004 – Finding Ikigai in Leisure with Shintaro Kono

Nick: In this episode, I’m speaking to Professor Shintaro Kono and Shin, you’re an associate professor at the University of Alberta in Canada, in the department of kinesiology, sport and recreation. You’re also an expert in leisure behavior science. Thanks for coming on the show.

Shin: Thanks Nick for inviting. I’m happy to join here today. Just a quick note, I’m not an associate professor and assistant professor. That’s what I’m working on. That’s good. That’s what I’m dreaming about, being an associate professor and getting tenure and all, but it’s good to hear sometimes.

Nick: I’m sure you’ll get there.

Shin: Thank you. No problem.

Nick: Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you go from being born and living in Japan to being an assistant professor at the University of Alberta?

Shin: Sure. Well, I was born and raised in Japan for 21 years. I did my bachelor degree in Japan at Tokai University. That’s the only university I think even now that has a department of sports and leisure management. Anything to do with the leisure specifically. I went to do my master’s degree in Illinois Urbana-Champaign. That’s what I did. The degree was about the recreation sports and tourism. I found this a supervisor, my doctoral supervisor, his name is Gordon Walker. He retired recently, but he was working at the University of Alberta. I liked his work about leisure and wellbeing, and some of the cultural differences too. Honored me for Ph.D. and that’s how I ended up being at the University of Alberta. Yeah, that’s how I got here.

Nick: Why did you choose leisure as your focus of study?

Shin: I think one of the reasons is that when I was choosing my major when I was a high school student, I wanted to do something that’s not common. Not like psychology, sociology, economists that the other people were doing. I wanted to be unique. And at first I wanted to do sport psychology actually and coaching and all that kind of stuff, and I went to this, what is called, open campus. That’s an event where high schoolers can go and sample their lecturers and professors and see if the degree is fit for you.

I did that with Tokai and their sports psychology was not really good fit for me because I was not a great athlete, which is a prerequisite. I was okay, but I was not great. I happened to attend this lecture by my bachelor degree supervisor actually to be. His name is Dr. Shin Nishino and he got a degree from Illinois too, a Ph.D. But anyway, he talked about leisure and this new field, and he talks about Disney and all the sports and tourism and events and stuff, and I got just hooked in a way and inspired.

Nick: It sounds a good area to study, leisure. It must be fun doing a lot of case studies.

Shin: I see it as that we talk about many other things in work especially, how we can be more productive and we can make the quality of life better. Work/life balance if you will. Where we don’t really talk about leisure, we talk about leisure as in recover from the stress and being tired from work and then get back to your work. The focus here is the work. But really, I hope that we actually work, most of us at least, work to live, not have a leisure to work. I’m happy to study leisure and that’s what I keep doing. Telling people that leisure is important.

Nick: Certainly is important. Let’s relate this to ikigai, which is the subject of this podcast. Ikigai is greatly misunderstood outside of Japan with people believing it to be a framework of doing something that you love, that you’re good at, that the world needs and that you can get paid for. How would you define ikigai?

What is Ikigai?

Shin: Ikigai in Japanese means two things. One is the feeling that you have a life worth living. The other aspect is that contributors, something that make you feel that way. Those are things that tend to be more tangible in a way. They are activities. That could be work too. It can be work, it can be hobby still. It can be a relationship. It can be your community, organization, relationship with an organization. Things that too.

There are two aspects. One is the feeling of it. The other one is what I call sources of ikigai. In terms of feeling, I would say the very, very central to ikigai is what I call life affirmation, but the feeling that you have a life that’s worth living. What I want to emphasize here is that it’s not about… Life here is not about this metaphoric idea, metaphysical idea of life as a philosophy. It’s not how many dozens of years. It’s about daily life. That life you have now today or maybe this week or this month. It tends to be very short term. I ask and survey, but is this worth living? You get up, you want to get going with it, or you feel like, “Oh no, today I woke up, I have to do this.” You’re hesitant and you’re not motivated, sort of thing. That’s the center part of ikigai feeling.

