Who doesn’t want to be happy? I know that for me it is an experience that is welcomed and desired. Even our own forefathers saw happiness as an entitlement and entered it into our Declaration of Independence. “We the people of these United States are… endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights, … among these… the pursuit of Happiness.” We seem to have fervently embraced this concept through our frantic search for more stuff, more activities, more food, more sex, and even more exciting love relationships. The more we have the happier we are. Getting more becomes the guarantee for attaining our unalienable rights as Americans. We should get what we want and when we get it, it will make us happy.
It appears that the search for greener grass is hard wired into us as many are in search of it in one form or another. Now science has taught us that indeed we are neurologically designed to seek happiness and the pleasure it brings us and when we lose it we experience pain. At those times we look for ways to escape in a new purchase, new place, situation or substance to avoid the pain that comes as a result of happiness lost.
Yet, there is a spiritual side to this concept of happiness as well. Buddhism is a philosophy that explains this through its four truths; the first and second of which is that life is difficult because we are attached to how we believe things should be and when we don’t get what we want we suffer. Well, for many of us, that isn’t new or welcome information. We all recognize the uncomfortable feelings that can emerge when things don’t go the way we want them to. When a significant relationship ends we know too well what it means to suffer. We become ill with grief because our happily ever after didn’t last forever as we planned. We may struggle with feelings of loneliness, fear, anger, guilt or rejection –far from feeling happy. Some experience these emotions while in their relationship so they seek out and run into the arms of another person hoping that passion will distract them from the unhappiness they are feeling. Passion gets confused with sex and sex becomes the new segue to happiness –at least until that relationship moves into reality or ends all together because it wasn’t built on a foundation of anything lasting or of any meaning.
When I began doing the research for this article my initial intent was to explore the topic of passion and its relationship to happiness. And I was moved by what I learned. My students learn quickly that there are advantages to slowing the movement of a new relationship down. This creates space for learning more about that person before jumping in prematurely. The hormones of romantic love can be deceptive, creating a mirage that leads two people to pursue something that isn’t real or attainable. And when the relationship ends one or both feel used or mislead and sadness moves in to replace the passion.
So, here is what I learned about this word we call passion. It’s origin can be found in many cultures. In Latin and Greek, passion or pathos, is defined as “to suffer”. The long version of this translation is “a strong devotion to some activity, object or concept, driven by strong emotions of desire or repugnance that brings meaning into your life.” The idea of learning from a distasteful event reminds me of the miracle in the ugly package that I speak of in the Rebuilding class. To be able to use the current crisis to identify and make important changes in your own life can be very rewarding.
The Hebrew word for passion is “ratzon” and can be translated into, “an intense emotion that compels a person into becoming devoted to something.” The “Iki” in the Japanese word Ikigai means the breath or spirit that comes from doing what you love and what gives you a reason for being. In other words, to develop a passionate pursuit for something that you love to do brings with it a sense of purpose and a new understanding of what it means to be human –to be alive. The common thread that seems to runs through all of these definitions of passion is the ability to surrender, to give away a part of you, to sacrifice something in exchange for a more authentic form of happiness. It means to move from being selfish to being selfless.
What I really appreciate about this perspective on passion is how it can lead you into relationship with other individuals who share your passion and your purpose. This doesn’t have to be a deeply altruist pursuit. A passion for helping in the community or a passion for sports, art or music can all provide opportunities to create the closeness and companionship that are important to human relationship. While being actively involved in doing what you love you might just find your pathos, your ikigai, your spirit, your meaning or purpose. At the same time you may meet another person truly worthy of being passionate about because you share the same purpose. Your shared passion can bond you together as you mutually pursue a common goal with shared meaning. The excitement that this brings could activate the love potion in your brains causing you to see each other through new eyes, maybe ones filled with a passion of its own kind. Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search For Meaning, pointed out that the pursuit of happiness (pleasure) is temporary while the pursuit of meaning (which is unique to humans) is enduring.