Finding your ikigai—the Japanese secret to happiness

Does practising medicine make you happy? If not, it may be time to search for your ikigai.

Sabrine Elkhodr
Sabrine Elkhodr
19th Aug 2018 • 7m read

Hector Garcia wanted to know why those darn makeup brushes were so popular.

The Japanese company that made them was internationally recognized—their reputation for making high-quality makeup brushes meant that people flocked to pay a premium for a product that, on the surface, seemed rather unremarkable. What was so amazing about these brushes that a two dollar eBay knockoff wouldn’t suffice?

Garcia decided to investigate further. Attending a personal tour at the factory, he watched dozens of production lines manufacture and assemble different parts of the famous brush. As he observed the worker bees buzzing around trying to keep up with the demands of creating a sought-after product, he suddenly realized something—not one of the production lines he saw was responsible for inserting the bristles into the brush.

Naturally, he asked to see the production line that was responsible, but the worker who was showing him around kept dodging the question. This just piqued his curiosity further. Finally, after badgering the worker for what seemed like an eternity, another worker walked past and asked him to follow.

Garcia quietly shadowed the worker as he led him out of the factory and into a nearby building. The building was old and seemingly abandoned. Garcia didn’t understand why he was there. As they walked up the creaky stairs, he began to feel a little anxious. Then the worker took a sharp turn and led him into a light-filled room on the level above.

There, sitting cross-legged in the center of the room, was a middle-aged woman focused intently on a single makeup brush held between her fingers. She was so entranced by the brush in her hands that she barely registered their presence. Her fingers worked at lightning speed as she sorted through the natural bristles spread out before her, carefully matching up individual bristles with other bristles of a similar size, and setting them into the head of each brush that she picked up.

This, the worker said, was the brush-head production line. Not a single makeup brush was sold by the company before passing through this woman’s hands. The takumi, as she was known, was the heart and soul of the company and she was responsible for the success it enjoyed.

Takumi, as they are known in Japan, are people who have mastered a specific craft after years of painstaking dedication. They are obsessed with their one true calling and spend decades honing a skill to the level of perfection. Takumi know their place in the world and that deep sense of purpose drives them to be the best at what they do.

But it’s just a makeup brush, I hear you say. Why would anyone waste their time doing such a mundane task when robots could do it just as well?

Good question! In fact, why would anyone perfect any skill when automation and artificial intelligence have created a world where the ability to master one skill is becoming less and less important?

The answer turns out to be simple—because (automation or not) we can’t escape from the fact that we’re human. We need purpose in our lives and a reason for existing. We crave mastery because it gives us meaning.

Ikigai: the science of happiness

Nestled in a small Japanese town called Ogimi, lies the secret to happiness—at least according to Hector Garcia, a software engineer and author who has spent years studying the Japanese way of life and talks about it in his best-selling book, Ikigai. This town, he says, is widely known as the Village of Longevity because so many of the inhabitants live over the age of 90 (for context, in the US, the percentage of people who live over 90 is only 1%).

Garcia was fascinated by this fact and set to work trying to find an explanation (as he did with the makeup brushes—clearly an engineer at heart!). His work has led him to believe that, aside from a healthy diet, moderate exercise, and close social connections, one concept that really ties this all together is ikigai.

Every person in Ogimi knew (and lived) their ikigai. According to the Japanese, everyone has an ikigai. Your ikigai is essentially the reason you get up every morning, your reason for living fully and happily. Your ikigai isn’t something you create, it’s always there. The Japanese see the discovery of an individual's ikigai as requiring a deep, long, introspective search that can bring about satisfaction and meaning to life. You just need to dig deep enough to find it. Your ikigai can be found at the intersection between four different circles—what you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you're good at.

Credit: Corporate Wise Guy.

We’ve all heard the self-help gurus wax lyrical about the relationship between happiness and purpose. But there’s actually an unexpected relationship between them. Working in your ikigai means you’re more likely to get into flow, a state which researchers say promotes feelings of euphoria and joy—the more you enjoy your work, the more flow states you can achieve, and the happier you will be.

