031 – Yoko Inoue on finding happiness

Does happiness depend on the society we live in?

Living in a good environment may be a factor in our happiness, but that is not enough to live a meaningful life. What are the factors that we need to consider to achieve life satisfaction?


In this episode of the Ikigai Podcast Nick speaks with Yoko Inoue as she shares her quest for happiness in the ‘happiest country in the world’.


Podcast Highlights

  • Yoko’s background. At 1:06, Yoko shares a bit of history about her life. 

  • Moving to Denmark. At 4:25, Yoko shares what it was like becoming a new parent and leaving her job in the US to move to Denmark.

  • How to be happy? At 8:34, Yoko talks about how she came up with her article “My quest for happiness in Denmark,” where she asked advice from people from Denmark about how to be happy.

  • Positive psychology. Yoko shares her experience attending a positive psychology class in Harvard led by Tal Ben-Shahar, an expert on happiness, at 11:59.

  • Reaching out to Tal. At 14:54, Yoko talks about asking for advice from Tal on how to be happy in a foreign country.

  • Westernized version of ikigai. At 17:28, Yoko shares her impression of the Westernized version of ikigai.

  • Mieko Kamiya. Nick and Yoko talk about the life of Kamiya Mieko at 19:03.

  • The subject of Kamiya’s work. The two talk about how leprosy became the subject of Kamiya’s work on ikigai.

  • Kamiya’s definition of ikigai. At 29:09, Nick and Yoko discuss how Mieko Kamiya defined ikigai.

  • Relating to Kamiya’s work. At 32:00, Yoko shares how she can relate to Kamiya’s work: Ikigai-ni-tsuite.

  • Ikigai for the Japanese people. At 37:32, Yoko shares that ikigai is something that Japanese people have a hard time defining.

  • Yoko’s definition of ikigai. At 43:05, Yoko shares her definition of ikigai.

  • Life in Denmark. Yoko answers Nick’s question about whether she is happy now in Denmark at 45:02.


Yoko Inoue

Yoko Inoue Ikigai

Yoko Inoue holds a master’s degree in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She has 20 years of experience writing for Japan’s largest newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun, writing on subjects such as major industries and lawmakers in Japan, climate change issues, dementia, Alzheimer’s, crime, and natural disasters. She is currently based in Copenhagen, Denmark with her husband and two children, and is engaged with freelance work.


Yoko’s background

Yoko was born and raised in Japan; after completing college, she became a newspaper reporter at Yomiuri Shimbun. After ten years, she decided to take a year off to study abroad. She was fortunate to be accepted at Harvard, where she had an enjoyable experience and contemplated what she really values in her life: her interest in psychology, and family. 


In 2008, Yoko took a class in positive psychology which was the most popular class in the long history of Harvard University; this is what sparked her interest in psychology. She and her husband moved from America to Denmark after she became pregnant and had to leave her job as a foreign correspondent.


 

Moving to Denmark

Yoko shares that her first two years in Denmark were fine: she was busy raising her newborn baby and attending language school at the same time. However, in 2018, the impact of moving to another country in her 40s hit her; she finished her language school, officially left her job as a newspaper reporter, and found that she had nothing to do while her daughter attended nursery school: she had no professional network in Denmark, and her previous journalistic and academic accomplishments didn’t count, which left her feeling uncertainty about her career.


Spending winters in Denmark alone in their home most of the time had a negative effect on Yoko’s mood. Her husband, the only adult that she could talk to, told her that her mission was to be happy. This became the inspiration for her article: “My quest for happiness in Denmark.”



How to be happy?

Yoko took her “happiness project” seriously, undertaking research and interviews of people from Denmark, including Professor Bent Greve and Meik Wiking, the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute. When she asked Professor Greve how to be happy, he responded that this was something she had to decide for herself. She felt disappointed by this answer at first, but shares that it made her understand her situation better. She says that Nordic countries are good at providing support to their community to reduce sources of unhappiness -- for example, people leave work early, and there are affordable institutions, free universities, and medical care. However, when it comes to personal satisfaction, the society that people live in doesn’t define happiness for them -- it comes from within, and each person has their definition of it.



Positive psychology

When working on her happiness project, Yoko reached out to Tal-Ben Shahar, a happiness expert who had taught the positive psychology course that she took at Harvard. She asked him how to be happy in a place deemed ‘the happiest country in the world’. He replied:  "Even in the happiest country in the world, it's important to give yourself permission to be human, going through periods of uncertainty, and unhappiness is natural, and in fact, can be a springboard to a deeper understanding of one's purpose, and passion."



Westernized version of ikigai

In her article, Yoko wrote about revisiting the authentic meaning of ikigai. Yoko shares that she was surprised to hear the word ikigai from a non-Japanese friend -- that is when she found out that ikigai has been gaining attention in the West. 


