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Does Pursuing Our Passions Really Make Us Happier?

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FIND A HOBBY
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The Declaration of Independence may guarantee the pursuit of happiness, but, as we all know, landing the prize is a different story. It's a winding road through the options we're given. Buying stuff, status, wealth, popularity, the refrigerator, the medicine cabinet -- all the standbys have failed to get the job done. What really works, though, is something that wouldn't cross most of our overproductive minds: a passion or a hobby.

Robert Vallerand from the University of Quebec at Montreal and his associates found that participating in a passion can add eight hours of joy to your week. I think we could all hoist a glass to an extra eight hours of freedom from the usual barrage of pressures and strife. But a passion doesn't just plug you into a dependable source of rhapsodic moments each week, it also provides the best kind of happiness: gratification, a lasting sense of fulfillment that the instant mood upgrades can't. Passions demand initiative and mastery, which go deep to satisfy core self-determination needs.

And maybe deeper. "Playfulness is the very essence of the universe," philosopher Alan Watts noted, in music, dance and activities that get us off the bullet train to the grave. Passions are stellar at this, planting you in optimal moments and connecting you with others equally ecstatic, widening your social circle. Studies show they increase positive emotions during the activity, boost positive mood and decrease negative feelings afterward.

Stocking up on positive events is important because we're usually in a losing battle against the negative avalanche barreling down on us from all sides. Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina has documented that we need a three-to-one ratio of positive to negative events to stay on the positive side of the ledger. The negative is that powerful, and it tends to be our default, part of the survival worrywort instinct we know and don't exactly love. Hobbies and passions keep the positivity pump primed.

This isn't theoretical fare. I met dozens of people in the course of doing the new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," whose lives were changed radically by something as simple as, say, flying a stunt kite. Amy Doran was a youth program director in Bend, Oregon, newly divorced, without friends in a new town and facing the challenges of her son's epilepsy when she took up flying stunt kites. As she learned the ropes of the flier's aerial ballet, she wound up becoming a confident festival performer. She now has a host of friends and her son, Connor, doesn't need his meds anymore.

Connor took up flying after he saw the fun his mother was having, and he got so good at it, he flew in front of millions of viewers on a couple segments of "America's Got Talent" last year. Because of his epilepsy, he had thought he was worthless, but that all changed with kite-flying. "My whole life I've been told I can't do things," he said. "But kite-flying changed that. I have something I'm good at."

With all that a passion can do for us, you would think that riot police would be posted outside martial arts studios or pottery classes to hold back the hordes. Instead, the stereotypes -- that hobbies are some pre-TV artifact, inveterate slacking or plain pointless -- keep us in terminal grindstone mode. There's another obstacle too that prevents more of us from pumping up our happiness every week of the year with a passion: We don't know how. We're taught how to make a living but not how to do the living we're making.

Unlike romantic passions, the pursuit that becomes a reason to get up in the morning doesn't appear across the room, setting your heart aflutter. It comes out of a process of building capabilities and a persistent quest for mastery. There are no thrills until you've gotten the skills.

Passions take foreplay. The passion that can transform your life from missing or just okay to extraordinary has to be developed. Vallerand, a pioneer in the field of passion research, and his associates have studied passionate cyclists, dancers, music students and swimmers in search of the keys to avid involvement. Along the way, they have put their fingers on a couple of very important pieces of optimal life. One, pursuing happiness has a lot to do with pursuing competence. It's the pursuit of competence, wanting to get better at something, that fuels the skill-building process. Secondly, you won't get the satisfaction you want from a hobby unless your motivation for doing it is intrinsic. You have to do it to do it, not for a payoff.

As Alan Watts put it, "When you dance, do you aim to arrive at a particular place on the floor? Is that the idea of dancing? No, the aim of dancing is to dance."

Harmonious passions, as Vallerand calls them, spring from a goal of mastery, an intrinsic aspiration that puts the focus on learning and drives practice. A lot of it. This jibes with findings on happiness that show that effort is a critical component of satisfaction. Repeated practice leads to improved ability and further interest, until the activity begins to define you. The activity becomes your conduit to self-expression, tapping your core values and creating a focal point for life.

Chicago investor Richard Weinberg is a perfect example of this. A dinner at a Mexican restaurant that featured salsa dancing sparked him to take dance lessons at the age of 49. A few years later, he was competing in 14 different dance categories and had found something central to his entire being. "It's changed me totally," he says. "It's really given me a purpose. I went to the office, had a great family to care for, but dancing shifted my spirits and energy and direction in such an amazing way. I feel 20 years younger than I am."

Having an enthusiasm that connects with you at a core level and gives you something to look forward to energizes your life and provides a sense of direction and meaning, far from the rap of triviality hung on hobbies. I can't think of anything as potent as a passion or hobby to activate life to the nth degree.

So how do you get your hands on this elixir? You have to select the right activity, something that would have internal value for you. It all starts with interests. Try many kinds of pursuits and see what connects.

When you find something you'd like to learn, stick with it. You need to be persistent to get through the adult phobias about not knowing everything and looking like a fool. An intrinsic motivation will get you through it. You're in it for the learning, not to be an overnight champion triathlete or tango dancer. A study of music students found that only 36 percent developed a passionate interest in playing their instruments. The students who felt it was their choice to play, and not the result of pressure from others, were the ones who found the love.

For an activity to turn into a passion, it has to click with your core needs, especially autonomy and competence. You have to increase the intensity of your interest, says Vallerand, with more practice. That increases your skill base to the point where you're good enough at the activity to enjoy and meet the challenge. The final stage is internalizing the activity by valuing it as a part of who you are. You wind up seeing yourself as a "runner" or a "salsa dancer," which gives you a critical sense of self apart from the almighty identity on the business card that is not you but is very convincing at making you think it is.

This might be one of the best services passions provide. They introduce you to yourself, long forgotten under a pile of duty and obligation. They reacquaint you with the enthused, eager soul you used to be, pre-adult straitjacket, and give you a reason to be that person more often. You're home, at last.

Joe Robinson is author of the new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," on the science, skills and spirit of full-tilt living. He is founder of Work to Live, and is a work-life balance and stress management trainer and coach.

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