I am currently subscribed to an email list called Project Happiness. They come in weekly cycles: Mindful Monday, Grati-Tuesday, Wednesday Wellness, Thoughtful Thursday, Freedom Friday, Social Saturday, and Soul Sunday. I like them because they remind me to make a thoughtful space in the mornings before the day gets crazy.
Last year, on May 1st, I received a really interesting one. It sparked me to write in what I call “thought process” style. I give up completely on grammar and punctuation and just see how many words I can get out at once. Sometimes I do this to get worry or stress down on paper, which helps me move past it. In this case, I wrote because it helps me make connections between disparate ideas, or clarify something that’s been confusing me. I’ve taken my blog post today to revisit two realizations I wrote about then.
This is what the Project Happiness email said:
“Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” What if, just for today, you let happiness be the purpose for your existence. For the next 24 hours, embark on the oldest human adventure and dive deep into your inner world today. Whatever makes your soul happy, do that…”
My first response was disappointment. I got this on a Sunday, but I had only been mildly productive the day before (I bought myself a zen coloring book and happily lost about two hours that way) so I was feeling the pressure to knock some things off my to-do list. In particular, I was really behind on some work I needed to do for my Knowles teaching fellowship. There’s no way I can just follow my soul today, I thought. I have too much to do.
Then I wondered if I might be looking at this all wrong. I’ve had, for years, my Bodleian dream. It centers around having a really compelling question, diving deep into books that no one reads anymore, losing myself in our human inheritance of knowledge, creating something from the scraps and pieces and using it to change to the world! This Bodleian dream seems most real in a vast university library, which is why I named it after one of the most famous. (For anyone interested in this language and philosophy, I highly recommend reading Michael Oakeshott. There are, as in any philosophy, major issues, but there is something about it that really calls deeply to me.)
In some ways I felt like I’d missed my opportunity to pursue my Bodleian dream. I’m not a college student anymore, and when I was a college student I squandered my time on personal and relationship issues, on fanfiction, on anything but being a scholar and an academic. For reasons that were unclear to me then, I could not dredge up the motivation in myself to truly pursue this dream of research and learning. I think perhaps it came down to something very simple; I had nothing to research that I was passionate about. This sounds cliché, and I’m going to circle back to this idea of passion in a moment.
Now I do have something I pursue with energy and dedication. Teaching takes over my mind, heart, and soul in compelling, beautiful, and sometimes overwhelming ways. And my Knowles fellowship gives me a chance to dig back into inquiry, reflection, and the practice of asking really good questions. So perhaps that work with Knowles that was sitting on my to-do list actually was what my soul would lead me to. I was getting a second chance at my Bodleian dream. Or at least, a slightly modified version of it.
This thinking led me to my first realization; happiness is not derived solely from pleasure.
I find it pleasurable to read fanfiction and eat chocolate. But I also find these things, especially in conjunction with each other, can be really detrimental to me if I have nothing else happening in my life. There must be other components to happiness, I thought to myself. So I started brainstorming.
I find satisfaction in crossing things off my to-do list. I get fulfillment in digging deeply into content to learn and to then create a lesson plan. I feel great joy in seeing student growth. I feel the most present and alive when my heart is racing and my legs are straining as I push myself up a mountain; sore muscles never fail to make me grin. Chopping vegetables and folding my laundry are fairly mundane tasks, but cooking myself healthy meals and taking care of my things makes me feel like a competent adult.
These things are not pleasurable in the way that fanfiction and chocolate are, but they do contribute to my happiness. Especially in terms of my teaching, I do not work so that I can get time off to do something else. I do my work because I find it necessary and compelling. I am very passionate about my work.
And there it is again. This idea was at the center of my second realization; passion isn’t comfortable.
“Find what you’re passionate about! Pursue your passion!” I hear it all the time when our school does anything related to college or job searches. We tell our students (and ourselves) that if we find what we’re passionate about, we’ll never work a day in our lives. Passion seems to be some magic ingredient to make hard thing easy. I don’t think that’s true. At all. I think passion allows us to continue in spite of the hardness.
Teaching is hard. (That’s absolutely my desk at school one day last year in the picture at the top!) There are a lot of pieces that go into making a functional classroom and school; if you’re curious about what a day in my life as a teacher looks like I wrote this article for a friend’s project about understanding other people’s jobs. [Note – he’s redoing his website at the moment, so you can read the Google doc version for now. I’ll update this link when he gets his site back up!]
Though the list of responsibilities I have as a teacher is long, that’s not the hardest part of teaching. I currently have 172 students on my rosters. That’s 172 individual human beings with thoughts, feelings, and needs. That 172 different stories. Sometimes those stories are incredibly triumphant, and sometimes those stories absolutely break my heart. There are days when caring for my students takes every last drop of energy I have, and then demands more. I’ve had more mornings than I care to admit to where my alarm went off and I had to force myself out of bed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried for my students.
But I do get up. I dig around in myself and I find more energy and compassion than I thought I had. I push myself to revise a good lesson to make it awesome, to give students that extra bit of feedback, to let my own nerdy excitement for biology take over even when I’m exhausted. Yes, teaching is hard. But my passion drives me through that.
Passion isn’t comfortable. There are days I find myself wishing I wasn’t passionate about teaching. There are a million things I could do that would be easier. In fact, almost anything would be easier. Because if I wasn’t passionate about it, I wouldn’t care so much. I wouldn’t feel compelled to give so much. But when I really think about it, I wouldn’t trade it. Not for anything.
Just as pleasure isn’t the only component of happiness, I don’t think passion is either. Without moments of pleasure and joy, without fulfillment, passion can drive a person into exhaustion. As with so many parts of life, there is a balance. And that, dear readers, is a third realization I’ve only now just had, in writing this to you.
I finished my thought process writing last May with this thought, and I still really like it. I wrote:
“So I am going to follow my soul today, but not by following just my limbic system. And it might not be the most pleasurable thing I’ve ever done, but it will be beautiful and bring me happiness in other ways.”
Your homework this time is a single question, but it’s likely going to be a complicated answer! What relationships do you see between the ideas of happiness, joy, pleasure, fulfillment, passion, and satisfaction?