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Find Your Ikigai: How to Bolster Meaning and Purpose in Life

As a therapist and fellow wanderer in the labyrinth of life, I know the quest for one's purpose and deeper meaning can often feel like navigating uncharted territory.



The aftermath of a global pandemic, coupled with the ongoing turbulence of crises and challenges, has left many individuals adrift, wrestling with existential questions and a profound sense of purposelessness. A New York Times article popularized a word that describes a more common state of being in our day; the writer called it languishing. The World Health Organization (WHO) has cast a darker shadow over what’s ahead for our mental health, predicting that "by 2030 depression will be the leading cause of disease burden globally".


In times as tumultuous as these, the ancient Japanese concept of ikigai (reason for being), which champions one's raison d’etre, purpose, and meaning, emerges as a beacon of hope and resilience amidst the chaos.


The ancient practice of ikigai, which means ‘reason for being’, and a variety of more popular iterations and models of this concept, has made headlines in recent years. In my lifetime of experimenting with mental well-being strategies and trying to understand my own purpose and what brings me meaning, I have integrated a number of concepts related to ikigai into my routines, and in my counseling and coaching practice with others, that have helped bring clarity and direction and deeper meaning.


In this post, I provide an overview of key concepts along with practical steps that I have tested on myself and proven with research in many cases. Over most of my life, I have struggled to figure things out and craft a life worth living. Ikigai has been a starting point and framework that I have continued to refine and add to over the years. In upcoming posts, I will provide more detail about each of these stages of ikigai that I introduce below along with practical examples, tools and a case study, a narrative of a young man who finds himself on a search for greater meaning; I call this story Conrad’s Quest. 


The Quest for Meaning and Purpose

The quest for meaning and purpose in life is a fundamental human need. It can profoundly impact mental and emotional well-being, as well as extend life itself. This is where ikigai comes into play. Derived from Japanese culture, ikigai has garnered global attention due to its potential to bring about well-being and a sense of fulfillment. The term comes from two Japanese words: iki (meaning 'life; alive') and kai (meaning worth or value). And so, iki-gai translates as: ‘a reason for living or being alive’, ‘a meaning for life’, and ‘something that makes life worth living’.



I conducted a small study with several small groups (50 members in total) over a two-year period aimed at exploring and practicing core concepts associated with ikigai. This study invited participants to join a seven-week group experience exploring the concept of ikigai. Over the first few weeks, participants developed ikigai or well-being projects after viewing a model of ikigai, which included identifying strengths, well-being needs, and passions or interests. During the remaining weeks, group members implemented their well-being projects with ongoing interaction from the facilitator of the group.


Members completed both pre- and post- surveys to measure their progress.  After seven weeks, participants reported significant positive differences in areas of connectedness, health, happiness, meaning, satisfaction in life and accomplishment.


Additional research needs to be conducted to verify early findings, but initial results are promising - activities associated with identifying strengths, well-being needs and passions and crafting actionable projects in the context of a community can have a significant impact on one’s sense of meaning, happiness and life satisfaction – core features of ikigai. 


In a world often fraught with uncertainty, the quest for a purposeful and meaningful life, for one’s ikigai, acts as a guiding light through the chaotic maze. Let's embark on an adventure to discover your ikigai, structured around the narrative of your unique heroic journey and supported by research-backed principles.  In the following post, I provide a process that I often guide my clients through as they discover greater meaning and purpose, connection and well-being.  


Phase 1: Embracing Your Story as a Heroic Journey

In the initial phase of my ikigai coaching/counseling, I emphasize the importance of understanding and telling one’s story; I invite others into the idea of seeing life as a narrative and heroic journey.



Your life, much like an epic narrative, unfolds as a heroic journey.

Researchers have found that adopting the perspective of the Hero's Journey – a storytelling structure in which a main character conquers obstacles and experiences personal transformation – can elevate the perception of life's meaning. Recent findings, which are documented in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, offer proof that viewing your life story in this framework can result in increased well-being, resilience, and meaning in life. 

 

One exercise I have used to begin to view one’s life as a narrative includes breaking up our stories into 5–7-year increments.  Within each segment of your life, for example, identify a high and a low – significant positive experiences and also those that are more traumatic. Once each high and low is listed, then a title is given for each section of the timeline. Themes or patterns often emerge as we look at our stories in this way. It is helpful to then also identify how your story mirrors or embodies elements of the hero’s journey, including the following:  The Call to Adventure, Meeting the Mentor, Tests, Allies and Enemies, my favorite, the Approach of the Inmost Cave, and more. I will provide additional detail in an upcoming blog post that also includes Conrad’s Quest as a case study.


Phase 2: Unveiling Your Passions and Interests

At the genesis of ikigai lies the exploration of passions and interests. Research underscores the significance of engaging in activities you love to improve well-being. Take a moment for introspection; identify those pursuits that evoke enthusiasm, make time fly, and infuse joy into your life.



