In Japanese the word is ikigai, in French raison d’être, and in English life passion. While there are cultural differences in meaning, the concepts are similar.
Life passion is the most frustrating and least useful concept of the three. The phrase strongly implies both singularity and permanence. A person has only one true life passion, and it doesn’t change.
I think life rarely works that way. Even looking at the most inspired and productive individuals in history, many of them were all over the place. Thomas Jefferson, in addition to his service as a founding father and POTUS #3, was also a voracious reader, an accomplished architect, an inventor of mechanical devices, and a polyglot. Issac Newton is famous as a physicist and mathematician, but was equally consumed by both alchemy and theology. Buckminster Fuller contributed to humanity as an inventor, philosopher, writer, and speaker. Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in both chemistry and physics.
None of these individuals had a singular life passion. The focus and interest of inspired individuals constantly changes. The phrase “life passion” implies a stasis and permanence that doesn’t accurately describe how the human mind works.
Instead … Life Spark
I like the term life spark better than life passion. A life spark is more short-term, and more concrete/specific. It could be a single project, a person, a novel (or novelist), a new lifestyle choice, a travel adventure, a new skill, a personal challenge, or pretty much anything. When our lives are going well, when we’re full of energy, ideas, and enthusiasm, there’s usually a life spark of some kind involved.
Towards the end of an individual’s life we might be able to look at the sum of their activities and interests and say “this or that was their life passion.” But while we’re living life, subjectively, life spark is a better term to describe the excitement we feel (or don’t feel) about something in particular. When we have an active life spark, we feel more alive and more enthusiastic about everything.
A few months ago I was feeling uninspired in the studio. I’ve been enjoying making electronic music for twenty years, but there are definitely stretches where everything I listen to bores me. Listening to new tracks on Beatport was leaving me with a “ho-hum, more of the same” feeling. That is, until I came across the track “The Electric Dream” by 20-year-old Estonian producer Mord Fustang. That track, along with his follow-up “Lick the Rainbow,” demonstrated a fusion of progressive, electro, and dubstep that lit up my brain and triggered a frenzy of studio activity on my own part (so thank you Mord, or whatever your real name is).
I’ve been through that cycle enough times to know that getting bored with music doesn’t mean I’m “over it,” and need to find something else to do. It just means I need to listen more, and find a track or two that lights up my brain. In other words I need to find a new spark.
Anything That Turns You On
A life spark won’t necessarily be related to any sort of productive activity, though if you give energy to that spark it might lead that way.
The other day I was browsing Hulu looking for some TV entertainment. I came across a show called “So You Think You Can Dance” and watched the episode where they auditioned some turf dancers from Oakland. While I was kind of entertained by the show, Kia’s eyes were glued to the computer. She became briefly obsessed and watched several more episodes, getting so emotionally involved that she teared up during the episode when all the dancers performed so well that the judges found themselves unable to vote anybody off.
Kia danced in her teens and early twenties, but had pretty much given it up. After watching a few episodes of the show, she decided to sign up for a semester of ballet at Laney. She found herself lamenting the fact that she had given up dance, admiring the excellent posture and strength of dancers she knew. The spark provided by the cheesy (IMO) dance competition show served as an action catalyst to resume an activity she enjoyed (both for the activity itself, and its benefits).
Your Brain Is Always Growing Or Dying
The most recent research regarding antidepressants and depression suggests that some drugs alleviate depression not by increasing neurotransmitter levels in the brain, but by promoting adult neurogenesis (especially in the hippocampal region, which is associated with emotion, learning, and memory).
If nothing in our lives is stimulating or inspiring us, does that mean our brain is withering away? People who have suffered clinical depression have smaller hippocampal volumes. While there are many factors that can induce depression and shrink the brain (prolonged stress, PTSD, chronic pain), it stands to reason that we may be able to protect ourselves against depression by taking actions that stimulate hippocampal neurogenesis.
In addition to taking antidepressants, numerous activities stimulate growth in the hippocampus region, including:
- intermittent fasting/caloric restriction
- the natural blue dye found in blueberries
- “rich” environments
- acquiring new skills/knowledge
- having a high social status
While I can’t prove it, I associate the subjective experience of being interested, engaged, turned on, and/or excited by something (or someone) with adult neurogenesis. Pursuing our interests and desires keeps our brains alive.
To someone else, your quirky interests and obsessions might seem trivial, pointless, silly, irrelevant, or useless, and all those judgements might be objectively true. However, if pursuing those interests has a positive neuroplastic effect on your brain, they’re worth pursuing. In doing so, you might be protecting yourself from depression and dementia, and you might be nurturing a sense of subjective aliveness that spills into every other part of your life.
Same As Addiction, or Protection From Addiction?
Addiction is characterized as a neurological reliance on a chemical or activity to provide a certain level and type of stimulus in the brain. Nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, cocaine, gambling, compulsive sexuality, porn, videogames (especially MMORPGs), internet browsing, and smartphone/email checking are the usual suspects, but a wide range of substances and almost any activity humans find pleasurable could qualify.
How can we distinguish between a life spark activity and an addiction?
Subjectively, they can feel a little alike. Both are associated with increased neurotransmitter activity. But with a life spark, learning and growth are involved (both subjectively, and in the architecture of the brain). With addiction, neurotransmitter receptors get desensitized, and progressively stronger stimuli are needed to get the same high.
If, instead of using the same chemicals or rote activities to get our “good times,” we just follow our life sparks, we can provide our own brains with a surplus of stimulation. Nothing against booze, sex, or videogames — but stimulation without growth, learning, and connection leads to feelings of hollowness, detachment, and ultimately depression.
In Part II …
– more life spark examples
– crushes and creative sublimation
– too much of a good thing (meditation and psychosis)
– is “follow your passion” bad advice?
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