Ikigai finds kinship in another vital concept we might call “flow” or “being in the moment” — an experience of doing something we love so much that time ceases to matter. Such activities have many things in common, but above all, they share a balance between difficulty and reward. If skiing, for example, brings you great peace and joy, you also know that it took no small amount of practice before it clicked for you.
The trick of achieving flow is to find that sweet spot. Too little challenge and it becomes boring; too much and it becomes anxiety-inducing. Whatever your flow might be, you must always have a concrete objective toward which to aspire and a mind homed in on the process of getting there. It doesn’t mean you need an exhaustive map, just a reliable compass. Without this, everything else falls apart in your quest for flow.
Some small things you can do every day to get your mind ready to achieve flow:
- Not looking at screens for close to an hour after waking or before sleeping.
- Turning off your phone.
- Abstaining from technology for one day a week.
- Putting yourself in places without Wi-Fi.
- Checking your email at most twice a day, and at scheduled times.
- Taking frequent breaks from work.
- Sanctifying your work with some kind of ritual, and rewarding yourself when finished.
- Freeing yourself from distraction.
- Taking care of routine tasks in one go.
Masters of Longevity
Japan is known for its Takumi, or master artisans. A quintessential example would be the subject of the popular documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, who, after more than 80 years, still finds flow in the art of placing raw fish on rice for his more-than-satisfied customers. His task is simple; his skill, astronomical. This is the very picture of ikigai.
Another Takumi is filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, whose passion for animation and the beauty and fragility of the natural world has been captured in such classics as Spirited Away, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Ponyo, all of which are themed around pollution and other ecological disruptions. His sense of flow is indefatigable, as evidenced by the fact that even after “retirement,” he was back in the studio drawing at his desk.
He will continue to do so, he says, until he breathes his last. But ikigai is not just the purview of famous directors and chefs. The Japanese are also experts at “microflowing,” as evidenced by the apparent enthusiasm with which many Japanese workers approach mundane tasks that might otherwise be taken for granted. From convenience store clerks to elevator operators, undeniable happiness exudes from their very being as they go about their daily work.
We must likewise learn to take pleasure in our repetitive tasks. Whether it’s washing the dishes or packing a school lunch, these little rituals can give us a sense of order and purpose if we let them. Human beings thrive on routine, repetition, and reliability. All of which means that those who are happiest in life aren’t the overachievers, but those who spend the most time in a state of flow.
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