Ikigai Explained by a Neuroscientist

I must address a conundrum: ikigai scholars, and even Japanese themselves, hold contradictory opinions on ikigai – particularly on the issue of how much we can experience or hold at any one time. This make explaining the concept a challenge. 

While author and neuroscientist scientist Ken Mogi tells us that ikigai can be a rich and multifaceted spectrum of what makes life worth living, anthropologist and author Gordon Mathews believes that you are not being honest with yourself if you say you have more than one, and instead are trying to diversify just to hedge your bets. 

In his book, Mathews explores conflicting concepts of ikigai, sharing a range of views translated from books and newspaper articles. One perspective he includes is that of psychiatrist and author Tsukasa Kobayashi, who argues that ikigai is only felt when one moves towards self-realisation:

‘Some people say,"My work is my ikigai". But these people are confusing hatarakigai [the sense that one's work is worth doing] with ikigai [the sense that one's life is worth living]. Some people hold that gētobōru [“gateball,” croquet, the stereotypical pastime of old people in Japan] or raising chrysanthemums, or writing haiku is their ikigai; but that's just asobigai [play that is worth doing], not ikigai [the sense that one's life is worth living]. Real ikigai is more than that… People can feel real ikigai only when, on the basis of personal maturity, the satisfaction of various desires, love and happiness, encounters with others, and a sense of value of life, they proceed towards self-realisation.’ 

As this passage shows, ikigai is not the only word Japanese use when talking about the things they value in life. In addition to the hatarakigai and asobigai mentioned in the previous quote, for instance, there are also yarigai, manabigai and oshiegai – all things that have ‘value’ or ‘worth’, as shown by the use of the suffix -gai.

Ken Mogi argues that ikigai is actually an umbrella term for all of these (and more), which integrate in a coherent way in our day-to-day living to bring us joy and meaning. 

Ikigai Explained as a Spectrum

Defining ikigai in this inclusive and accessible way opens the door to feeling more gai, offering a much broader range of opportunities to explore, enjoy, and appreciate this sensation – and having more gai in all areas of your life will result in more ikigai-kan for you to feel. Rather than over-emphasising one particular domain of life at the expense of others, for example, work, we need to find a healthy balance whereby we enjoy ikigai-kan from a range of different sources, both big and small.

I share Mogi’s opinion that ikigai is a spectrum and we can appreciate the abundance of ikigai that life offers us.

'There are many ways to define Ikigai. One way put it is to say that Ikigai is the reason you get up in the morning. It could be something very small like having a cup of coffee and a chocolate. And something that makes your day go on. That is Ikigai.....

On the other hand – Ikigai can be a life-defining, very big goal, like going to Mars or winning the Nobel Prize or becoming the Prime Minister of a country. So Ikigai can be something small or something big. So in a nutshell, Ikigai is a spectrum. And the complexity of Ikigai actually reflects the complexity of life itself.

My biggest goal probably as a neuroscientist is to understand consciousness and also understand the foundations of creativity. These are big goals but at the same time, I can find joy as you described in the small things, like having a coffee or going for a run every morning or having a chat like this. So spectrum is a really important role, isn't it? It's the spectrum that constitutes our lives and ikigai is no exception.’

Mogi describes how this perception of ikigai allows people to enjoy multiple sources of ikigai-kan – with the added benefit of providing a more robust experience by giving you ‘back-up’ options if, for whatever reason, any of your ikigai sources ‘fail’. Even if you are just having a bad day or you don't feel a certain ikigai at a particular time, having a spectrum of ikigai means there is always something available that makes life feel worth living. 

On my podcast, Mogi shared with me, ‘Ikigai starts from very small things, like just having a cup of coffee.’

‘Ikigai starts from very small things, like just having a cup of coffee.’ - @kenmogi

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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.

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.’

Ikigai and Dopamine

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.

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.’ - @kenmogi

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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.

Ikigai lives in the small things

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.’ - @kenmogi

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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.