercise, as per the example above), and in the second, you feel the satisfaction associated with overcoming the hurdle associated with each task. 

Ikigai-kan

Adversity can lead to ikigai-kan, the feeling of ikigai, as it helps you uncover what you are capable of, and therefore brings you closer to understanding who you are. This is reflected in the comments of Japanese researchers, authors, workers, and students, who, in their conversations with me, indicated that yarigai was strongly associated with a sense of personal growth.

They also indicated that they had a stronger sense of yarigai-kan, ‘the feeling that something is worth doing’, when they felt they were of service to, and meaningfully contributed to the lives of others in their social sphere. Thus, in the midst of day-to-day living, you can experience the cumulative, life-changing magic of yarigai.  

Mieko Kamiya's Research

Mieko Kamiya’s research revealed that ikigai is found not by avoiding difficulties but by trying to find meaning and value in the challenges that life throws at you. Those of her leprosy patients who took this approach – who saw their challenges as worth pursuing (yarigai ga aru) – ultimately found a sense of hope in their lives, and a reason for being.  

One of Kamiya’s study subjects who had not lost the joy of living despite his condition and context was a blind man who had lost all his fingers. Having the desire to learn the harmonica, he started to read musical scores in braille, relying on his lips and tongue – the only parts that were left for him to sense.

Reading braille to the point where his lips and tongue bled, he eventually became proficient with the harmonica, developing musical bonds with other patients that led to the formation of a music ensemble that performed concerts in - and even outside of the institution. For this man, playing the harmonica was a source of ikigai and so the practice of reading braille held yarigai despite the discomfort and pain he experienced.

Will it generate Ikigai-kan?

Rather than evaluating activities and opportunities in your life as ‘enjoyable’, ‘difficult’ or ‘unpleasant’, it will be far more beneficial for you to frame things as either ‘worth doing’ or ‘not worth doing’. Remember yarigai as a mantra to help you make sound decisions that will generate more ikigai-kan. 

For example, maybe watching Netflix tonight would be worth doing because it would be enjoyable and entertaining – we all need to disengage every once in a while. However, if watching Netflix becomes something you do every night out of habit more than anything else, you may want to question whether it is actually contributing to your ikigai. 

The accumulation of your yarigai activities will contribute to the intensity of your ikigai-kan. The more activities you do that hold yarigai, the more you will feel ikigai. 

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