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Be Useful To Become Happy

Updated: Jul 16, 2021

What am I here for? How do I become happy? Everyone faces these questions at some point in life. Answering them clearly seems almost impossible. A concept called "ikigai" might be the solution.

woman walking along a yellow container
Photo: Rodion Kutsaev

When you look around and ask a random set of persons what their purpose of life is, in most cases, the answer will boil down to “happiness”. I mean, who doesn’t want to be happy? Even ancient philosopher Aristotle argued that: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” But if you look deeper, happiness is just the surface of a much more complex answer to the big question of our purpose.

The thing is: A lot of people strive for happiness in an incredibly ineffective way. As blogger Darius Foroux formulated it: “If you look around you, most people are pursuing happiness in their lives. That’s why we collectively buy shit we don’t need, go to bed with people we don’t love, and try to work hard to get approval of people we don’t like.”

🧰 Acquiring happiness through usefulness

In reality, happiness is never a pure goal. It can’t be. Happiness is a feeling that can’t be achieved by itself. It’s a byproduct of many other factors – and the most significant might be usefulness.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Let’s face it – what makes us happy? Mostly, it’s creating something that others can use. This thing can be real or surreal – it can be an object, a product or something as simple as an emotion. Something that simply makes a difference. Thus, usefulness and happiness are tightly connected – one supports the other. 19th-Century Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson concluded this in a very concise yet powerful way: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

woman holding a notebook in her hands with the word "mission journal" written on it
The mission of life? To make an impact – in whatever way feasible. Photo: David Iskander

But who am I to make a difference within seven billion people, you might ask. Well, it’s simple. You don’t have to become the next Mahatma Gandhi or Greta Thunberg. Making a difference can be as simple as taking a friend or family member to a spa, helping out your colleagues with something that’s not your responsibility, helping an old lady on the street or regularly calling in with friends asking if you can help with something. 

Small actions like these add up over a lifetime. Everyone has the ability to create their own “usefulness”. All that eventually matters that you spent your time on planet earth wisely and made an impact. Foroux put this thought in a very well-written sentence: “The last thing I want is to be on my deathbed and realize there’s zero evidence that I ever existed.”

🏯 Ikigai: The Japanese way to happiness

Now, the grand question is: How can we maximize our usefulness? After all, the average life consists of more than 700.000 hours and endless opportunities. So how can we implant a greater sense of usefulness – and therefore also happiness – into your life?

Well, in Japanese, there’s a word called "ikigai". It’s used to describe the things that make one’s life worthwhile. Roughly translated to English, it means “thing that you live for” or “reason for which you wake up in the morning”. Every individual has its own ikigai which reflects her/his inner self. Activities that allow one to feel “ikigai” are always voluntary, often spontaneous undertaken for a feeling of satisfaction and a sense of meaning to life. It's exactly what we're looking for.

Ikigai (生き甲斐, pronounced [ikigai]) is a Japanese concept that means "a reason for being."

To find your ikigai, Dan Buettner, author of Blue Zones: Lessons on Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, suggests making three lists: your values, things you like to do, and things you are good at. The cross-section of the three lists is your ikigai. Additionally, most authors recommend adding a dimension concerning what the world needs.

The definition of Ikigai and everything around
Basically, Ikigai is the simplification of a fulfilled life. Graphic: Adapted from Wikimedia

Eventually, the concept of ikigai looks like the above illustration. Though, how can it be that we struggle with something the Japanese have known for thousands of years? As in a lot of cases, the reason can be traced back to today's society. Hector Garcia, the co-author of Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, argues that we have lost a sense of bigger meaning in our consumerist world. He writes: “Just as humans have lusted after objects and money since the dawn of time, other humans have felt dissatisfaction at the relentless pursuit of money and fame and have instead focused on something bigger than their own material wealth. This has over the years been described using many different words and practices, but always hearkening back to the central core of meaningfulness in life.”

Additionally, there's an endless number of extra strategies to find and keep one’s ikigai. Garcia and Miralles, authors of the book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, suggest:

  1. Staying active and don’t retire

  2. Leaving urgency behind and adopting a slower pace of life

  3. Only eating until you are 80 per cent full

  4. Surrounding yourself with good friends

  5. Getting in shape through daily, gentle exercise

  6. Smiling and acknowledging people around you

  7. Reconnecting with nature

  8. Giving thanks to anything that brightens our day and makes us feel alive

  9. Living in the moment

  10. Following your ikigai

⛰ Create a happy life today

Happiness isn't just something that comes as you go. Happiness is the result of your actions – and those actions can be almost anything. They don’t have to be related to a particular profession, but they have to provide something for the world.

"Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." – Howard Thurman

In the process of finding your ikigai, don’t be afraid to step up. Be curious and do what you think is necessary. As philosopher and civil rights leader Howard Thurman once said: “Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Fulfilment has become the main priority for most of us. And the better you’re able to utilize your abilities, the better you’re able to provide usefulness. We at the female factor try to help you with exactly that. We’re a curated global community for a new era of female leaders, creating tailor-made career and business opportunities by boosting connections, confidence & competence. On May 14th 2020, we’re launching our biggest one-day-conference yet with the goal of guiding you become your best self. There’s a ton of speeches, workshops and content awaiting you! Early bird tickets are already available – so get one today.


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