“My inner goddess is jumping up and down, clapping her hands like a five year old.”~ E. L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey
I haven’t read it—but 70 million other people have. Advertised as an erotic romance, Fifty Shades of Grey is currently the fastest selling paperback book of all time surpassing the Harry Potter series in sales. As a woman and a writer, the success and attention of this story has got my interest, even if the subject matter is beyond my usual genre. That, and a recent conversation with a girlfriend got me asking myself why so many of us crave passion and excitement in our lives—and then how we sometimes go about finding it. Believe it or not, I’m now convinced that this book’s success is another indication of why we sometimes over-consume, over-eat, and even why we over-complicate our lives in so many ways.
On the surface, Fifty Shades of Grey is a fairly straightforward jaunt into a romance novel containing sexually explicit scenes with a twist. That twist is an exploration into sex involving bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism—more commonly referred to as BDSM. Who knew?! While I think many readers would normally avoid that subject matter, because the book has received so much media attention and has gone “viral” by word-of-mouth, many people (mainly women) are buying it and reading it in spite of the themes it contains. I have no problem with that. As a writer I am just thrilled to see people reading!
But why the attraction? From what I can tell the vast majority of readers who are enjoying the books (there are a series of three) do so because they find the read “exciting.” And that leads me back to the recent conversation with a girlfriend who I’ll call Carol. Carol explained that her daughter had asked her not so long ago, “Mom, can you remember the last time you were excited about something?” And my dear friend Carol honestly said, “No.” Then, after considering the question more deeply she continued, “I guess the last time I felt really, really, jump around the room, excited about anything—was when I learned that my new baby was going to be a girl.” That would have been almost 20 years in the past.
I think it is important to understand that my friend Carol has what you and I would describe as a good life. She and her kind and loving husband of 25+ years are healthy, hold reasonably well-paid and secure jobs, have three great kids, a couple of cute grandkids, duel retirement plans, family health insurance and own their own home. Of course, just like all of us, they do have the occasional family crisis, the intermittent work concern, and Carol is also responsible for her aging and infirmed mother who lives nearby. Still, by all appearances, Carol lives the life that people in our country and around the world could call very good—but by her own admission, it doesn’t excite her. There doesn’t seem to be any passion. Unfortunately I don’t think Carol is unusual.
But do people need to be excited and passionate about things? Maybe good, is just good enough? Perhaps the first step necessary is to define what we mean by passion. One of the very few people to study passion is Dr. Robert J Vallerand, from the University of Quebec, who defines passion as ”a strong inclination toward a self-defining activity that people like (or even love), find important, and in which they invest time and energy on a regular basis.” In fact, according to Vallerand, “harmonious passion was positively related to life satisfaction and vitality.” In other words, if you feel passionate about elements in your life in a healthy way, then you tend to report your life as more happy and satisfied.
Of course, the key here is “healthy”. Vallerand distinguishes passion between the healthy, which he calls harmonious—and the unhealthy, which he calls obsessive. A problem gambler may feel VERY passionate about his game, but overall that obsession with gambling leads to actions that can destroy his entire life. On the other hand, an athlete who gains incredible happiness by playing tennis on a regular, but balanced way, can find her entire life benefits from the activity.
Is it the same when we get excited? In some ways excitement can be defined as the strong emotion of passion. The neurobiology of excitement explains that, first our amygdala gets triggered, next dopamine is released, and then finally our frontal lobe activity increases—and we find ourselves in a state of hyperarousal. Again, this can be for a harmonious and positive passion, or an obsessive and unhealthy passion. Either way, we feel a strong emotion that lifts us out of our daily routine so that we feel more hyper-aroused and alive.
And maybe that is the strongest point of all. As Henry David Thoreau wrote nearly 100 years ago, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He then continued with, “A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work.” Whenever we resign ourselves to work and duty day after day after day, we often fall into lives of quiet monotony or mind-numbing routine. If “masses” of women are leading lives of such monotony, is it any wonder that the hyper-arousal stimulated by Fifty Shades of Grey is spreading like wildfire?