When asked about her impression of the Westernized version of ikigai, Yoko shares that she finds it odd to think about ikigai as being linked with gaining income. That is because Japanese people tend to link ikigai more with family or hobbies than with work.


 

Meiko Kamiya

Yoko wrote about Meiko Kamiya in her article. She shares that Mieko Kamiya was a psychiatrist, professor, and author of Ikigai-ni-tsuite (‘On Ikigai’). Kamiya was born in 1914 and spent her childhood in Switzerland, thanks to which she spoke French fluently. After meeting a leprosy patient at the age of 19, Mieko wanted to become a doctor, however, because her father disapproved of this she instead studied Greek literature at Columbia University in New York. Still, she pursued her urge to help lepers, and instead of becoming a medical doctor she became a psychiatrist so she could support their mental health.



The subject of Kamiya’s work

Kamiya’s desire to help people with leprosy became the foundation of her research on ikigai. Yoko describes how leprosy patients had to suffer from strong prejudices towards their illness: they had to leave their homes and spend their lives in an isolated institution. Kamiya wrote that most patients thought about committing suicide. However, Kamiya found out that among those patients, there were a few exceptions who did not lose the joy of living even under these harsh conditions. These patients possessed ikigai, and this is what Kamiya focused on in her book.



Kamiya’s definition of ikigai

Yoko shares that Kamiya introduced two terms in her book: ikigai and ikigai-kan (‘ikigai feeling’). When people say that their family or hobby is their ikigai, it refers to the sources of ikigai; ikigai-kan, on the other hand, is a state of mind where people feel ikigai -- something that supports life as a whole. Kamiya wrote that the sense of ikigai, compared to happiness, has a clearer sense of looking towards the future: because there are forward-facing hopes and goals, people can feel ikigai  no matter what the current situation is.


Ikigai is a fascinating concept and it's got all these elements. It's multi dimensional. It's  got this idea of hope and that your life is moving forward. It's something you feel that is personal, it helps you understand yourself. And even if you're struggling with life, if you have this idea of a bright future, you can feel ikigai. - Nicholas Kemp

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Ikigai Concept


Nick describes ikigai as a fascinating concept: it’s multidimensional. It gives people the idea of hope and that their lives are moving forward; it is something personal that helps people understand themselves. Even for people who are struggling with life, if they have the idea of a bright future, then they can feel ikigai; big-life changing challenges are essential for people to uncover their ikigai.


Uncover Ikigai


Relating to Kamiya’s work

Yoko shares that she relates so much to Kamiya's book because she re-read it when she quit her job and was living in a foreign country in her mid-40s with no idea on how to be happy. She shares that she was also able to read Kamiya’s diary, and what fascinates her is Kamiya’s strong sense of ikigai, quoting her: "Oh my heart is full and bursting with the sense I have been feeling for many years. I cannot die until I have poured it all out. All the real work starts from now on, I cannot stay still." Yoko was impressed with Kamiya for having something to be passionate about -- a kind of mission or purpose, because she believes that ikigai is profound, and to live with purpose is such a fortunate thing to have.


Ikigai is a profound word for me. So if there's one person who sincerely says, "This is my ikigai." It's rare to hear. And that kind of sense, living with purpose, that's such a fortunate thing to have. - Yoko Inoue

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Ikigai's Deeper Meaning


Ikigai for the Japanese people

As opposed to happiness, Yoko says that ikigai has a much deeper meaning, hence it is hard for most Japanese to define what their ikigai is. As Kamiya wrote in her book, ikigai is hard to explain --  it’s a sense of feelings towards something for the future.


 

Yoko’s definition of ikigai

For Yoko, having ikigai is knowing what people value in their lives and which direction they want to go. Ikigai is something that people think about when they face difficulties -- when they have to change something or have to move on with their lives. Having ikigai is feeling that they’re on the right path.


Ikigai The Right Track

Life in Denmark

Yoko shares that she is happy with her family life in Denmark; she’s fortunate to have two kids and her husband. She says her new ikigai is keeping her family happy. When it comes to her career, she admits going through a period of uncertainty, but relating it to Kamiya’s ikigai-kan, Yoko thinks it doesn’t matter to have success in the end. For her, it’s all about making great sense -- being clear about her values and the direction she wants to go.



Conclusion

Living in the happiest country in the world doesn’t guarantee life satisfaction for each individual. A person can have all the riches in the world and live a comfortable life but still end up being lonely; the society that we live in may be a factor for our pleasure, but at the end of the day, happiness is a personal pursuit. It is important to identify what we really value in our lives so that in times of difficulties, we will always have something to hold on to; something that will inspire us to keep moving forward despite all the struggles -- and that could be our ikigai.


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