How happy are you at work? Most of us spend half of our waking hours working, so it is hard to imagine a world where you are unhappy at work but happy in Life. Moreover, science has proven that a fulfilling occupation is critical to a happy life. Work provides flow, a sense of achievement, and a deeper purpose for people.
Unfortunately, there isn't much consensus on the "formula" for happiness at work. If you ask Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs, they will say, "follow your passion." If you ask Scott Galloway, he will say that is the worst advice in the world and that you "do what you are good at." If you ask a positive psychologist, they will say, "do what gives you a sense of flow."
After researching the opinions and studies on the matter, I found the most useful framework, which comes from Japanese philosophy. One that is especially important on the Island of Okinawa. Okinawa is one of the 9 "blue zones" in the world. The concept of Blue zones came from a study by Dan Buettner trying to understand the lifestyle of people in regions of the world with the highest longevity. Okinawa is one of them. Okinawa men live on average 80 years and women 87. Some of the factors behind the longevity in Okinawa are common across japan, like nutritional habits and constant low cardio exercise. Still, one specific element that caught Dan Buettner's attention was the concept of IKIGAI.
IKIGAI means "reason for being," but work and Life are so intertwined in Japan that IKIGAI is a framework that helps people in Okinawa choose their occupation. The IKIGAI framework helps you find that reason for being by answering four questions: (1) What are you good at? (2) What are you passionate about? (3) What can you be paid for? and finally (4) What does the world needs? Interestingly enough, the philosophy of Ikigai leads you in the same direction of advice we have been receiving but also what recent science points to.
Let's dive a bit. Following your passion makes sense and is self-explanatory. Doing something you love doing is better than not.
Then, Do what you are good at. First, what does "good at" mean? It means that you should be an "overachiever" in the area, which is a person that performs better (i would argue much better) than the average person in that task. Being an overachiever is critical for some reasons. First, an intrinsic sense of mastery and achievement is key to happiness and fulfillment. Doing something well gives you a sense of self-worth and satisfaction (don't confuse that with external admiration), and science has shown that achievement is a crucial driver of happiness. Secondly, if you are not better than average in whatever you do, you will unlikely be unable to make money and fulfill your needs. We know that money is essential for happiness until you reach that minimal income level. Being good at what you do will give you a sense of achievement and increases the chance you won't have the sort of money problems that causes unhappiness.
Thirdly, What you can get paid for. By now, there is a certain consensus that money brings small increases in happiness above a minimum threshold. However, below a certain level (around US$ 75k a year), it can bring unhappiness. We know, for example, that the #1 reason for divorce in the US is related to money issues. We all know many people that are passionate about what they do, they do it well, but their lives are full of struggle and anxiety because they can't make a living off their passion. How many musicians, artists, bar owners, restaurant owners, or craft brewers quit their passion because they can't make ends meet?
Lastly, what the world needs. We know that purpose, altruism and doing something for others are potent drivers of well-being. Doing something that the world needs is good for the world but also fulfilling—doing something bigger than yourself brings a deeper meaning and a sense of purpose.
So, does following your ikigai lead to success? Although I haven't found much scientific evidence on the combination of these elements, they seem consistent with the science and corroborated by the evidence we see in real life. In my personal experience, I look at people who have fulfilling lives, and usually, they check the four boxes of ikigai. People that are not so fulfilled are generally missing one or two aspects of ikigai. Some of them found their ikigai very, very early. Warren buffet knew at twelve years old he wanted to be an investor. Jeff Bezos wanted to go to space at 10. Some took more time. Jack Ma found his calling at 36, and Colonel Sanders from KFC in his 70s.
Have you found your IKIGAI? Next, we will talk about what you can do to find your IKIGAI and what you shouldn't do before you find it.