Thinking about ikigai

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Pretty much the only periodical that I have made time to read diligently in recent years is the Economist.  A recent article in the Economist introduced me to ikigai, which is yet another of  many Japanese words that Westerners have appropriated and onto which much meaning has been grafted beyond the original Japanese meaning. 

A native speaker of Japanese might tell you that ikigai means “a motivating force” or “something or someone that gives a person a sense of purpose or a reason for living”.  They might say it refers to “something that brings pleasure or fulfilment.”  They might link it to the French phrase raison d’être.

In recent years some Westerners have devised the Venn diagram that you see above, and through it, have grafted onto this word an ecosystem of self-help books and training programs.   If you were to spend the money needed to purchase and read one of those books, or to attend one of those training programs, you might get the sense that your life must be a failure if you make the mistake of straying from the center of the diagram.

There’s an Irish saying that sometimes even if a statement is not literally true, sometimes there is nonetheless some truth in it.  That’s how I feel when I offer a softer thought than the self-help book thought about ikigai.  Maybe a person could take the Venn diagram above as a gentle nudge in life rather than as a sharp-edged rule.

I offer the thought that it is probably not the worst thing to take at least a glance at the concepts communicated in this diagram, at least every now and then, as one considers how to spend one’s time and energy.  If we do not at least every now and then bring each of the four circles into our activities, it would probably be regrettable.  To the extent that each of us can gently remind the people around us to think about each of the four circles in their own lives, we are probably being helpful to them.

The diagram probably offers a reminder that it is good to try to have a bit of balance, to the extent that we can, in our lives.  Just as the yin and yang symbol at right reminds us of the many dualities that we might wish to try to balance in our lives, so the Venn diagram above might nudge us in the direction of trying to balance those four things to the extent that we can.  Being out of balance is not healthy, or to say it differently, surely an excessive focus on any one of those four things would be unhealthy!  Surely to the extent that we could come closer to balancing those four things, we would find that we are more comfortable with ourselves.

And, yes, maybe with some reflection on those four circles, we could find that from time to time we would feel a bit more pleasure or fulfilment in daily life.

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