What Makes Life Worth Living?

As the products of culturally and personally shaped fate, selves strategically formulate and interpret their ikigai from an array of cultural conceptions, negotiate these ikigai as channeled by their society’s institutional structures so as to attain and maintain a sense of the personal significance of their lives.  - Gordon Mathews

Gordon Mathews

Gordon Mathews is the Professor of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. and author of 9 books including What Makes Life Worth Living? – How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of their Worlds.

In his book, Gordon describes ikigai as a direct answer to the question, what makes our life worth living. However, he points out that the answer is never final, only provisional. As you grow and age, the circumstances of your life will change and so will your ikigai. With this in mind he describes ikigai as insecure – “Ikigai is insecure; in Japan and the United States alike, it is not the end but the beginning of the pursuit of a life worth living.”

In the early 90’s Gordon wanted to do his doctoral dissertation on the most important question he could think of: “What makes life worth living?”

The Social Dimension of Ikigai 

Stumbling upon the term ikigai allowed Gordon to do his doctoral dissertation in his field of study, anthropology, as he discovered the strong social dimension of ikigai. This involved Gorden interviewing 104 subjects (52 Japanese and 52 Americans ) on what they perceived their ikigai was. He spent up to 10 hours interviewing each subject.

For his book Gordon paired 9 similar Japanese and American subjects together from his doctoral dissertation to create an in-depth case study on what ikigai means to Japanese and Americans exploring the themes of work and family, gender, past and future, dreams, creation and religion and significance.

From these interviews Gordon discovered that ikigai is something in your social world. It can be your work. It can be your family, whether it’s your spouse or your children or your parents. It can be a hobby that you’re passionately devoted to. It can even be a religious belief.

At the time of writing his book, the Japanese ideas of ikigai were very gender-based. Japanese salarymen said that their work or company gave them a sense of self-worth, while women said their sense of meaning came from family or motherhood.

Gordon noted that ikigai is strongly related to the idea of a clearly defined social role, offering a source of identity and meaning. Many of his interviewees put an emphasis on only one domain of life, at the expense of others, for example; the salary man who would see very little of his children because he identified his ikigai with his work over family.

From this we can understand that work as one’s ikigai might make it all too easy to neglect meaningful relationships and pursuits outside the workplace.

Ittaikan & Jiko Jitsugen

In his book, Gordin Mathews presents two dominant themes of ikigai that were in the Japanese print media during the time he researched and wrote his book – ittaikan and jiko jitsugen.

In short, while ikigai as ittaikan carries with it the premise that selves are most essentially their social roles, ikigai as jiko jitsugen carries with it the premise that there is an underlying self more essential than social role.

Ittaikan is a commitment to a larger whole, through your roles by devoting yourself to a group such as family or company. Jiko Jitsugen translates to self-realization and comes off the ideas of Abraham Maslow. We need a balance between living for a larger whole and living for one’s own self to attain ikigai.

The Answers To What Makes Life Worth Living?

In the final chapter of his book Gordon provides an answer to the question that is the title of his book.

Let us now come full circle. What makes life worth living for most Japanese and Americans? It is ikigai, I have maintained, one’s deepest sense of social commitment, most often to one’s dream, family, work, or religious belief. My argument has been that selves in Japan and the United States seek through ikigai a sense of their social significance and, beyond that, hints if not assurances of their transcendent significance, linking their own meanings to the meaning of life.  – Gordon Mathews

As Gordon states, we can’t know why we were put on this planet, to live out our lives. We can only shape our shaped lives from the array of cultural concepts around us, choose carefully our meanings and our potential transcendence and live our lives as if those meanings were real. This is what he discovered underlies the ikigai of the Japanese and Americans he interviewed.

A Book Worth Reading

Of all the foreigner authors who have written books on the Ikigai concept, Gordons Mathews is the only author who I would say deeply understands what the ikigai concept means to Japanese. If there was only one book I would recommend you to read, then his book, What Makes Life Worth Living, would be it.

Also, I recommend you listen to my podcast with Gordon Mathews as we discuss in great detail the incredible scope of the research and editing he did for his doctoral dissertation and his book.