How to find your happiness: The Japanese philosophy of Ikigai

Is today a repeat of yesterday? Rob Bell explains how the Japanese concept of Ikigai can help you wake up with a sense of wonder and purpose.

Rob Bell: I’ve met more people who, essentially, somewhere along the way picked up: 'You go to school, you get trained in something, then you go get a job in that and then you do that job and that’s your career and then you die.' But then they got into this thing and realized they don’t actually want to do this with their life. Or nobody wants this particular trade anymore. You make eight-track players; people aren’t buying eight-tracks anymore.

There’s this weird thing about the market where if you go in with, 'Well, this is a thing that I do,' there may be forces beyond you that like: 'No one wants to pay for that anymore.'

And so over the years, I kept meeting people who had this very single track 'this is what I’m supposed to do' thing and then it disappointed them for reasons out of their control or simply, “I got trained to do this thing that I don’t like to do.”

Then I stumbled on this Japanese word “ikigai” and ikigai essentially is that which gets you out of bed in the morning. Sometimes it’s translated as 'your reason for being'. And in Japanese culture they have this very well thought through idea of ikigai: that you never stop working out your ikigai—what it is that gets you out of bed in the morning. And so in this season of life, this is what you’re doing but that may change. It may shift. Somebody you love may get sick and so you need to care for them. You used to do this and now that industry is sort of dried up but now you need to go back to school because you need to now go do this.

And they had this really interesting idea that when you no longer have something that gets you out of bed in the morning, then you’re kind of dead, even if you’re still alive. And the reason why I find that fascinating is you can be successful, you can have a nice job, you can have a nice house, you can do all the stuff that everybody says, “Hey, you’ve made it,” and yet wake up in the morning with a profound sense of dread like, “Ugh, another day?” And despair is a spiritual disease. Despair is when you believe that tomorrow will simply be a repeat of today.

Despair is when you look ahead into the future and each day is just another version of this. What we really want, no matter how educated, sophisticated, accomplished we are, we want to wake up in the morning with this sense of anticipation.

Like, “Look what I get to do today!” The great Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “I didn’t ask for success, I asked for wonder.”

And I love that because for many of us we were trained for success. Here’s how you work hard and multitask and network and get stuff done and climb the ladder. What we weren’t taught oftentimes was to ask, “Is this ladder even leaned up against the right building?”—which is a different set of questions. It exerts a different set of muscles.

It’s one thing to be successful. It’s another thing to wake up and think, "Check out what I get to do today! How great is this?”

It’s as if success asks this question, “What more can I get?” And then there’s this other question, very different, that comes out of ikigai, understanding your life is a craft that you’re endlessly working out—and that question is: “Can you believe I get to do this?”

It’s like you have this thing that’s been sort of buzzing in your mind and heart. Like, "I would love to go try that." But then all those voices come back in of who you aren’t. “You don’t have enough resources. You’re not smart enough. You haven’t gone to the right schools." 

By the way who you aren’t isn’t interesting.The long list of things you haven’t done or where you haven’t been or who you don’t know or money you don’t have. It’s so boring! Who you aren’t isn’t interesting.

And then when you are finding your path and when you are saying yes to whatever it is that’s sort of welling up within you that is filling you with a sense of wonder and anticipation: who other people are in relation to your path isn’t interesting. Because often what happens is we think, “I would do that but so and so is smarter, and so and so is faster, and so and so has more endurance and can work harder. And so and so always gets…” Not interesting. It’s not interesting. You finding your path, the only question is, “What is the thing that you’re here to do, and what is the next step?”

And fear often raises its voice and fear lists all the ways it can go wrong. And by the way, the best thing with fear is to talk back to fear. Because fear is like, “You could lose a lot of money. People might not understand this. I mean you might really fail.” And the thing you do with fear is talk back to fear. Because fear thinks it’s quite intelligent. It’s like, “I’m here to warn you of all the bad things that could happen. And you probably haven’t thought of this and this and this.”

And here’s the thing you do is you talk to fear and you say to fear whenever fear is like: “You know what? This could really, really be a giant catastrophe. This could be a mess. You could really fail.” What you say to fear is you say to fear, “I know.” And then you smile. “I know. I know.” Because fear has no idea what to do with that. “I’m aware of all that.” 

Life is difficult enough. You might as well be doing something that fills you with life. It’s going to beat you up enough, you might as well be getting up in the morning with some sense of, 'I’m headed somewhere. I’m a step closer to being my true self today.'

And you know you’re making progress when all those voices come and say, “Who are you to do this? Who do you think you are?” You know you’re making progress when you start talking back to those voices, and you have an even better question which is: 'Who am I not to do this?'

There will always be somebody smarter. There will always be somebody who knows more people. There will always be somebody who’s traveled to more places and got better grades in school and has more money. There will always be somebody better. But you can say, “But who am I not to do this?” And that’s interesting.

What gets you out of bed in the morning? If your only answer to that question is: 'My alarm clock,' then firstly, that's detention, and secondly: where is your sense of purpose? Spiritual teacher Rob Bell explains how his discovery of Ikigai—a Japanese life philosophy—crystilized a problem he was seeing too often, in most people he met. In your late teens or early twenties, you typically land on a path that you follow for the rest of your life. You picked a degree and now you're stuck. You made a decision and now it seems too late to choose again. That can lead us to a deeply unsatisfying place, where today is just a repeat of yesterday. Ikigai contains "this really interesting idea, that when you no longer have something that gets you out of bed in the morning, then you’re kind of dead, even if you’re still alive," says Bell. Your reason for being should shift many times over the course of your life, and looking at your life as containing many seasons— rather than one long stretch—can be a better way to frame and find fulfillment. Ikigai asks four key questions, at the center of which you can find your purpose: 1) What do you love? 2) What are you good at? 3) What does the world need from you? 4) What can you get paid for? Rob Bell is the author of What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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