As the medical industry churns out an ever-increasing number of burned-out, dissatisfied doctors, the onus falls back on us to assess whether or not practicing medicine is our ikigai. There are deep, systemic problems within the medical industry that can be challenging to well-meaning physicians but, if we’re being honest, many of our colleagues are in it for the wrong reasons. Whether it’s for money, power, or social validation, going into a notoriously difficult profession for the wrong reasons makes it that much harder to find meaning in it (and to do it well).

Ask yourself this—when you decided to go into medicine, what motivated you? Were you motivated by the money or the social status? Were you interested in the human body? Did you have a deep burning desire to help others?

Medicine is one of those lucky professions where you can easily find yourself in the center of the ikigai diagram, if you went into it for the right reasons. Despite the flaws of the industry, if you are truly passionate about medicine, the meaning and fulfillment is easy to find in the work itself. You can be paid for it, the world will always need it (AI is good but not that good), and it’s something you can become an expert at. But if you don’t love it, then medicine will never fulfill you. So have you given some thought to what it is about medicine that gets you? You may think you want to help people, but let’s go a little deeper.

Extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation

What drives our behaviour? There are many different theories about motivation, but a popular one involves looking at whether the motivator comes from outside an individual (extrinsic), or from within (intrinsic). Both types of motivation are important, although they affect our behaviour in different ways.

Extrinsic motivators are those that can earn us a reward or spare us from punishment. You study because you want good grades. You work hard to get a raise or an award. You enter medicine to please your parents.

Intrinsic motivators are those that push us to do something because it feels good—we perform an activity for its own sake—for no other reason than that it is valuable in and of itself.

Why does this matter? Each of these motivators has a different effect on our behaviour and the research demonstrates that, typically, external rewards do not increase intrinsic motivation. So, if you went into medicine for the wrong reasons, all of the money, cars, and social status in the world won't be enough to make you enjoy it. You may do it well, but you’ll never be the best in your class, nor will you likely derive meaning and happiness from it.

Finding your ikigai

When you find your ikigai, the motivation to do what you do comes from the inside. If medicine is your true calling, you’ll be able to withstand the difficulty, politics, and pain you may face on your journey toward mastery because you can’t see yourself doing anything else! And don’t let your fear of discovering that medicine isn’t your true purpose keep you from undertaking this exercise.

Though you may find that clinical medicine isn’t for you, there may be another facet of medicine that is. You might find way more happiness going into medical innovation or entrepreneurship. Maybe academia is your ikigai. The point is, if you don’t take the time to understand yourself, you’re missing out on living a life with much greater meaning.

So how do you go about finding your ikigai?

Here are some steps you can take to help you along

  • Find the common thread:In the ikigai diagram above, fill out the You Love It and You Are Great At It circles. Think of as many examples as you can. Once you have a good list of 20–30 items, look at the circles again and find the items that are common to both. Then try to work out which of those items may also fit into the, You are Paid For It and The World Needs It circles. Hopefully, you’ll find at least one thing in there that fits neatly into all of the categories.
  • Just do it: You’ll never find your ikigai if you’re waiting for a lightning bolt of realization to hit you. The best way to find out whether an alternative path might make you happier, is to just give it a shot. Do you enjoy writing? Start a medical blog. Do you like building things? Go invent a new type of pacemaker. The point is, you’ll never know until you try.
  • Speak to people with similar passions: Dig into the treasure trove of wisdom that others can provide and learn from their experiences. Find other doctors who share similar passions and find out what they’re working on. Ask them how they find meaning in their work. You may be surprised to find that they have found a way to blend their passions with their profession and are leading a life that gives them the contentment we all crave.

Finding your ikigai isn’t easy—and it’s certainly not going to happen overnight! But if you take the time to build a deeper understanding of yourself and your place in the world, you may be pleasantly surprised at the outcome.