One tool that I find helpful and even inspiring is the creation of a life list. One of the first activities I ask clients to complete is a list of twenty-five items that capture the essence of their passions, interests, goals, dreams, and risk-taking adventures. It is amazing how easily we fall into the routine of achievement and get comfortable with the ‘same old, same old’. The life list exercise, which I will outline in greater detail in a future post, can help you get in touch with suppressed or long forgotten aspirations.


Phase 3: Unleashing Your Strengths

Identifying and harnessing your strengths stands as a pivotal step in unraveling your ikigai. Research has shown that if we can lean into our top character strengths (e.g., zest, hope, gratitude, love, curiosity, etc…) and assure that we are utilizing them in our work and daily lives on a regular basis, our well-being and happiness is heightened.


In my practice, I often introduce clients to the VIA Character Survey (https://www.viacharacter.org/character-strengths). The VIA Survey provides an approach to assessing your inherent strengths, which in turn can be linked to well-being interventions. Research also suggests that aligning your pursuits, or life list items, with your strengths not only enhances well-being but also fosters a profound sense of accomplishment. I will provide additional detail on how to explore your strengths and rely on them in the development of an ikigai project in upcoming blog posts.   


Phase 4: Embracing Your Values

At the core of discovering greater meaning in life and purpose lies the profound exploration of personal core values. These values serve as guiding principles that shape our beliefs, decisions, and actions. Identifying and embracing our core values is akin to discovering a compass for our life's journey. When our pursuits align with these intrinsic principles, a deep sense of authenticity and fulfillment emerges.



Identifying your core values is central to discovering a life of authentic meaning – our reason for being. By acknowledging and living in harmony with our core values, we not only gain clarity about what truly matters to us but also pave the way for a purposeful existence.

 

There are several tools can help you identify core values and assess whether or not you are living according to them, including the Valued Living Questionnaire, the Life Compass, and the Mistaken Funeral exercise. My go-to tool is the Mistaken Funeral. Stay tuned in upcoming weeks to see how this can be used with clients in the context of discovering greater reason for living.


Phase 5: Nurturing Your Well-being Needs

The foundation of ikigai rests upon identifying well-being needs in yourself and others closest to you. The concept of Ikigai, rooted in the pursuit of a meaningful and purposeful life, can be substantially enhanced by aligning with the well-being practices identified by the Greater Good Science Center. These practices, often referred to as the keys to well-being, encompass crucial aspects of mental, emotional, and social wellness.



By integrating practices such as cultivating positive relationships, engaging in acts of kindness, fostering gratitude, embracing mindfulness, and pursuing activities that bring joy and fulfillment, individuals can not only fortify their overall well-being but also reinforce the foundation upon which ikigai thrives. The Greater Good Science Center's research underscores the interconnectedness of these practices with a fulfilled life, emphasizing that a holistic approach to well-being contributes significantly to the discovery and sustenance of one's ikigai. Therefore, adopting these evidence-based well-being keys not only nurtures personal happiness but also serves as a compass guiding individuals toward a life rich in purpose, meaning, and the realization of their unique ikigai.


Phase 6: Aligning with Your Personality

Your personality is akin to a unique fingerprint, a distinctive combination of traits, preferences, and tendencies that sets you apart in the vast tapestry of humanity. It encapsulates the essence of who you are, shaping your reactions, decisions, and interactions with the world. Much like a fingerprint, your personality is exclusive to you, a singular amalgamation of characteristics that no one else possesses in precisely the same way.

 

Discovering and living in accordance with your personality type can profoundly impact the quest for greater meaning and purpose in life. Understanding the intricacies of your personality, as illuminated by frameworks like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), provides a roadmap to aligning your choices, activities, and goals with your authentic self. By acknowledging and honoring your innate preferences, strengths, and values, you create a life that resonates with your core being. This alignment fosters a sense of authenticity and fulfillment, supported by research findings.  Individuals who live in harmony with their personality type are more likely to experience a profound connection to their endeavors, leading to a deeper understanding of purpose. This personalized approach to navigating life not only enhances overall well-being but also lays the groundwork for a meaningful and purposeful existence, rooted in authenticity and self-awareness.


In Conclusion

Discovering your ikigai is a perpetual exploration of integrating passions, strengths, values, well-being needs, and personality within the narrative construct of your heroic journey. Rooted in research-backed concepts, this dynamic journey evolves as you grow and learn. Embrace the unique contours of your path, for within its twists and turns lies the profound discovery of a life abundant in meaning and purpose.


In upcoming blog posts, I will continue to illustrate the process I use to assist others in finding a greater sense of ikigai – a journey that has many nuances and pitfalls, but ultimately unveils deep and sustained meaning. I will introduce you to Conrad’s Quest and perhaps you can follow along and apply the upcoming protocol to your own heroic adventure of figuring life out.

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