Of course I do think there is a little more involved and that concerns feeling and emotion. One thing I’ve read many times from other women who read the book, was that it made them “feel” sexy and more aware of their bodies than they had experienced in a long long time. Let’s face it, just about every woman I know spends most of her day taking care of others—throw in a full time job, a couple of kids, and those women have very little time to even think. When you are super busy, stressed and tired, sex can feel like just another obligation. Then suddenly a friend recommends a book like Fifty Shades of Grey and not only is it naughty and self-indulgent, it makes them feel sexy and desirable in a visceral way they haven’t felt in quite some time.
But what about the men? Is that longing and attraction for strong emotion really much different than when men buy fast motorcycles or expensive cars, or spend every minute of free time watching sports? The more I thought about it, the easier it was to make the connection between why so many people overspend money buying things that they don’t need. It’s for the emotion and feeling they receive. The more a person is drowning in mediocrity or boredom, the more likely they will be to become addicted to something that makes them feel more alive. Unfortunately, if that something is an external trigger, the emotion or passion will likely be short lived, and before you know it, you’ll be back living that life of safe but dull routine.
So what is the solution for my friend Carol or anyone else who sees the value in being more passionate and excited about life? Clearly an internal trigger is the key. One solution might be that she works on making excitement a habit. It occurred to me after talking with her that a common response whenever she is confronted with anything new or different is to worry about it—rather than imagine the benefits. Worry, in my opinion, is an excitement zapper!
As further proof that changing her worry habit might be a solution, I was reminded of a recent YouTube video I saw about how to improve your memory. A reporter in search of a story went a convention where people from around the country competed each year to retain and remember huge quantities of information. Prior to going, the reporter believed a good memory was an ability only a few special people obtained. Surprisingly, the reporter learned from those in attendance that a great memory wasn’t a special talent—instead it was something each of us could practice, learn and eventually get very good at doing. The reporter grilled those in attendance for tips, and then went home and started practicing himself. Amazingly, he found he was “passionate” and excited to discover he too could remember information much better with the right tips and plenty of practice. One year later he went back to the convention, entered the memory contest, and WON! This reporter proved to himself (and me) that a great memory isn’t a talent—it’s a learned and practiced skill. So I think it’s very likely, that if we make it a habit to think, focus and practice on adding passion and excitement in our lives, it will show up far more often.
Another interesting perspective that I discovered while researching the book Fifty Shades of Grey is how much it was modeled on the recent Twilight series. In the Twilight book series the main character is also a young ingénue who is both attracted to and repelled by a powerful, sexy, rich and mysterious man (and in that book series a vampire.) As I mention in an earlier article about vampires and what they represent as an archetype, these stories refer to a search for ways to understand our changing world. Some reviewers believe that the reason many are attracted to the Fifty Shades of Grey series with its BDSM theme, is simply because those readers are unconsciously imagining how desirable it would be to just surrender their busy, routine and complicated life over to someone else who has all the answers. One can see where that same theme is also played out with most stories involving dark, mysterious and sexy vampires. Sure it’s dangerous, but if your life feels boring and/or overwhelming, an exciting alternative might seem appealing—especially if it only costs $9.99.
From there it is fairly easy to see how a life of quiet desperation—or at least one devoid of much passion and excitement could also lead to buying stuff you don’t need, over-eating to the detriment of your health, gambling far into the night, or participating in reckless or dangerous activities. Fortunately, my good friend Carol is far from desperate and just by being honest and aware enough to ask the question in the first place, she is on her way to a more exciting and fulfilling life. Maybe in the end we don’t have to experience wild excitement on a day-to-day basis, but something tells me that it is SMART to make sure that whatever we do has deep and purposeful meaning from the inside out—and that will be exciting enough.