030 – Ikigai: Towards a psychological understanding of a life worth living

What is the best way to understand ikigai?

There is a variety of literature written about how one identifies and obtains ikigai. However, to understand the true meaning of ikigai, one needs to experience it first-hand. 


In this episode of the Ikigai Podcast join Nick and Dr. Yasuhiro Kotera as they discuss the experiential aspects of ikigai.


Podcast Highlights

  • How Yashuhiro developed his book. At 3:55, Yasuhiro shares the origins of his book Ikigai: Towards a psychological understanding of a life worth living.
  • Having co-authors. At 5:00, Yasuhiro shares how he managed to get co-authors to help him write the book.
  • Health benefits of ikigai. At 6:42, Yasuhiro discusses the health benefits of ikigai.
  • The links between ikigai and executive leadership coaching. At 11:25, Yasuhiro discusses the association of ikigai with executive coaching.
  • Ikigai as a resource in transformative processes in adult education. At 18:43, Nick and Yasuhiro discuss how ikigai can be integrated into adult education.
  • Ikigai in creative pursuits. At 24:15, the two talk about how the discovery, exploration, and enhancement of ikigai can be helpful.
  • Karoshi. At 28:10, Nick and Yasuhiro talk about karoshi (‘overwork death’) and how it may affect ikigai.
  • Ikigai in penal settings. At 38:13, the two discuss how ikigai can help offenders coming out of prison.
  • Future research on ikigai. At 40:37, Yasuhiro expresses his interest to do more research about ikigai.
  • The complexity of ikigai. At 43:07, Yasuhiro shares what it is like to research a complex concept like ikigai.

Yasuhiro Kotera

Yasuhiro Kotera

Dr. Yasuhiro Kotera is academic lead for counselling, psychotherapy, and psychology at the University of Derby. His teaching primarily focuses on mental health, with interests in self-compassion, intrinsic motivation, and cross-cultural psychology. He co-authored the book Ikigai: Towards a psychological understanding of a life worth living. 




How Yasuhiro developed his book

Yasuhiro noted that although ikigai has been receiving a great deal of attention in popular culture, most books were subjective personal accounts rather than more objective, research-based explorations of the concept. He was keen to combat this through a more scientifically rigorous examination of empirical findings.


This prompted Yasuhiro and his friend Dean to initiate a collaborative project about ikigai. Ultimately, their book Ikigai: Towards a psychological understanding of a life worth living involved 10 authors who were identified through social media and research networks as having relevant and related interests.



Health benefits of ikigai

Chapter 1 of the book is about the health benefits of ikigai, which are discussed in episode 28 of this podcast. It reviews scientific findings about the physical and mental health benefits of ikigai. Yasuhiro shares that ikigai is an experiential sense of well-being, and that it’s important, when studying ikigai, to pay attention to details like dates, feelings, and specific qualities of people’s experiences of ikigai.

 

Ikigai in Children


Nick agrees that ikigai is an experiential sense, pointing out the differences in ikigai between children and older people: Children seem to be good at practicing ikigai because they’re not worried about the future or the past, but ikigai can be more challenging for older people despite the fact that they have fuller schedules and more duties. However, the struggles that many adults experience can give people a sense of purpose or meaning. It is also important to let go of the ego and embrace the inner child; go back to the true nature of just doing things that feel good, regardless of how they appear to others.


We need to let go of the ego and embrace the inner child. Go back to that true nature of just doing things that feel good, regardless of how we appear or look to others. - Nicholas Kemp

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Ikigai Embrace Inner Child


The links between ikigai and executive leadership coaching

Chapter 2 of Yasuhiro’s book addresses how ikigai can be used in an executive leadership context. Specifically, the chapter links ikigai, leadership coaching, and existentialism, which is about recognising the individual as a free person who can make their own decisions and, through these, experience development and growth. Yasuhiro shares that, as a psychotherapist, he sometimes uses ikigai as a tool for helping clients to explore their own thoughts and feelings in order to better understand what they want out of life, and how to pursue this and ultimately gain more satisfaction. 



Ikigai as a resource in transformative processes in adult education

Nick shares a quote from the third chapter of Yasuhiro’s book, which thinks about ikigai in relation to adult education:


“Both ikigai and transformative education follow a holistic approach, that is looking at individuals as a whole person with their needs, abilities, desires, and resources. Both consider the human being to be a being in development, and being capable of learning that can continuously develop, locate, realign, deconstruct, and reconstruct itself.”


Ikigai and Adult Education


Yasuhiro thinks that ikigai gives a path through life experience; people are in touch with their ikigai and they’re doing something right for themselves rather than measuring themselves by external rulers. The relationship between ikigai and adult education is that they both give people the opportunity to explore and learn more. 



Ikigai in creative pursuits

Chapter 4 of the book explores the benefits of one’s experiences of ikigai using creative and artistic methods such as  metaphors, photographs, and images. Yasuhiro explains that there are important parallels between ikigai and art because both are strongly experiential rather than simply conceptual or theoretical. He likens ikigai to traveling to another country, where visitors might speak a different language but can still appreciate the scenery, art, and music. This feeling of enjoyment and satisfaction despite not necessarily grasping specific meanings or reasons for the feeling is the same as we have with ikigai.

 

Nick shares that this reminds him of a book he read in which the author talks about how Japanese people tend to focus too much on work, and encourages his readers to find other sources of ikigai including the appreciation of art and getting outdoors rather than succumbing to karoshi (overwork death). Yasuhiro says that another aspect of why ikigai is experiential is because people tend to copy the behaviors of others. He gives an example: in the case of karoshi, it may be that a leader of a company is full of ikigai and works 24/7; and upon seeing how he works, his subordinates may think that is what ikigai is, and would copy the way their leader works. However, mimicking others’ behavior won’t create ikigai for them. Yasuhiro believes that everyone’s ikigai is unique; people just need to get in touch first with a sense of ikigai, then engage in the behaviors that are inspired by this.


Everyone's ikigai is unique. Just copying behaviors alone doesn't  create ikigai. You need to first get in touch with a sense of ikigai, then behaviors will happen. - Dr. Yasuhiro Kotera

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Everyone's Ikigai is Unique


Ikigai in penal settings

Yasuhiro also believes that ikigai can be a useful tool in helping offenders back into society once they have been released from prison, by teaching them how to find a sense of purpose or meaning in their lives. Although there is currently a lack of empirical research bridging ikigai and forensic psychology (a field that combines the practice of psychology and the law), Yasuhiro and his coauthors propose that ikigai could be helpful in building positive support mechanisms.


 

Future research on ikigai

Ikigai is a complex concept that is hard to define, which is one of the reasons it is so interesting to Yasuhiro. He expresses his interest to explore ikigai further, including better identifying what it is and exploring cultural and individual differences in understanding and finding ikigai.


 

Conclusion

Ikigai is experiential; the best way to learn it is to feel it -- do things that will make your life worth living. You have to experience it to know what it really means; each person may have their definition of ikigai, and each interpretation will depend on what we value in our lives. All of us have unique experiences, hence we possess different ikigai in our lives.


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