Nick: In your study, as you just previously mentioned, you touch on ikigai sources. I guess, the things we can identify. It could be in my case, maybe I could say it’s my son and then what you’d define as ikigai perception of which are feelings I would have as being a father and my relationship with my son and the things I experience from my relationship with my son.

Shin: Yes, exactly. That your life is meaningful. That somehow valuable, and it’s not valuable in a sense that it can be translated into money or something, but it’s just then you personally, subjectively you value it. That’s why it matters. It doesn’t really matter. I mean, it should be applicable to whether you have a job or not. You can theoretically not have a job, but still you can feel that your life is worth living. And also many other sociodemographic characteristics. Of course the million dollar question to me is that how those two things are related to each other. In what mechanisms? Because we want to identify those sources of ikigai and we want to understand the mechanism from that to the perception of ikigai feelings so then we can increase the feelings of ikigai. That’s what I try to do and my argument here is that leisure is one of those and a lot of people think work is ikigai, leisure’s a big chunk of ikigai as well.

Nick: You think it would be, especially once people retire and I guess when people retire, if they’ve had children, at that age the children will probably be independent. I guess, people who are in their mid to late 60s, they’re going to have a lot of time. Obviously leisure is an area they can explore fully in their lives. In your study that I read, you talked about three theories. I found them really insightful and interesting. Would you like to introduce those three ikigai theories in relation to your findings on leisure?

The Three Ikigai Leisure  Concepts

Shin: Sure. There are three core concepts if you will. One of them is what I call keiken. In Japanese, it means literary experience. In English, I would say that it’s a valued experience in a way that you personally value and it also of course means that it should be valued in society, in a group and all that kind of stuff as well. We identified specifically four key types of experience value and one being enjoyment or tanoshimi in Japanese. And second is effort, making effort or gambari in Japanese. The third is stimulation or shigeki in Japanese. Is doing something new, and the last is comfort or iyashi feeling relaxed in being who you are and things like that. We found that each of those four types of experiences contribute to ikigai feeling. That’s not surprising. Probably I shouldn’t get into each theory yet, but it’s basically keiken is about here and now.

It’s a personal life, your personal experience at this current life. And the second theory is what I go houkou-sei. In Japanese houkou-sei, that means what I call life directionality. It’s about the temporal over time. It’s a temporal aspect of ikigai. From past to present life to the future. The question here is, can you make some sort of association between how past experiences contributed to who you are now and what you’re doing, and then how that leads you or how you think leads to your future goals. The last one is what I call ibasho or interpersonal, authentic relationship. It’s really interpersonal dimension of ikigai. Now, again, it begins with a keiken. Really keiken is the core and heart of my ikigai theories. In Ibasho theory, basically what it’s saying that, yes, it’s great that you had a valuable experience, now the question is can you share them with close others, maybe in your case, maybe your son for example. Can you share it with him in such a way that, basically, he values it too.

One way is to just include them, involve that person into the same activity. Do it together, or the other way is to tell them about what’s going on in your keiken valued experiences and you get the feedback. It’s indirect way of sharing. Three theories, keiken is about here and now, personal life. Houkou-sei is over time, temporal aspect. Ibasho is the interpersonal dimension of it. I see three… Well, two dimensions. Temporal, interpersonal and really the core is keiken. It’s based on the more values you collect basically from enjoyment, efforts, simulation, comfort, arguably the better. Your ikigai level gets higher because you have more things to ground your perception of ikigai into it.

