Ikigai: What makes a good life?
Ikigai is one of those beautiful Japanese words that encapsulates a whole paragraph of English in just one word. Roughly, it describes a reason for being, or that thing that gets you out of bed in the morning and really motivates you deep down. Now I want to ask you, what is your ikigai? Don't be disheartened if you're not sure, or if you have one but you're not sure it's what it should be. I spend a lot of time thinking about mine and I'm still struggling to define it. I suspect I'm not alone.
When we ask how one should live, we entertain the implicit assumption that there is some platonic form of 'the perfect life' that we must all model ourselves on and strive towards. Now that is clearly not the case and I'm sure we can all think of many varied lives that we can look at and say 'that person is doing it right'. Take the wildlife trust ranger you say hi to when walking your dog who loves being outdoors, is always happy and never stressed and brings his children along with him at weekends, and compare him to your lecturer at university who spends her morning discussing the hottest new interpretation of Wittgenstein over coffee before settling down to an afternoon of reading in the absence of distraction and then trying out that new tortellini recipe at home with her family. Without delving further into the subjective psychological state of each of these individuals, their lives both appear objectively 'good' but in very different ways. Now compare them both to your next door neighbour who leaves before the sun rises to stand in the doorway of a busy commuter train for 3 hours each day in order to get to the office where they work 50 weeks of the year with people they don't like on projects whose sole purpose is to create more wealth for the CEO who owns 95% of the company and has no time to visit their parents. Whilst there is clearly no such thing as a perfect life, I think some of us are doing it better than others. Which end of the spectrum are you on?
If it is possible to make statements about better and worse ways of living, I think it's pretty clear that most us aren't currently doing it right. In the developed world, we spend far less time with our families and more time working to make money for the richest who are speeding away from us as the inequality gap increases year on year. We work longer hours, despite the massively increased productivity that computing and automation enables us. 20 years ago, no-one felt the need to respond to work colleagues within 30 minutes, but now we are all attached to email and worry that our colleagues will think us incompetent or lazy if we aren't checking it 4+ times a day whilst on annual leave. Back in the early 20th century, eminent economist John Maynard Keynes predicted the 15 hour work week and that the biggest problem facing humanity would be boredom and excessive amounts of leisure time. That prediction is now laughable, with 38% of British adults saying they would rather work less hours.
What's the point in working so much to increase GDP if that doesn't correspond to an equivalent increase in our happiness. We each end up a glorified Sisyphus, ever striving to reach the top of the mountain with our boulder forgetting why we strive for that in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, all this has left us feeling very unhappy. 20% of us exhibit the symptoms of anxiety or depression, 2.8% of us have been diagnosed as having depression. According to the World Happiness Report, on a 0-10pt scale of happiness with 10 being the happiest you can imagine and 0 being not worth living, W Europeans average out as rating their lives at 6.575, at a little over halfway, that's pretty poor. In Denmark they are up at 7.5! Partly due to their fantastic social and welfare system, partly due to their family and home-centric culture which values leisure and free time rather than work and partly due to their progressive society which has high levels of gender equality.
So what are the key ingredients of a good life? How does one attain it? One of the earliest and simplest suggestions was the epicurean form of hedonism in which one's goal in life is thought to be to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. Rather seductive in its simplicity, it is argued that humans are just a bag of chemicals (albeit very precisely arranged) and that pleasure itself is simply the result of dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens and serotonin in the anterior cingulate cortex and so any pursuit of higher order satisfaction is missing the point. To most of us this perspective looks a little reductionist and we'd feel dissatisfied with a life spent solely on immediate short term pleasures e.g. sex, drugs, food, money.
There must surely be something more.
Religion of course used to fill this void in our search for meaning but has come to have little significance for many in the western world today with 71% of young people in the UK reporting that they have no religion. Are we forced to accept Nietzsche in his nihilism now that 'god is dead'?
