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Hey Dave? is an advice column.  That’s a picture of me, hard at work solving the world’s personal problems. Dave

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Hey Dave? is an advice column.  That’s a picture of me, hard at work solving the world’s personal problems. Dave is my real name, and I’m here to help. Why? There are lots of reasons, but mostly because I care about you getting good advice.  

Are you in a tough spot and want to say Hey Dave? You can ask me your question here.

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Hey Dave?

I’m a bit stuck. I feel “happy” but concepts such as passion or joy are alien to me. Don’t get me wrong I can lose myself in some things such as a video game or a movie but I seek to return to a place more of honest caring than distraction. I am trying reduce the advice I get down to a short list of actionable tasks that can at least be a foundation of a solid actionable starting point to a happy life.

I meditate and I ponder things that I enjoy and I make a gratitude list or a dream / want list, but in the end writing the list is the extent of my progress. I can look at it, acknowledge that I would like to travel more or help those in need but in the end I face the task of beginning.  Without passion or desire there is just numb action that starts with a bit of momentum and then stalls.  I have all of the means necessary to accomplish everything I set my mind to, except for the fire.

It’s like being in love with cooking, truly loving it, loving every step, every seasoning, every single aspect of it but in the end you come to find you have no taste buds. You can’t taste anything for yourself so you try and make food for others and for a while0 you can savor your passion through their happiness but there is the ever present knowledge that it’s not your own. I’m trying to get past that.

I feel like the ramblings of this long worded question is a good reflection of the directionless meandering of my mind. I feel like a broken watch trying to fix itself and without external input, direction and an outlet I’m not sure where to aim or how to find a use for myself.

Thanks friend,
Not Dreaming

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Dear Not Dreaming,

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that most people have a directionless, meandering mind most of the time. This is the burden of consciousness. Also, most people often feel aimless and without purpose. This is, amongst other things, the burden of living in a social and economic system that ties a person’s self-worth to what they do (i.e. often, their job).

So, first things first, don’t beat yourself up.  Instead, let me welcome you to the malaise of the human condition in a post-capitalist society! Huzzah!

Passion-Action Feedback Loop

You’re in a funk, Not Dreaming, because you seem to be having trouble kickstarting the Passion-Action Feedback Loop (this is not at all a scientific term (yet!) but bear with me). See, if you’re passionate about something, you will feel motivated to act upon it in some capacity.  

When your actions have positive results (however you choose to define that), then you will be motivated to continue acting on that passion, thereby increasing those results.  Simply then, doing something you love makes you feel good, so you continue to do it, which makes you feel even better.  

Deep Questions and the Multiplicity of Passion

Let me commend your fine cooking metaphor and then extend it through a rebuttal.  

Your taste buds may be on the fritz, but don’t forget that your brain relies on other senses to construct how a food tastes, like smell and touch. (Okay, really stretching the analogy here) So, if you’ve lost the taste for a passion, maybe you should try smelling it instead (i.e. reconceptualize it and approach it from a different angle).

This means that there are always many entry points into finding new passions or re-kindling old ones.  

In order to discover, multiply and explore these other entry points into passion, maybe you need to dig a little deeper than what you’ve already done.  I’m not saying that what you’ve done so far hasn’t been long or difficult or stressful, and you’re definitely pointed in the right direction. But how you’re going about it seems surface-level, and maybe you need to go deeper. Pondering, making wish lists, reciting gratitudes, imagining yourself a better person and thinking about dreams and travel – these activities have their place, but they are all surface-level compared to unearthing the deep, down messy specifics of desire and what gives you pleasure. And, because of this, you’re only getting surface-level results, i.e. not “real” pleasure.  

If your goal is to find your true passions, reciting gratitudes feels hollow because it is the wrong method to achieve that goal. And this is because to achieve deep fulfillment requires deep thinking.  

Similarly – okay, yanking the band-aid here – if you want real pleasure, you have to ask yourself real questions.

Even your question reflects this somewhat; you’re looking for a short list of actionable items to find happiness, except engaging with real questions about serious personality preferences cannot be reduced to a listicle that will shortcut you to happiness, despite what a million websites will tell you.