That leads to what I called value diversification. You want to not to have, for example, 10 enjoyable experiences. You’d rather want to have, for example, two of enjoyment, two of effort, two of stimulation, two of comfort so that you have four experienced values represented in your life at a time. That’s one thing. You can do that by having different experiences totally. For example, athletics do effort. Let’s say you also hang out with the friends, which is enjoyment, that kind of stuff. You can do that. Another thing you can do, it is actually you can identify different values in one dominant experience. For example, again, athletics, let’s use the example of athletics because it’s so dominant. Investing a lot of time. Practicing sports can be very much effortful, but at the same time, if you think about the sports there are some casual hanging out with their teammates and stuff like that.

You can identify somebody’s enjoyment. Well, you can feel so much comfort and relaxed with their teammates because you spent so much time with them. But at the same time if you, for example, travel to new place because of a tournament, that could give you some stimulating experience as well. If you actually can recognize those different aspects and there are different types of value in one experience, you can still maintain a high level of ikigai arguably because of that diversified values.

Nick: I understand. When I was reading your dissertation, what I was thinking is this information’s so valuable, especially things life effort and comfort. I think if we put in effort, we have a sense of satisfaction. We like familiarity, but at the same time you stimulize, adds to our life value and of course we want to enjoy the things we do in our leisure time. You discovered, experience value diversification, but with that you also discovered students needed value balancing.

Shin: Yes.

Nick: Would you to touch on that as well?

Shin: Sure. It was funny because I identified after several interviews, we did basically 27 interviews in total, but after a couple of interviews I noticed students are talking about those things. Enjoyment, effort, simulation and comfort to an extent, and I can see that. Now, they talked about two at a time often. In this case enjoyment and effort for example. Those values are very contrasting to them, a lot of students. They would talk about those two things together and making the balance between them. And also they talked about the balance between stimulation and comfort as well.

It makes sense in a way. Enjoyment is about not thinking about longterm, just really enjoying here and now basically. Effort being it’s a challenging. It could be stressful in a short term, but really making efforts and overcoming challenges while thinking about long term accomplishments. You can understand how those things can be polarizing in a way. Again, stimulation is a new thing and comfort is more of an old thing, ordinary things. So that makes sense, it’s opposite to each other. What we discovered, and it was surprising in the case of the quantitative, number-based survey study results is that even after we take into account the effect of those four values, independently. Enjoyment, effort, stimulation, comfort. Even after that there was value of balancing.

We also measure the balance between those enjoyment, effort and stimulation and comfort. They also had a positive and significant impact on our ikigai feelings. That’s significant and the same thing goes with the value diversification. Even after we consider the independent effect of those four different types of experience value, making a balance, consciously making a balance of it, that’s very important for ikigai.

Nick: I’m glad you highlighted that point. Consciously making an effort to balance those four value characteristics. When we engage in our leisure, we often don’t really think about it. Obviously we just want to enjoy it, but consciously thinking about would probably enhance the experience and our appreciation of what we’re doing.

Shin: Yes. That’s the characteristic of what I mean by value engagement and valued experience in a way. Personally it’s about what you do, it’s an experience. You’ve got to do something. You can’t have a great experience by sitting on a couch and just thinking about it. You’ve got to get out and do it, but partially it’s about cognition and I mean, what do you think? What do you feel about it too? My work is informed by psychology work, but at the same time there is some behavioral, experiential aspect of it too. I’m saying that here both are important really.

Nick: I see. You also discovered that students needed to disengage experiences, especially ethical ones, which I guess makes sense. We do need to sometimes switch off and take a break from, I guess, from everything in life.

Shin: Before getting to what I call value disengagement. Again, getting away from sometimes overwhelming effort for experience and also value balancing, is that my theory of ikigai and keiken is very dynamic. You can’t do, for example, effort, effort, effort, effort and you can increase, increase, increase your ikigai. There’s a delicate balance between them. It’s not a continuum where one is absolutely negative, the other side is absolutely positive. There is somewhere in the middle optimal situation and you have to make yourself align there and that’s actually more difficult. A lot of theories out there, I mean, lots of psychology, behavioral, all that kind of behavioral science theories. They are more simplistic in a way that do this. This is positively related, do it.