Viktor E Frankl (psychiatrist, holocaust survivor and esteemed author) contends against this in his famous book 'Man's search for meaning' which describes how he coped in Auschwitz and then went on to develop logotherapy, a psychotherapy based around the idea that it is the search for meaning that gives our lives purpose and fulfilment. Frankl argues that meaning can be found everywhere and can make all lives worth living - even those of abject hopelessness and suffering such as a prisoner of a concentration camp. There are three ways to obtain meaning:
We all inherently understand the first to be a valuable way to pursue meaning and thus contentment. For example, those in the third sector such as charity fundraisers derive a sense of meaning through the act of helping others, and effective altruists by doing so in the most effective, evidence based way possible. The second meaningful activity is the experience of values, which can be through many different media e.g. beauty through art or love through a relationship. Neither of these is controversial, but this categorisation is quite an elegant portrayal of those key features a hedonist must acquire before achieving the highest levels of life satisfaction.
Frankl goes further however, extrapolating from his concentration camp ordeals to include a third path in the search for meaning: suffering.
"If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.
This third way may combine with the first two also, in the following moving passage, Frankl describes how he experienced meaning through love in Auschwitz.
"We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbour's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us."
In the absence of one of Frankl's three pursuits of meaning, we tend to fill the void with other less fulfilling pursuits such as hedonism, power, materialism or the easy lure of neurosis. How many times have you thought to yourself: 'Once I'm out of this job I'll be happy', 'once I'm earning X amount, then I'll relax and be content', 'if I was just 1 dress size smaller then I'd be happy and more confident'. Any of us who have ever attained one of these thoughts knows full well that life doesn't change and there is always another goal to strive for. We can never relax.
So is the pursuit of meaning enough for us all to lead the best possible lives? Yes there is no longer a void, but I think that this inherently does not feel like enough. One can envisage an aid worker, or a teacher, who finds what they do optimally worthwhile and meaningful but is still buffeted by the typical anxieties, unhappiness and stresses of day to day life to which we all succumb. Or the chef of a 3 Michelin star restaurant, producing the most innovative dishes never before imagined, immersing themselves in their love for food, who still finds the daily struggles of customer complaints, underperforming staff and negative reviews a burden. Where else might we look for the ingredients of a good life?
Over recent decades, the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (aka the Buddha) have begun to enter Western popular consciousness, luring many dissatisfied souls in with its lofty promises of a higher sense of fulfilment and happiness. Perhaps even the elusive nirvana is possible - an ultimate state of non-self existence which finally releases one from the cycle of rebirth (samsara). The Zen school of Buddhism has gained particular popularity in the West with its tradition of meditation, the simplest and most famous form of which, Vipassana (or mindfulness - popularised by Jon Kabat-Zinn), has become widely practiced from silicon valley tech leaders, to UK primary schools. Household names such as Clint Eastwood, Oprah, Steve Jobs and Kobe Bryant have talked about their use of the practice and from hundreds of interviews with world leaders across industry, sport, academia, entertainment and more, Tim Ferriss has found that upwards of 70% of them include some form of meditation practice in their morning routine. I won't go into detail on how to meditate here, as Sam Harris writes really well on this topic here.
It certainly looks like something worth exploring.
Research into the field is still young, but there is an increasing amount of evidence supporting the role of meditation on happiness. For example, this meta-analysis of 47 randomised controlled trials concluded that 'mindfulness meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression and pain'. Interestingly, this same study found 'low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life' for meditation, but these metrics are naturally harder to measure and in fact, even the tiniest of impact on quality of life on a 10pt scale can be huge long term. Most of the 47 studies were also quite short term, some as short as 5 weeks, and it is well recognised that the self-reported effects of meditation take months to years to develop.
Other meta-analyses show efficacy for meditation in depression, anxiety, stress reduction, substance abuse and eating disorders.
The underlying neuronal correlates of these effects are unknown, but meditation has been shown to trigger widespread increases in cortical gray matter (an important reversal of the ageing brain) as well as particular increases in the thickness of the prefrontal cortex (key in executive function, emotional regulation and inhibition), the mass of the insula (important for self-awareness) and the hippocampus (memory), all areas of which have been strongly implicated in depression.
