Follow Your Bliss

Anyone who has succumbed to any sort of naval gazing or has “The Secret”[1] on repeat will have heard the phrase, “Follow Your Bliss”. 

It was Joseph Campbell who coined the term. Campbell was a well-known mythology teacher who saw it as a crucial part of living life to the fullest. His view was that if you begin to pursue what makes you feel happy, then things will fall into place around you. It sounds idyllic and somewhat simplistic, doesn’t it?

But according to Campbell (and others), if you can actively pursue what makes you happiest, you will experience synchronicity, higher levels of energy, feel more creative and have a much deeper sense of meaning and direction.  Your life will be one that is lived rather than survived.

Of course, the counter argument to this is that sometimes the practical parts of life mean that you can’t necessarily throw all caution to the wind to follow your passions. Bills need to be paid, responsibilities are a part of being a grown up and not everyone gets to have a job they love. Right?

Most of us will have experienced the pain of making sacrifices – working in an organisation that sucks your will to live and slowly destroys you, staying in a relationship that is deeply unfulfilling or playing down your dreams to fit in with those around you. It is often hard to feel blissful whilst tending to adult responsibilities. I, for one, have often felt that it was impossible to not make sacrifices under the weight of expectations. 

So, in a practical sense – how does one follow their bliss?

What is bliss?

Bliss is what naturally maximises your sense of joy, fulfillment, and purpose. It is doing whatever gives you a deep sense of happiness. It is about being around people who make you feel at your best and fully “seen”, where there is a deep connection. It is about being mindful about what makes you feel most alive and happy – and then really tapping into that feeling as much as you can.

To uncover your own personal bliss means that you need to carefully pay attention to your own life. So, in other words, you need to have an awareness about the people and activities in your life that bring you the most joy. And as this is different for all of us, it takes considered and ongoing self-awareness. 

So, where do you start?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

First, let’s start with a well-known framework that has been used for decades to explain motivation. American psychologist Abraham Maslow created his “Hierarchy of Needs” framework in 1943 and it is still referred to frequently today. In his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” and his 1954 book, “Motivation and Personality”[2], he proposed five core needs as the basis for human behavioural motivation.

The most basic needs are at the bottom of the pyramid and the more intangible needs are at the top. According to Maslow, you can only move to the higher levels once the most basic needs at the bottom are adequately fulfilled.

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The very top of the pyramid is self-actualisation – or being able to achieve according to your fullest potential and talents. Self-actualisation is where each of us find our own, personal bliss. But to get there, you need to tend to those other needs first.

Maslow referred to self-actualisation as a “growth need” and the lower four needs are defined as “deficiency needs”. If you fail to meet your deficiency needs, you will have harmful or unpleasant results. In contrast, self-actualisation makes you happier, but you will not be harmed if this need is not met.[3]

So, in other words, you can certainly live quite a safe life without reaching self-actualisation. However, it may not be filled with bliss and the magic that brings. The choice is really yours and yours alone.

How do you focus on your bliss?

According to Maslow, those who reach self-actualisation (or bliss) tend to exhibit the following traits or behaviours[4]:

  • They fully absorb themselves into whatever they are doing (which also induces “flow”[5])
  • They are willing to try new things instead of sticking to safe paths
  • They listen to their own feelings in evaluating experiences, instead of what others say (including those in authority positions)
  • They avoid pretence and try to be honest
  • They are prepared to be unpopular if their views are not those of the majority
  • They take responsibility and work hard
  • They try to identify their own defences and have the courage to give them up

In the pursuit of bliss, it is important then to be open minded and to take risks. You need to be prepared to sometimes walk the road less travelled to find what makes you tick.

The New York Times article “How to Be Happy”[6] explores how defining happiness and the pursuit of it can be easily done together. The article points out that there’s a difference in the tangibility of happiness; it’s not about things, status, or relationships. It’s about discerning what things are at our core and truly give us purpose, value, and joy. And to be okay with the possibility of disappointment knowing that “if we don’t actively seek to be happy, we’re far more likely not to become happy at all.”

The article also highlighted that it doesn’t make a difference if an extreme event, bad or good, happens in a “happy” person’s life (in the long-term). Studies have shown that you can revert to your baseline of “happiness” and even elevate or raise your baseline with practice. Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neutral connections through life[7], makes it possible to develop happiness or a state of bliss.

From a very practical perspective, here are some things that you can do right now, to move closer to self-actualisation:

  • Do something you love – keep working at it
  • Love your surroundings and create a positive environment
  • Find humour and laugh (daily, is my recommendation!)
  • Move and exercise your body, mind, and soul
  • Cultivate relationships by surrounding yourself with those you love or admire
  • Do it now (no waiting for tomorrow)
  • Be yourself, authentically
  • Be of service to others and connect with those that need connection
  • Practice self-compassion
  • Let go and don’t try to control everything
  • Lean into purpose/discomfort

A final word

I do think most of us are always going to have some responsibilities that are not necessarily on the path to self-actualisation. However, I try to remember the 80/20 rule as a good guideline – if 80% of your time, activities, relationships and work makes you happy, then bravo to you.  You are no doubt steadily making your way up the hierarchy of needs towards a state of bliss. 

Ps.  The image used is that from the 2010 movie, “Eat Pray Love” starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem. It is based on the book by the same name by Elizabeth Gilbert and is the go-to book of many who are on a mission to find their own personal bliss.

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