But more newer research, recent research and including my ikigai keiken theory is that no, there is a balance. There’s a synergistic effect. There is something going on. This is part of that too. And again, just like you said, effortful experience can be just daunting. What’s important is not actually keep doing it, but also take a step away from it. And often this is again, leisure is unique position because it provides you a, if you will, breather in your life that you can take a step back and not think about it, have fun.

But here it’s little bit of a different from enjoyment because enjoyment is what we seek. Effort becoming too much, you want to get away from it. That’s the purpose. Usually you go for something enjoyable or comfort, comforting. Now you’d get back to it. The point is that you have the purpose of getting back to challenging experience, effort for experience. It’s not total escapism, if that makes sense.

Nick: It does make sense. I guess, it leans towards, as you just mentioned, comfort. If you do disengage from effortful activities that give you purpose or leisure, taking a break from them gives you the comfort you need to obviously reengage with them later.

Shin: Exactly.

Nick: Now we briefly touched on ikigai perception and your keiken theory experience identified two types. Two types of ikigai perceptions. Could you explain those?

Life Affirmation & Life Vibrancy

Shin: Yes. One is what I call the most central, which is life affirmation. That your daily life is worth living. Here life means daily life, it’s not about life as in entirety, but it’s about maybe weeks or months or something. And then value here doesn’t mean it’s objective, monetary value, but it’s about basically subjective value and it’s often based on the value of experiences that you have. The other ikigai feeling in this keiken theory is what I call life vibrancy. When you have lots of valuable experiences, when you wake up, what you want to do is just get there. Get out of the home as soon as possible and get to the experiences, whatever that might be. Maybe that’s work, maybe that’s having coffee with your friends, whatever that might be.

You’re motivated for those experiences. What happens is that when you have many valuable experiences, that positive motivation spilled out to the entire life. It’s not just you’re motivated for one particular activity or event, but that you can identify those people in your life, you can see your friends or family members, who are just so energetic and you can see that things are going well in their life. That’s what we mean, that life is surrounded by different types of experience values. It’s very rich and dynamic, energetic life. And that’s life vibrancy.

Nick: Yes. When I read life vibrancy, I thought, “Man, that’s such a cool term or distinction.” I think it could become almost a buzz word if you were to publish a book or something, life vibrancy. It just sounds so cool. Touching on those two points again, life affirmation and life vibrancy. There were two conditions you discovered that I think people could immediately apply to their life to help them find ikigai and they were value understanding and action.

Understanding that referred to the type of experience is valuable in a given life circumstance. And action, obviously the ability to act on opportunity for a potentially valuable experience without hesitation. You found all these amazing key distinctions or points and I think it’s important that we can help our listeners maybe find something they can use. Those two points really stood out for me, value understanding and action. What advice could you offer or what would you like to touch on in regard to those two points?

Shin: One takeaway here is that you don’t have to do anything, but you might want to think about at a given point of your life, what do you see? Maybe you might want to write down those things and just think about what’s the ideal ratio. Just without thinking about anything, but of course this ideal ratio has to be influenced by something personal, social situation, like your family obligations. Maybe visualizing those ratio would put you in a position that actually you’re not doing so bad, for example. You think that maybe you’re not having so much enjoyment right now or comfort so much now or simulation so much now, but do you realize, “Well, I’m at this point of life that it’s actually good that I’m focusing on effort or comfort or whatever that might be.” That will guide you in terms of which experience to pursue.

Just Do It!

In terms of action, basically it’s the Nike slogan. Just do it. It’s funny because I’m at type of person who tend to overthink things, but lots of my interviewees were, “You know, Shin, if you want to have ikigai, you just have to do it.” Because their rationale here was that you never know the true value of experience until you actually fully explore it, actually do it. I totally see that. Really, it’s not about be strategic about experience value, which was about value understanding. But the other side of it is that there is uncertainty, you never know fully so just do it if there is a good opportunity. What happens usually is that most of the time actually you value what you do. After you’re doing it you realize there is some value to it, so that you get to value those experiences too. Really if you are not sure, just do something. You may have some thoughts, but my theory to an extent suggest that there is a value to just doing it.

