How Losing Yourself in Your Passions Can Help You Find Happiness at Any Age

As I stir chicken broth
and garlic cloves into the simmering pot of bland-looking cauliflower, I smile
and chuckle to myself. How will this concoction go over at the dinner table
It doesn’t matter – I
don’t even care. Because, right now, I am having fun.

That evening, assuming the
usual mashed potatoes sit alongside his dinner of roasted salmon and leafy
salad, my husband shovels a forkful of my experiment into his mouth.

“Are these potatoes?” he
asks after swallowing. 

“Do you like them?” is my

“I do.”

“Good, because our
culinary rut is about to change.”

Drowning in Sameness

For years, crammed between
carpooling, meetings, and piles of laundry, I would race through the grocery
aisles, grabbing spaghetti and chicken and broccoli – items from my memorized mental shopping list – and tossing them into the grocery cart.

Those were simple ingredients
based on menus I knew my family liked; meals I could prepare on autopilot while
I folded laundry, watched the news, or picked up the house. 

With my sons rushing between
sports practices and homework, my job was to get dinner on the table in the
most efficient way possible. Eat, clean up the kitchen, and move on to the next

Except – what is the next activity now? 

I no longer quiz a child
with spelling words or sit in the bleachers at baseball games or pack lunches
for the following school day. I don’t need to fling dinner together and move

Could I slow down, take my
time, and find joy in the cooking process?

Cooking and Me

In recent years, I’ve
ogled luscious photos of bubbling lasagnas and seared halibut and
confetti-sprinkled layer cakes. I’ve tapped hearts on foodie sites and pinned
recipes to boards with labels like Holiday Foods and Weeknight
and Healthy Eats.

Arranged in color-tagged
folders on my laptop are instructions for Appetizers and Slow-Cooker
and Entree Salads. 

Seldom did I return to my
organized stash of recipes and actually make any of these dishes. I relied on
the predictable standbys, the same rotating menus. 

Here I go again, I realized. I’m drowning in sameness.

Instead of admiring the
photos of foods other people make, why don’t I head to the kitchen and
give some of those dishes a try? 

Based on the success of my
pseudo-mashed potatoes, I began to tackle recipes I once labeled too much
or not for me.

The healthy
meatballs I prepared
were delicious spooned
over packaged pasta. Even better when I served them atop spiralized squash.
Slice a sweet potato, drop it in the toaster, and slather it with almond
butter? Who thought of THIS?! 

I bought ingredients I
didn’t quite know what to do with – ghee
and coconut aminos and almond milk – and explored the
Whole 30 craze. I felt up-to-date and informed, engaged and curious – and I liked that me. 

I Can’t Cook and Worry at the Same Time

When I scooped the seeds
and membrane from a red pepper for a lunchtime tuna melt or manipulated the
fragile collard greens into a wrap, I forgot to worry about the lab test
results and car troubles and elderly parents. While I chopped onions and grated
parmesan, I let go of the little – and
big – issues in my life. 

Like knitting, carpentry,
or painting may do for other folks, cooking unfamiliar recipes gave me
something to concentrate on besides my problems and concerns. 

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this process “flow,” and his research indicates this is one of the secrets to a happy life. In his book, Finding Flow, he defines a flow state as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” 

My Perfectionist Self Let Go

My black and white cookie
batter went into the garbage one gray, rainy afternoon. The confectioner’s
sugar I grabbed from the pantry, instead of the flour, produced a runny,
inedible, snow-white soup.

My perfectionist self
surprised me. I didn’t grouse over the cost of ingredients or the wasted time
in the kitchen. I allowed myself to laugh at my unfortunate mistake, make
another (successful) batch, and enjoy my time in the kitchen. 

In her book, Lifting Depression, neuroscientist Dr. Kelly Lambert writes, “With today’s overly-mechanized lifestyle we have forgotten our brains crave the well-being that comes from meaningful effort. Whether planting a garden, repairing a lamp, or cooking a meal, you are bathing your brain in feel-good chemicals and creating a kind of mental vitamin.”

Cooking Can Produce Feel-Good Chemicals

Instead of grazing on
cheese and crackers – or
cookies – and calling it dinner, I
tried new creations when I dined alone. Pesto, tomatoes, mushrooms, and
avocados make for a fancy grilled cheese sandwich at lunch.

Sheet pan dinners are a
breeze for one person. I fired up the stove or the oven and assembled salmon
salads and turkey burgers – for
my party of one.

Cooking gadgets became the
gifts du jour for Mother’s Day and my birthday. As I unwrapped a pasta maker
from my sons, I admit the words “work” and “mess” rolled through my mind.

And – yes – fettuccini from scratch was a flour-spattered
production. But as I kneaded the dough and maneuvered the fussy strips through
the machine, I realized I enjoyed my own company – and the challenge of it all.

Nowadays, I still enjoy a good dinner out, and most Friday and Saturday nights my kitchen is closed. I don’t make new recipes every day, and I’ve tried plenty I won’t make again. 

But when I do go into my
kitchen to attempt a new dessert or salad or soup, I’ll feed my body – and I’ll also feed my soul. 

Do you have an activity that helps you experience flow? What hobby causes you to “lose yourself?” When was the last time you tried a new recipe? Please share with our community!