Gregg Levoy opens a chapter in his recent book, Vital Signs, with a quote from Hunter S. Thompson. “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!'” Hunter Thompson followed his own prescription, skidding into his grave by committing suicide at age 67 in a used-up, worn-out body he didn’t enjoy living in any longer. I’m not citing him as a role model, but his statement reveals a deep paradox: We want security, but we also want excitement in life.
This is a classic dilemma going back to early Greek philosophers who emphasized the value of reason over emotion. Many philosophers since then have agreed, but the Romantic movement in the late middle ages celebrated passion as the essence of life. Recent research on emotional intelligence suggests the need for an intelligent balance between reason and the emotions. Amazing imaging of the brain shows that positive emotional input helps brain performance. Yet unbridled emotion disturbs brain function. Many studies tell us that unwise passions can lead people down destructive pathways, something that history also teaches us.
Gregg Levoy says passion is an essential quality we’re born with, but it’s often suppressed as we are growing up. He says the reasons children’s enthusiasm for learning, discovery and a spirit of wonder often turn into a sense of passionless duty by adulthood are complicated, but none are innate. The passion for learning doesn’t naturally wane as we get older. Something gets in the way. Levoy lists a host of factors that cause children to become “adult-erated.” He wrote Vital Signs to show readers why and how re-igniting passion in their lives is vitally important.
Passion is deeper than excitement. Excitement over some new experience or acquisition can wear thin fairly quickly. Passion endures for the long term. It doesn’t give up because of obstacles, nor does it wane because of routine. Passion enriches any endeavor. The best teachers are passionate about what they teach. The best musicians are passionate about music. The best physicists are passionate about physics. You get the idea.
Susan Peirce Thompson and Bright Line Eating
Recently I found a healthy eating program created by a remarkable woman named Susan Thompson. She exemplifies passion in action, so I’ll summarize her story briefly. Susan was an active child who became overweight as a teenager and then had a yo-yo kind of struggle with obesity and related depression. In 2003, a friend in a 12-step food addiction program showed her how to lose weight effectively. She was successful. Most significantly, she has kept that excess weight off and maintained her ideal weight ever since. She also completed a PhD program in Cognitive and Brain Science and then became a tenured professor of Psychology.
She has never lost her empathy for others who struggle with weight issues. She designed the Bright Line Eating program out of a deep passion to help others. This program has become very successful and is now growing by leaps and bounds. Anyone who wants to learn more about Susan and the Bright Line Eating program can go to the Susan Peirce Thompson website If you watch any of her videos, you will be struck by her passion.
Discussion of weight problems can be very boring, but Susan is passionate about this subject. You can hear and feel her passion. She recognizes that people fail repeatedly in their attempts to lose weight, just as she herself failed repeatedly for many years, and she is passionate about helping them with this issue. A huge mistake most people make is to try to rely on willpower to change. It’s huge because a “grit-your-teeth” kind of willpower is not enough to sustain people. Susan knows how to spark their passion so they can succeed.
Be Passionate About Health
Many people think healthy ways of eating and living are boring. They couldn’t be more mistaken. When people become passionate about healthy living, this way of life becomes a joy, not a chore. I’m passionate about healthy living, quite apart from the long-term benefits which are also great. In a nutshell, these include the enjoyment of active good health far into my senior years, and a low risk of debilitating diseases with their huge costs. There’s never a guarantee of good health right up to death’s doorstep, but even if disability occurs due to serious illness or injury, a background of good health and a positive outlook on life are helpful.
There are a few caveats about passion. It’s not automatically yoked to wisdom. One can passionately consume unhealthy foods, or engage in healthy exercise to the point of unhealthy obsession. One can passionately pursue white elephants that are useless, or red herrings that lead one astray. Passion is not a guaranteed avenue to vitality. Learning as much factual information as possible and having the wisdom to make good choices are also clearly important. Despite all this, and with an awareness of its hazards, passion is nevertheless a vital ingredient in the recipe for living well.
A Positive Passion for Life
So how does one nurture a positive passion for life? I’ve found three keys in my own life. First, associate with people who have a positive outlook on life. Attitudes are contagious. As Gregg Levoy puts it: “Passion breeds passion and disinterest breeds disinterest.” If one hangs around people who are negative about everything, one is likely to feel negative also. If one chooses to be with people who are consistently positive, one is more likely to pick up positive ways of living. The more deeply one engages in anything, the more passionate one becomes about it.
The second key is to incorporate a few inspiring habits into one’s daily life. These can be simple, but over time they become powerful. Gratitude is a good example. The simple act of giving thanks for food is an easy way to practice a grateful outlook on life. Thanking people (clerks, waiters, friends, and even strangers) for their help is always appreciated. Writing down three fun or fulfilling experiences each day is a simple thing to do that is effective in reinforcing positivity.
The third key is to practice a little quiet time daily. Simply allowing ten or more minutes each day to quietly nurture one’s inner life is renewing. It’s not “worry-time” or “beat-up-on-yourself-time” or “what-if-time.” It’s simply giving one’s mind the gift of time to be in tune with the harmony of the universe.
Ed Dodge, MD, MPH
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This post was published first in Dr. Ed Dodge’s Wellness Newsletter, Volume VII, No. 10 • October 17, 2015.