Imagine two biographies at the same time, one in Europe, the other in Japan. Both life stories are characterized by severe hardships, deep suffering, reflections on sadness, hope and grief. Two people reflecting on what makes life worth living, what gives life meaning. One paving the way for meaning-centered psychotherapy through his own experiences (Viktor Frankl), the other one developing and wholeheartedly living the concept of Ikigai (Mieko Kamiya). But their paths never crossed. So the question comes up.
What if Mieko Kamiya and Viktor Frankl had met?
They might have pondered how to find meaning in the face of political instability, increasing mental health problems in society, and the loss of meaning for many individuals. They might have sat down to a rich Viennese melange or even enjoyed a traditional tea ceremony (just to fulfill all the stereotypes here). As the founders of Logotherapy (Viktor Frankl) and Ikigai psychology (Mieko Kamiya) might have also shared their sources of what makes their lives worth living, despite and perhaps because of all the suffering. Possibly, they might have discussed their approaches to finding meaning in life and how they relate to each other.
All this may have happened, but we can’t know. We can, however, explore connections that were on the verge of being discovered during their lifetimes.
On suffering – One lifetime, many experiences
Given their personal experiences and observations of great suffering, Viktor Frankl and Mieko Kamiya both pondered questions such as
- What gives people hope in the face of adversity?
- What do people need to feel less like victims and more like active creators of their lives?
- How can we overcome periods of deep sadness and grief?
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. – Viktor Frankl
Both of them have thought, written and spoken a great deal about suffering. It seems surprising how much their attitude towards, application and integration of suffering in life resembles their approach to living life.
Attitude: Viktor Frankl and Mieko Kamiya saw suffering as part of life – and nevertheless (or precisely because of this) life can be particularly worth living.
Application: Both were challenged to „apply“ their approaches to their own lives when they experienced severe hardship.
Integration: Both have experienced severe suffering in their own lives and have written a lot about it; it was clear to them that more is needed than just drugs.
Mieko Kamiya – A dedication to writing after medicine, marriage and motherhood
Mieko Kamiya, the founder of Ikigai psychology, was born in 1914 in Okayama, Japan. She had been exposed to different cultures due to her family’s move to Switzerland in her childhood, whereafter she was able to speak Germany and English fluently. She long struggled to find meaning after the loss of the love of her life in her early twenties. She was highly educated in classical literature and languages (including Italian, German, French and Greek), amongst them Marcus Aurelius’s book which she translated into Japanese later.
Already as a college student she happened to visit a sanatorium where she was deeply impressed with leprosy patients there. She felt that she should someday work for them, but it would take a few years still. She later started to study medicine in the US, but returned to Japan in the fear of the coming war where she became a medical doctor. Early on, she treated leprosy patients and her interest in psychiatry grew early on.
According to the dictionary, ikigai means „strength needed to live in this world, happiness, being alive, usefulness, effectiveness“. When we try to translate it into English, German, French, etc., there seems to be no other way to define it other than „worth living“ or „value or meaning of life. – Mieko Kamiya
Only after she had married and gave birth to two children, she dedicated her life to writing, her personal Ikigai. Thereby she fulfilled the prediction of her close friend who said: “I predict your future. You’ll be an author after you graduate from three M [Medicine, Marriage and Motherhood]”. Her most famous book is “On the Meaning of Life” (Japanese: Ikigai Ni Tsuite), but has never been translated, while excerpts of her diaries can be found in her biography “A woman with demons”. Mieko Kamiya died in 1979 from heart disease at age 65.
The meaning of meaning – Ikigai-kan
Both of their lives overlapped greatly in time and location. Yet, there is no account that states their meeting at some point. All we know for a start is that Kamiya quoted Frankl when writing about Ikigai-kan, the feeling of Ikigai.
„There are two ways to use the word „ikigai.“ It can refer to the source or object of life’s value, as in „This child is my ikigai,“ or it can refer to the mental state of feeling ikigai. The latter is what Frankl calls the “meaning of meaning.“ I will call it „Ikigai-Kan“ to distinguish it from the former „Ikigai“ itself“, said Mieko Kamiya
Viktor Frankl – Perspectives from the deepest valley and highest mountains
Viktor Frankl, the founder of Logotherapy & Existential Analysis, was born in Vienna in 1905. A neurologist and psychiatrist, he began to explore the issues of emptiness and meaninglessness at the age of 15, when he was confronted with the high rate of youth suicide in his community. He had already written the foundations of what would become known as logotherapy and existential analysis before he was sent to four concentration camps during the Second World War. Of course, he couldn’t take anything with him, so he lost all his manuscripts. Worse still, he lost his wife, parents and close friends in the war.
If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering. – Viktor Frankl
It is said that it took him only nine days to write down all the basic concepts. His book “Man’s Search for Meaning” became one of the best-selling books of all time. Less well known is that he was a great fan of mountaineering, despite his fear of heights. After losing his first wife, he remarried and took flying lessons late in life. Frankl obtained his solo pilot’s license at the age of 68. After further developing Logotherapy & Existential Analysis, he worked with many patients and taught his experience all over the world, not least in the United States and Japan. Viktor Frankl died in 1997 in Vienna.
Connections between Ikigai and Logotherapy
- Meaning and Ikigai are not the one big thing in life; rather, they both describe things, people, moments that make life worth living.
A person who is most likely to feel a sense of ikigai is convinced of their need to live, is clearly aware of their goal of „self-preservation,“ and is fully committed to that goal. In other words, a person who has a personal mission in his or her life that he or she proactively pursues experiences Ikigai at the highest level. – Mieko Kamiya, “Ikigai ni Tsuite”
Because both approaches – Ikigai and Logotherapy – consider that what’s worth living for is present in everyday life, in the small things (and sometimes the big things), we are able to act and create. In this way we can promote change, growth and response-ability.
- Meaning and Ikigai are both highly individual and bound to the unique situation; there is not the one rule of what is meaningful to us.
Every day, every hour, therefore, waits with a new meaning, and for each person there is another meaning. Thus, there is a meaning for that one, and for each one there is a particular meaning. – Viktor Frankl
Since ikigai and meaning are individual and situation-specific, we can be hopeful. How rich is our life when every moment gives us a new opportunity to decide who we want to have been in the future?
- There are many different sources of meaning and Ikigai in our life, not only one.
According to Logotherapy & Existential Analysis, values are opportunities to realize meaning. There are three categories of values in Logotherapy: creative, experiential and attitudinal values. Following Mieko Kamiya’s concept of Ikigai, there are seven dimensions: life satisfaction, growth & change, good future, resonance, freedom, self-realization, meaning & values.
Particularly interesting is that both approaches to life consider freedom to be a foundation for meaning in life. On the one hand side, this related to individual choices: “[A] person who has a personal mission in his or her life that he or she proactively pursues experiences Ikigai at the highest level.” – Mieko Kamiya
On the other hand, freedom always comes with responsibility. They are two sides of the same coin – that’s at the core of what makes us human. Hence, every moment gives us (individually) a new opportunity to decide who we want to have been one day.
Ikigai & Logotherapy – A contemporary conclusion
While there are many connections between Ikigai and Logotherapy yet to be explored, we can connect three dots today. First, Viktor Frankl and Mieko Kamiya saw suffering simply as part of life (not as a catastrophic exception to everyday life). As human beings, however, we can discover what’s worth living for us. Second, Ikigai-kan and meaning is found in doing and being (not in thinking and talking about it) – and it’s always unique and special. Third, it’s our freedom to make a choice, every single moment. While we can’t always change or influence our environment, we always have the freedom to change our attitude towards it.
© Dr. Nina Bürklin, 2023.