(True, the exercise below involves lists that need to be written down, but you’ll see that it’s designed to access deeper states of feeling).

Like anything truly meaningful, it will take work to get there (some would say that the work itself is the meaning, but let’s not digress too much).

Let’s jump in!

Your Passion Project

What do you love?  

Make a list of the things you do love.  Not “like”, not distractions, not gratitudes, not vague resolutions, but a short list; no less than three, no more than five of the things you love, like loooove, that you really can’t imagine living without or that you remember loving as a kid or that you find yourself looking forward to or excited to tell someone.  For me, it’s reading books.

Write it down, even if it is the smallest, weirdest, most obscure thing that really makes you heart thump (see, the thing is, oceans of passion can be poured into the smallest vessel, as if it was bottomless, which is a wonderful, strange law of the physics of love and passion (not a real law, btw)).  

(for brevity’s sake, I’m only going to write down one)

  1. Dave loves to read

Why do you love?

Now take your list and ask yourself what is it specifically about each of those things that gives you the feels. Again, no limits on why you love a thing.  

You’ll have to do some deep thinking to peel back the layers to figure out why you love something.  Desire and pleasure are mysterious creatures and can takes many forms.

Okay, here goes for me:

1-A. Dave loves to read because it makes him feel smarter.

1-B. Dave loves to read because it makes him more empathetic.

1-C. Dave loves to read because books smell nice.

1-D. Dave loves to read because it helps him fall asleep.

1-E. Dave loves to read because it momentarily shuts up all the racing thoughts in his head.

1-F. Dave loves to read because watching too much TV gives him a headache.

Now you have a list of the reasons why you love one particular thing. Some of those reasons are practical (books helps me sleep), some are feeling-based (books make me feel smart), some are inexplicable (books smell nice).  It doesn’t matter, just keep on writing it all down.

How do you love?

Now we’re going to go even deeper.  For each one of those reasons, try to elaborate on the positive feeling that is associated with that reason. In the same way as you just did, you have to peel back each one of these reasons to get at what the root feeling is. Here, I’m going to select 1-E from above, I read because it quiets my racing thoughts.

1-E-i.  Dave likes to quiet the racing thoughts because it makes him feel calm.

1-E-ii.  Dave likes to quiet the racing thoughts because it makes him feel more focused.

1-E-iii. Dave likes to quiet the racing thoughts because it makes him think more clearly.

Now your list is getting massive.  Based on this limited exercise, had I continued with the full exercise and wrote down 3 things I love, I would have had 18 reasons why I love them and 48 positive ways how they make me feel.

What do to with this?

Few things drive human beings more than the pursuit of pleasure, and you’ve just made a huge list of the things that give you pleasure and what that pleasure is.  

What you’ll start to see is that there is some overlap and repetition in your answers, and those are exactly the answers that you should pay close attention to,

The same positive feelings are showing up in very different activities, a clear indication that you are doing those activities precisely because it triggers those feelings.  

When I did this exercise, I realized I enjoyed many of my passions because they gave me this feeling of mental calmness. I saw how this particular feeling was appearing in different activities, and realized it must be important, something I wanted or needed.

Therefore, your job is to pursue those feelings by finding activities that trigger them.

Think of this exercise as a recommendation algorithm for your passion.  

You enjoy [feeling X] ?  You should try [activity Y] !

For my part, I sought out that very particular effect/feeling/quality – for me, mental calmness – in other activities, even ones I had never tried before.  I tried yoga, meditating, video games, podcasts, anything to stop the racing thoughts and impose a state of mental calm.  In the end, none of those stuck, but what I did find was running. It absolutely silences my inner voices while I run, and leaves me in a zen-like state of calm for hours afterwards. I’ve been running 10K every two days for 4 years.  

The deeper you get, the more you will see those passions unfold in strange, new directions. Be curious, follow those directions, always ask deeper and deeper questions.  There is a bottomless well of passion inside everybody.  You just have to jump in!

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Are you in a tough spot and want to say Hey Dave? You can ask me your question here:

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