002 – Gordon Mathews On “What Makes Life Worth Living?”

What do you live for? Who do you live for?

We want to live a life that we are proud of, a life worth living. But how do we do that?

In this episode of The Ikigai Podcast, join Nick and Gordon Mathews, as they discuss how ikigai can be a factor that makes life worth living.

Podcast highlights:

Gordon Mathews

Gordon Mathews

Gordon Mathews is an author and professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has written several books including: What Makes Life Worth Living? How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds.

Knowledge about ikigai

Gordon first learned about ikigai while in Japan in the 1980s. He remembers hearing about it from his friend while mountain climbing. His friend explained that it is one’s purpose in life or the feeling of being alive. This encounter sparked his interest in ikigai. He finds it fascinating how it seems to be just a normal term for Japanese people, whereas in the West, there is not one single word that captures this idea.

What makes life worth living?

The title of Gordon’s book, What Makes Life Worth Living, was a question he had been asking himself even before his first visit to Japan. He is a type 1 diabetic and has wondered since childhood whether his life might be shorter and how he could best spend his time. As a teenager, he experimented with psychedelic drugs, which also led him to question what he should do with his life. When he came across the idea of ikigai, it resonated with these questions and offered the perfect opportunity to write a book.

Ikigai has this social dimension. It's what ties you to the social world, it's what ties you to your world. - Gordon Mathews

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Ikigai's Social Dimension

Initially, Gordon's book took shape as his doctoral dissertation—a choice driven by his personal connection to the topic. He strongly believes that ikigai possesses a social dimension, serving as the vital link that connects people to the world, making life meaningful. This may manifest as family, work, hobbies, or religious beliefs.

Life worth living

The process of making his book

Gordon invested considerable effort to bring his book to fruition. He conducted interviews with 104 participants, eventually narrowing his focus to nine pairs, then focused even further on just 10% of the entire conversation. Finding participants from both Japan and the US with similar backgrounds proved to be a challenge, as it was crucial for him to perform a cross-cultural comparison to unveil cultural preferences.

Three main aims

Gordon’s book has three main aims: 

  1. To introduce readers to the Japanese concept of ikigai.

  2. To show ikigai not only as a Japanese cultural concept but also as a cross-cultural concept.

  3. To explore the question, “What makes life worth living?”

Definition of ikigai

Gordon explains that in Japan, ikigai is a relatively specific concept and it has two aspects:

  1. It is what makes people's lives worth living.

  2. The feeling of being alive.

Ikigai changes over time

What I can say in terms of psychological judgement is if you have ikigai, you probably are considerably happier than if you don't, because it's something that you live for. - Gordon Mathews

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Ikigai is something you live for

According to Gordon, individuals who possess ikigai experience greater happiness compared to those without it, as it provides a profound sense of purpose. Ikigai is not static; it evolves over time, influenced by various life circumstances such as having a child, changing careers, or retiring. Each life stage presents its own version of ikigai. While significant life changes like the loss of a loved one or a job can be painful, they also create opportunities to discover new sources of ikigai, ultimately enriching one's life and making it more meaningful.

Mieko Kamiya

Gordon acknowledges the profound impact of Mieko Kamiya, a Japanese author who wrote about ikigai, and shares a memorable quote from her book: “Maybe the only people who really feel ikigai are those people with terminal cancer.” Kamiya proposed this idea because she believed that individuals often become absorbed in the routine of daily life and lose sight of what truly matters. However, if they become aware of their limited time left to live, they may prioritise activities that ignite a sense of vitality and aliveness.

Gordon’s interviews

During his interviews, Gordon had an impactful experience when he spoke with an elderly Japanese man who recounted the loss of his first love during World War II. Though not explicitly expressed, it was evident to Gordon that the man still longed for his first love, and his ikigai stemmed from the dream of a potential reunion. Reflecting on his interviews, Gordon emphasises that individuals genuinely desire to share their personal stories, and through profound conversations, they can discover valuable insights and lessons.

Cross-cultural concept

Gordon explains how people are shaped by cultural and personal fate: they are formed by the family and/or culture they are born into. 

  • People base their ikigai on an array of cultural conceptions: things that they want to achieve or accomplish.

  • Afterwards, whatever their goals may be, they are socially negotiated: other people’s opinions help shape a person’s ikigai.

  • There are the effects of social rules. For example, in Japan there is a rule that married couples pay higher taxes if both spouses work, which often influences one to step back and choose family over work -- which can impact ikigai.

  • On an individual level, people look for a sense of significance, the feeling of being valued and that they matter.

Ikigai negotiation

Nick asserts that social negotiation or ikigai negotiation can be detrimental to ikigai as it compels individuals to prioritize others' opinions over their own desires. Gordon agrees, highlighting that this situation commonly occurs. Consequently, he advises his students that ikigai is a personal affair and stresses the importance of self-awareness to make informed choices aligned with their true desires.

Create your own ikigai

Ikigai is precarious

Gordon mentions that like all things transient, ikigai is precarious. He believes that individuals can indeed lose their ikigai, causing it to vanish. However, having ikigai at some point in their lives is worth it, rather than experiencing none at all.

Just like all things are transient, all ikigai is precarious. It does vanish, it will always vanish at the end of the day. Nonetheless, having it is worth it. - Gordon Mathews

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Ikigai is precarious

Effects of technology on ikigai

Asked about the possible effects of technology on ikigai, Gordon shares that he is grateful for having the internet because it has made the world more convenient and offered more options to people than in previous times. However, having plentiful choices can be problematic because it can be difficult for people to focus on one thing, which may hinder them in finding out what they really want or who they really are.

Protests in Hong Kong

Gordon shares his perspective on the protests in Hong Kong, considering them an illustration of short-term ikigai. Despite the uncertainty and the risks involved, the protesters persist in their fight, driven by their unwavering belief in the cause. Their readiness to sacrifice their lives for something they deem important exemplifies a form of ikigai.


Living a life worth living does not come with a manual; it is a personal journey of self-discovery. Through our daily experiences and interactions with diverse individuals, we gain a deeper understanding of what truly matters to us. This knowledge shapes our ikigai, contributing to a life of significance. The things we value are influenced by our circumstances and may evolve over time. It is an ongoing pursuit of finding happiness and fulfillment as we progress through different stages of life.