Further fMRI studies demonstrate increased engagement of the anterior cingulate cortex and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex in Vipassana meditators when practicing. These two areas are thought to be the most important brain in depression as key regulators and mediators of emotion, and this data is therefore promising in suggesting a link.
There is another ancient philosophy from a different culture that is also taking the world (and in particular the bay area) by storm with its potential use in creating a good life: stoicism. Established by the ancient Greek, Zeno, in the 3rd century BC, stoicism's most famous adherents and teachers were the roman emperor of the 2nd century AD, Marcus Aurelius, and the statesman philosopher, Seneca. It is based on the idea that one should remain steadfast no matter what life throws at you and not succumb to the whims of one's innate, impulsive reactions as is encompassed beautifully pithily by Rudyard Kipling in If:
If you can keep your head when all about you
I like to think of the word 'man' in the final sentence as more broadly referring to humanity. Reading that, it's not hard to see the appeal.
There are three key Stoic practices I want to mention.
The first, described by Seneca:
"It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on, it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs'. 'Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: 'Is this the condition that I feared."
The theory behind this, spending some time living in the absence of luxury (perhaps by fasting, or by relinquishing your normal pleasures), is that it you will realise that not having such things is not so bad at all. You will therefore be liberated from the anxious, desperate pursuit of wealth and materialism and become free to take risks to explore as you please in life, prioritise correctly and not take anything for granted.
"Choose not to be harmed and you won't feel harmed. Don't feel harmed and you haven't been" Marcus Aurelius
This is the second practice, and frames every struggle as an opportunity, every obstacle a teaching opportunity. For example, imagine a colleague who does no work but claims your successes as their own, this teaches you patience and humility and tames the ego. There is a learning point in every situation and it is up to you to find it. 'You have the power over your mind - not outside events. Realise this and you will find strength' - Aurelius. This practise has been popularised by Ryan Holiday in 'The Obstacle is the Way' and is in fact the basis for modern cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which treats depression, anxiety and eating disorders by replacing negative thought processes with more positive interpretations of events.
The final practice is to constantly remind yourself of your place in the world and retain that perspective perpetually.
"Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good"
These thoughts may appear morbid, but I actually find them extremely liberating and perfect way of constantly focusing only on that which is actually important.
Whilst he didn't identify as a stoic, Benjamin Franklin (commonly touted as someone who clearly had things together) certainly espoused some stoic principles in his life. My favourite is his virtue diary which he developed in order to train himself to be a better person by keeping track of thirteen virtues and rating himself on them at the end of each week. In this way he would gradually cultivate the deficient ones one by one. His thirteen virtues are here. However, I have personalised mine somewhat and track just eight slightly different ones:
Each week, I rank myself on each and think about how to improve those I fall short on, tranquillity being a consistent low performer!
So perhaps incorporating some of these Stoic and Zen Buddhist practices into our daily lives, combined with a meaningful pursuit might set us on the right path to happiness and fulfilment? There is one more lens through which I think we should all look at life on a regular basis and that is the regrets of the dying. Let us learn from the mistakes of others and not make them again. Australian palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware has recorded a career of dying people's regrets in 'The top five regrets of the dying'. Here they are:
Take a moment to really consider each of those. Each contains a wealth of information and I think it is really worth focusing on them.
From hedonism and the search for meaning to stoicism and the Zen school, how to live is something none of us ever really think about, but it's so important and has a massive impact on our well being. And to be frank, what else is the point of life, other than trying to lead the best one we can? So meditate more, worry less, don't work so hard, meaning is imperative and can always be found, accept life's struggles as they come and most importantly, lead a good life and never lose sight of your ikigai.
I enjoyed reading this, thanks for taking the time to write up your thoughts! I particularly liked your choice of stoic quotes, hadn't come across many of those specific ones before
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