Nick: We could say there’s value in being spontaneous.

Shin: Yes, yes. Which kind of goes back to the leisure and the play, if you will. There is so much research going on right now that doing play and playfulness, being able to play and playfulness is actually very valuable for adults as well, not just kids.

Nick: I think that is a new area of study and research. I have found recently there even almost life coaches who specialize in play for adults and they say you almost need to become the child again.

Shin: Yes.

Nick: Okay. Shin, a few more questions, so we’ll wrap up soon. What advice do you have for people in regard to finding ikigai in leisure activities? I know we’ve touched on a lot of information, so what’s maybe the first step?

Finding Ikigai in Leisure Activities

Shin: Well, I think we have to go back to the conditions of ikigai. Two things we talked about, value understanding and actions. Particularly, I mean just the Nike thing. That just do it. I think that’s just very important. If you have some opportunity, maybe your community has some new programs. Maybe you want to check it out. Factually, check it out. Your wife or your partner asks for you to do some new activity. Well, let’s see what’s about it, sort of thing. Just doing it could be very powerful. Also, what I wanted to say specifically in terms of leisure and the uniqueness of leisure, is that maybe I found leisure is very unique in terms of how flexible it is in terms of the way we can value it.

For example, think about work. How many of us actually can find true enjoyment in it? And again, making an assumption here, but if you’re working at the McDonald’s, can you really, really, really enjoy it? What about the stimulation? When you’re making french fries hundreds of times, can you make a stimulating experience out of it, for example? But leisure is this spot in your life where you can explore many different things. Even leisure, which seems very least effortful, a lot of people actually make a lot of effort. Serious hobbyists, those people who collect something seriously, for example. They make tremendous efforts sometimes. Really leisure is playing cards. It’s like a joker in a way.

That your life has other experience values and then you identified that, “Oh, there’s this missing.” And leisure maybe the area you can actually get that one, whether you’re initiating a new leisure activity or tweaking, getting more serious for example, about the existing leisure, whatever that might be. I think in that way, leisure is very interesting. I hope that people can think leisure that way. Not just like, “Oh, it’s just the leftover of my life. I will do whatever. I will watch TV.” Not like that, but it’s the strongest card in a suite in a way. The joker. If you think that way, maybe leisure can benefit your ikigai.

Nick: It sounds leisure is perhaps the easiest and less complicated way to fine ikigai in life because, as you mentioned, work’s complicated. Most people would struggle to find daily ikigai in their work. Family, you probably have the most intense, positive experiences with your family, but we also know that family’s complicated and that there are lots of problems with family. It sounds to me that leisure would be a great place to start to find ikigai.

Shin: Yes.

Nick: Finally, what’s your ikigai?

Shin: In terms of leisure, I tend to play badminton seriously recently. Badminton’s fun. I try to get better with it so I make an effort. In terms of work, I mean being professor is really fun to me. It’s enjoyable. It’s what I think I feel privilege actually to be able to have a job where I can find true enjoyment in it too. It’s definitely effortful. It’s also has lots of stimulating experiences that I can do different things, meeting different people, doing different research. Lastly, I think in terms of comfort, I have to say, it’s really about the things that I do with my wife. We’ve been married for more than two years and it’s been really nice, and just spending time with her. Nothing special, talking, having dinner, cooking together and all that kind of experiences just makes me feel who I am, and that’s very comforting for me.

Nick: Well, it sounds you’ve got a lot of ikigai in your life.

Shin: I hope so.

Nick: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. I would definitely love to have you back on the show perhaps sometime in the future.

Shin: Sounds great.

Nick: Great, Shin. Thank you so much for your time today.


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