Ask someone what gives them a sense of fulfilment, and more often than not, they will relate their career goals and outline where they hope to be financially before retirement.
“An average person spends 90,000 hours in their lifetime working – the career domain is where they actively invest their energy, time and effort,” explains Stephen Lew, positive psychology coach and founder of The School of Positive Psychology. “In return, they are recognised by their peers and organisations based on their performance and achievements, which impacts their self-perception or ‘sense of self’. Hence, self-worth is often correlated with their occupations.”
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This rings truer in Singapore than other parts of the world, says Dr Jade Kua, an emergency medical specialist turned professional life coach. The #HerWorldTribe member recalls the significance of the 5Cs – car, condo, credit card, country club membership and cash – in the country during her adolescent years. They make for light-hearted slogans on touristy T-shirts, yet Dr Kua feels that the hankering after materialism continues even in the younger generation of today, although few might admit to it.
“Cash is practical, so there’s certainly nothing wrong with setting your sights on being financially independent, but being obsessed with money can cloud your judgment,” she says.
Lew calls this “affluenza” – a social and psychological malaise. It’s good to strive towards concrete goals, but equating self-worth and well-being with wealth accumulation, societal status and career success, and the lack thereof to failure, can be detrimental. This is the reason why “many being richer, still feel internally ‘broken’ or experience a deep sense of lack”, adds Lew.
A changing force
The Covid-19 pandemic has made us all think harder about what we are doing, because suddenly, the transience of life has become all too apparent.
The 2020 instalment of the global World Values Survey – in which 80 countries participated – found that Singaporeans ranked family, friends and wealth as their top three priorities. Work took fifth place. The findings were in contrast to a similar survey conducted in 2012, where 84.9 per cent rated work as fourth in the list of priorities, whereas, in 2002, 90.8 per cent rated work as their second priority in life.
The proof is in the pie, literally, as we saw evidence of people realising new ways of finding fulfilment, says Dr Kua. While some shared openly and built new bonds with people over social media, others acquired new skills. “I haven’t seen so many posts of homemade milk buns, sourdough bread and kombucha before,” she says.
Lew likens the pandemic to a perfect storm, which has stripped away the facades that people have been hiding behind and forced them to ask: “Are we a passenger or a driver of our own lives?”
Such occurrences steer us away from quick- fix solutions and urge people “to turn inwards for internal resourcing”, says Daniel Lim, life coach and podcaster at Lito.
One such example is the pursuit of ikigai – the Japanese word for finding one’s reason for being; of waking up (iki = life; gai = value).
Japan has consistently topped the list for the longevity rates of its population – the average lifespan is 87 years for women and 81 years for men, according to the country’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. While their diet has a big role to play in their healthy life expectancy, the practice of ikigai plays a part as well. The Japanese value money and career success as much as the rest of the world, but to them, finding purpose or a sense of self-worth has less to do with work and more to do with uncovering value in the smaller everyday things in life.
“It’s not about finding one’s ikigai, but about creating one. It’s akin to finding your true north star so that your life has direction, clarity and purpose,” says Lew. “Crafting your ikigai is vital if you seek a more meaningful life, and to flourish and thrive.”
How to create your ikigai in the new normal
● Live an intentional life
“The goal is just a means to an end, not an end in itself,” says Lim. “Your ikigai isn’t a destination or place you get to. You live your ikigai, one decision at a time. You commit to your ikigai over and over again.” In that sense, living an intentional life can happen just by asking yourself how you would like to feel on a day-to-day basis, and determining what you need to do to welcome more of that feeling, adds Lim.
● Refine your focus
Increase awareness of your strengths and focus conscientiously on employing your strengths every day, rather than on improving your weaknesses, says Lew. There are many ways to take a strengths test. You can ask the people you know to list them to you, or access an online strength assessment tool. “This awareness helps, as using your strengths regularly actually increases your energy levels and performance. On the flip side, if you aim to improve your weaknesses very frequently, you will find your energy sapped, and you lose the opportunity to hone your strengths,” says Lew.
● Get into a state of flow
The best way is in living it out, rather than just introspection. “Identify events that bring you into total absorption until you lose track of time. These activities challenge your skills and reward the utmost satisfaction or sense of accomplishment,” says Lew. It could be anything from sports to art to cooking, or simply creating something new, he says. And commit to consistent action. This may mean reworking your priorities or exploring new directions, but testing your life purpose in the real world will get you one step closer.
● Suspend judgment
“A fulfilled life is one that is deeply meaningful and/or joyful. What that looks like is entirely up to you,” says Lim. Finding that your career gives you the most sense of purpose does not make you less family- or spiritually-oriented in life “as long as self-worth is not tied to net worth”, adds Lew. “We get to paint the canvas any way we want. You can paint a replica. You can paint something that no one else can appreciate but yourself. Or you can choose to keep the canvas entirely blank. Chef’s choice. That’s the power we yield in our hands, and where fulfilment resides,” says Lim.
Read on to find out how two women define ikigai.