What I used to think, and what I think now, about the importance of passion for a happy life.
Back in 2007, I wrote this post, which is one of the most read posts on my site.
What I wrote then:
Because of The Happiness Project, I spend a lot of time wondering, “What elements are necessary for a happy life?”
I’ve become convinced that one of the greatest supports to a person’s happiness is passion—whether for musical theater, video games, constitutional history, camping, stamps, shoe-shopping, teaching English as a second language, or whatever.
Now, it might seem that some passions are “better” than others—they help other people, or they’re of a “higher” nature, or they’re more healthy or wholesome. Maybe. But any passion is a great boon to happiness.
A passion gives you a reason to keep learning and to work toward mastery. It can often give you a reason to travel, and therefore to have the new experiences so key to happiness. It gives you something in common with other people, and so fosters social bonds. It gives you purpose. It often has a satisfying physical aspect—rock-climbing, fly-fishing, knitting. It gives meaningful structure to your time. It makes the world a richer place. When you’re in pain, it can be a refuge, a distraction, a solace.
One of my struggles to “Be Gretchen” is to identify and pursue my passions—my real passions, not the passions I wish that I had—and also to acknowledge when I don’t share a passion.
It’s a little sad to admit that a common passion isn’t a source of joy to me. Like food. I wish I appreciated food more, but I don’t. (This doesn’t mean that I don’t love to EAT—I do. I have an incredible sweet tooth and snack constantly. I just don’t have a refined palate. I want to eat Snackwell’s cookies, breakfast cereal, and candy all day long. And while that stuff is great, there’s not much sophisticated pleasure to get from it.)
I’ve been thinking about this because I just finished Molly O’Neill’s fabulous memoir, Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball (Amazon, Bookshop).
She shows how important passion was to her and her brothers—hers, for cooking, theirs, for baseball.
Cooking keeps one in the present. It is a thing that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you don’t pay attention, you can cut off your finger, burn yourself or your meal. You can’t lie about cooking. You either do it well or you don’t. You are fast or you are slow. You are neat or you are sloppy. You have taste or you don’t. It’s only dinner, but cooking makes honest people of liars, realists of dreamers, and well-ordered minds out of chaotic and impulsive ones. Baseball saved my brothers but cooking saved me.
Reading about her enjoyment of food—the enormous efforts she took to educate herself in all aspects of food, cooking, and restaurants—the depth of her discernment—the crazy adventures she had along the way—made me feel wistful.
I love the idea of going down to little markets in Chinatown to shop for fish, or making a reservation at a great New York City restaurant, or learning to make some lovely, special dish—I love the idea of doing it, but really, I don’t want to do it. Really, I’d rather stay home and eat one-minute oatmeal while reading the newspaper. That seems limited and joyless—but that’s Gretchen.
So food isn’t my passion—what is? Can I find overlooked passions that I can stoke? I’m trying to pay more attention. It can be surprisingly hard to identify your passion. My college roommate, for example, has a Ph.D. in anthropology and never took one class in anthropology in college.
Passion doesn’t just bring happiness to the person who enjoys that passion—it also brings a vicarious pleasure to onlookers.
I’m not interested in food or baseball, but I loved reading about Molly O’Neill’s passion. I have a friend who is an enthusiast for practically everything. She loves her job. She loves to read. She loves baseball. She loves video games. She loves to travel. She loves to learn to do new things. She loves clothes. I don’t share most of these passions, yet I find her such a happy, energizing person to be with.
I’m almost ready to unveil my “Four Pillars of Happiness,” also known as “The four things you must have in your life in order to be happy,” and passion fits right in to that…
What I’d change now:
These days, I’d use the word “enthusiasm” instead of “passion.” The term “passion” gets thrown around so much, and seems to suggest such a high bar of commitment, that people get discouraged. People often confess, “I don’t really have a passion,” and feel bad about it.
I prefer the word “enthusiasm” because it’s a term that can encompass either a mild or wild level of commitment. To me, enthusiasm sounds less intimidating and more fun. All enthusiasms (that aren’t actively harmful) add richness to our lives and usually bring us closer to others. I’m not sure whether I agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in his essay “Circles” that “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm”—but enthusiasm certainly helps.
In 2010, I wrote a post about one of my spiritual masters, Julia Child, and how much I admired her tremendous enthusiasm (of everything I’ve ever written, this is one of my favorite little pieces). With her enthusiasm for French cooking, she changed the way people thought about food, cooking, ingredients, and hospitality.
It’s funny to see myself writing about my nagging sweet tooth. In 2012, to defeat that sweet tooth, I quit sugar—really, I quit most carbs—so I no longer eat candy, oatmeal, or Snackwell’s cookies.
Given that I’m not much of a foodie, it’s interesting that in my discussion of passion/enthusiasm, I identified two people with an interest in food.
Now that I’m working on my book about the five senses, however, I’ve thought a lot about the sense of taste, and all the pleasure and enthusiasm it can bring.
What about you—do you prefer the term “passion” or “enthusiasm?” Whatever term we use, it’s a vital element to a happier life.