Turning Japanese: Ikigai and the Art of Happiness

Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life
by Hector Garcia and Fransesc Miralles
Hutchinson (2017), 208 pages

The Little Book of Ikigai: The Essential Japanese Way to Finding Your Purpose in Life
by Ken Mogi
Quercus (2017), 208 pages
 

There’s big money to be made in the Happiness game. I’m not talking the transient pleasures of drugs, sex, and French Patisserie. Writing about happiness is where the clever people are making their cash these days. A handwritten note by Albert Einstein in which he wrote "A calm and humble life will bring more happiness than the pursuit of success and the constant restlessness that comes with it," sold for $1.6 million this year. More humble minds need to write slightly longer texts if they want to make their fortune.

In the past few years many cultures around the world have been plundered for the sake of packaging their wisdom in the form of small books meant to improve our lives. We’ve had the cozy notion of Danish Hygge and the Swedish concept of nothing to excess called Lagom. Now it is the turn of the Japanese to teach us how to live.

So, what is Ikigai?

Ikigai roughly translates, according to Hector Garcia and Fransesc Miralles, as “the happiness of always being busy.” Ken Mogi gives us a more elegant rendering of it as “a reason to live.” According to the Japanese we all have an Ikigai, and finding that purpose is one of the main goals of life.

While some might seek a high philosophical meaning to life, Ikigai is more akin to a task you can joyfully perform for the rest of your days. As the saying goes, find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. Where Hygge might invite us to stay inside in a warm cardigan, Ikigai encourages a person to go out and do what they are meant to do.

garcia miralles ikigaiThey say never to judge a book by its cover, but Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Garcia and Miralles has the most gorgeous cover I have ever seen. Duck shell blue with a dusting of cherry blossom… I could stare at it for hours. Frame it on your wall, I know I want to, but my editor tells me I must actually read the books I review. With this tempting cover I do not hesitate to read their book first, which turns out to be a mistake.

The second book on Ikigai is called The Little Book of Ikigai and is, ironically, larger than the other. The size feels validated by the greater depth the author offers into the complexities of Ikigai. It is with this book that I should have begun my reading. Mogi explains what Ikigai is, Garcia and Miralles offer the guide to living it.

Mogi’s book is an insightful guide to Japanese culture, taking Ikigai as its starting point. You sometimes feel as if the last few pages you have read have been a discursive sidetrack, but the author always skillfully reveals their relevancy. The complexity of the tea ceremony, and the purpose of performing it, makes perfect sense when viewed as the purpose—the Ikigai—of the master of ceremonies. Mogi gets to the heart of what Ikigai actually is. The Ikigai to be found in the master potter, Imperial musician, and even Sumo wrestlers are explained to audiences who may be unfamiliar with the dedication to perfection these arts entail. Kodawari, meaning a personal standard one holds one’s work to, drives people that know their Ikigai to work tirelessly towards it. Mogi tempts us with the happiness that Japanese people find from marrying their Kodawari with their Ikigai.

Mogi warns against the dangers of viewing Ikigai in a competitive way though. Contentment is not a contest. As he explains in typically insightful fashion:

 

It is not only winners that have Ikigai. Winners and losers can have an Ikigai on an equal footing, in the great coordinated dance that is life. Seen from inner perspective of Ikigai, the border between winners and losers gradually melts. Ultimately there is no difference between winners and losers. It is all about being human.

 

In well-balanced chapters he traces a whole philosophy through historical examples and modern research into happiness. Mogi offers five pillars of Ikigai and explores them through the prism of Japanese life. I don’t think I will be spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of the book by revealing they are: starting small, releasing yourself, harmony and sustainability, the joy of little things, and being in the here and now. Those seeking a wider perspective on the cultural force of Ikigai along with tips on how to live should start with Mogi’s book.

The book by Garcia and Miralles takes, by necessity, an outsider’s view of Ikigai. Their book falls squarely into the range of “self-help,” with all the problems that the genre carries with it. There are quotations from great minds placed in bold and scattered across pages. There are tables comparing one "good thing" with one "bad thing," sometimes quite idiosyncratically. One table juxtaposes psychoanalysis (BAD) with logotherapy (GOOD). Another table points out the benefits of focusing on one task (GOOD) as opposed to multi-tasking (BAD). Logotherapy, a school of psychology which helps people to find their inner purpose, was new to me and sounds intriguing. Simplistic analyses like these, however, can all too easily derail what could be a good argument. There are sentences, which if you were to extract them and print them on motivational posters would sound trite. But there is also a lot of practicality in this book.

Ken Mogi IkigaiYou feel the authors' sincere wish for everyone to live happy, fulfilled, and long lives. They go into great detail about diet, physical and mental health, and include diagrams of gentle exercise. Taken all together I’m sure it would improve your life. Unfortunately for me, I was not doing the activities they described, merely reading about it. The writing is not as poetic as in Mogi’s work, possibly because the facts they are presenting are more prosaic. The length that some of these sections run to makes it like an over-rich meal—something they encourage you to avoid. Apparently you should only eat until you are 80% full. Perhaps the authors should have thought about their readers’ appetites for reading about calisthenics when writing some chapters.

Their book focuses not just on Ikigai but the many ways in which we can find happiness and long lives. It searches in the science of ageing, psychiatry, and life in a small Okinawan village to find answers. By far it is the sections set in the village of Ogimi that are the most interesting. Ogimi is a place where centenarians are found in abundance. The low stress lifestyle is not just one that helps you live longer, it gives you a reason to want to live longer. The authors visit the village and talk to the elderly people they find, and come away happier and impressed by them. Their joy spills from the pages.

Reading this chapter made me finally understand the purpose of Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. It was right there in the title. This is a book not just about Ikigai but about the desire to live a long time. In the West it can seem we are willing to extend a life, no matter how painful or wretched, simply because we have decided that even the worst life is better than the alternative. In this book the authors are marrying that desire to live as long as possible to the Japanese desire for a meaning, no matter how humble. “Only staying active will make you want to live a hundred years,” runs a Japanese proverb quoted in the book. They invite us to find out why we want the extra years that science and medicine are offering us.

Here we have the two purposes of these books. Garcia and Miralles are bringing the Japanese idea of Ikigai to Western audiences with the explicit aim of improving lives. They want to encourage health and long lives, but long lives with meaning. Mogi seems more interested with simply presenting Japanese ways of life and the idea of Ikigai in all its forms. He leaves his readers to come to their own conclusion as to whether they should seek out their own Ikigai.

It is easy to be cynical about books such as these that aim to spread happiness. Sayings like “Be conscious of your daily routine” can seem hackneyed, but that is just the problem that these books have been written to solve. The cheap laugh at the expense of the eager author might cheer you for a moment, but in the long-run you have a long time to live with your cold cynicism. Will your snide remarks keep you happy? I came to these books prepared to rip them apart as money-grabbing cash-ins on the Western fetishisation of Eastern philosophy. I have found more in them than that. Both books are worthy of being read, though The Little Book of Ikigai will give more pleasure in its polished prose and narrative style. Forgive me if I have to dash now, I have to go and discover what my Ikigai is.

Ben Gazur is a biochemist, freelance writer, and keen student of classical philosophy.