Ikigai and the self-help genre’s smoke and mirrors magic trick

Books

Ikigai and the self-help genre’s smoke and mirrors magic trick

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Here I am, a man of 35 years, living in filthy-air Gurgaon, rubbing a lower back sore from hours of sitting, trying to think of a stupendous hack that could make him retire at 40, or 45, or even 47 (50 seems too late), and here is this book, telling him in its first chapter to heed a Japanese way of life that makes a virtue of always being busy and never retiring. Talk about mismatches.

The book is Ikigai, The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, translated from Spanish by Heather Cleary. At the time of writing this article, the English version was Amazon bestseller #2 in India. It is, quite simply, a sensation, a book that millions worldwide are finding to be something worth paying for. That millions worldwide repeatedly find self-help or motivational books worth paying for shouldn’t take away from Ikigai’s glory. For me though, the book raises more questions then it postures to answer.

It reads like a breeze, you can skip entire chunks, and summarising the message is easy: eat well, sleep well, exercise, be part of a community, and have something to occupy your mind.

Topping, even if momentarily, a list including Atomic Habits by James Clear, Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyasaki, and Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty, just to name a few, is no mean marketing feat. That said, for those too focused on content and given to envy, the book’s success can be a tad discomfiting, for it isn’t that it has unlocked some hitherto unknown door to happiness, one that might lead to an amelioration of the world’s problems.

It combines, in what I sense is typical self-help-bestseller fashion, some primary research with age-old wisdom and dashes of pre-existing serious scientific work—all to deliver a smorgasbord of approaches for making our lives longer and healthier and happier. It reads like a breeze, you can skip entire chunks, and summarising the message is easy: eat well, sleep well, exercise, be part of a community, and have something to occupy your mind.

About that last bit: works better if you can feel a good degree of passion about what you choose to occupy your mind with. If you did, and if the activity could pay, it might become your purpose. You’d have found your ikigai. Diligently following the message that Ikigai gives is, of course, a different matter altogether.

The book cites how long-living people in Okinawa grow their own vegetables. Given that I don’t have a kitchen garden, how must I eat well?

Although they aren’t mentioned explicitly, there are prerequisites. It would appear that in order to change my life in the ways that the book wants me to, I would have to change my life significantly in preparation. Here are just three of the problems that I’m likely to face in my pursuit of ikigai:

  1. I must eat well. This includes eating more vegetables, something that the book recommends. The vegetables that I’ve access to are likely full of pesticides and injected with dubious things. The book cites how long-living people in Okinawa grow their own vegetables. Given that I don’t have a kitchen garden, how must I eat well?
  2. I must reduce sitting-time, because being seated for too long can screw things up. But what do I do if my job involves Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting forcing me to be ass-on-chair for hours on end? Given that I can’t just quit my job, how must I be more active?
  3. I must find something that I feel passionate about. But if all I have are inklings of passions and if arriving at a single passion is going to be a hit-and-trial thing, how do I produce the time and money to try out activities that may or may not be my passion? Again, should I quit my job?

The above questions might have a rhetorical flavour, but I claim that they hint at something true, which is that most of the time, changing the track of one’s life is not in one’s control. A different Japanese term, karoshi, referring to death from overwork, comes to mind. If you like the mildly macabre, you can find many photos of suit-clad Japanese men collapsed roadside out of exhaustion. In 2016, one-fifth of the Japanese workforce was said to be at risk of karoshi. Why can’t these people just go and find their ikigai?

It suits bestsellers in the self-help genre to not talk about such extremes. Just as it also suits them to maintain the posture that their messages have universal relevance, that everyone can follow the recommendations, that such and such ways of changing one’s life can be pursued by all. Making art, for example, is something that Ikigai venerates, even recommends. Here’s what it has to say about it:

“Art, in all its forms, is an ikigai that can bring happiness and purpose to our days. Enjoying or creating beauty is free, and something all human beings have access to.”

It requires a particular kind of naivete, of course, to believe that all human beings have access to, or resources for, the creation of beauty in a way that can become life-defining. The absolute and all-too-visible difficulties that a huge majority of the world’s population has in eating well and sleeping under a roof—just to mention two of the things-to-follow in Ikigai—are enough to destroy the assertion.

This is not to say that reading the book doesn’t lead to a feeling of enhanced agency among slightly well-to-do folk. Starting to read a self-help book in order to help the self is, after all, an act of self-selection, of placing ourselves at a certain location in the gestalt of human civilization. We are expressing a latent desire to add import to our existence, with a sense that not only can our life improve, but that the tools for improving it are within our grasp. In that sense, merely the act of buying such a book improves our life a wee bit. That is the allure, and perhaps that is the scam.

Comments