Laila Saif wasn't looking to change careers when she booked a hypnotherapy treatment at Illuminations well-being centre in Dubai in 2016, but that's what ended up happening. "It was really transformational," she says. "I remember leaving that session speechless. I thought, 'I have to study this science.' I feel every human being has the full right to know who they are."
Working in human resources at the time, Saif says her career was at "peak level": great pay, work she loved, amazing colleagues and an opportunity to help others thrive. "Then this came along and threw me completely, and I knew with the full-time position I had, it was almost impossible to do both."
Things became clearer once she left her job to begin training in hypnotherapy and neurolinguistic programming. Fast forward a few years and Saif is co-owner of Illuminations Abu Dhabi, the capital's first branch that opens next month – and happier than she's ever been.
Saif's story reflects the findings of one of the largest studies looking into the power of having a passion. In a survey of 13,000 people across the globe conducted for the Discovery group and released last month, nine out of 10 people said they believe passions bring a sense of achievement and fulfilment to their lives. Of the sample group, 89 per cent said it was while pursuing their passions that they felt most like themselves. People with a passion were 43 per cent more likely to be confident when making decisions. They also felt less lonely, with 73 per cent of respondents saying they believe passions provide a sense of belonging.
Passion plays a huge role in happiness, because otherwise people can get stuck in a routine and lose sight of what is important, explains Reem Shaheen, a counselling psychologist and founder of BE Psychology Centre in Dubai. And while many people think they should find their passion at work, this isn't always doable for everyone.
"You could have a job from 9am to 5pm, and then spend the rest of the day doing whatever you wanted to pursue," Shaheen says. "Your job doesn't have to be your passion." She has clients who found their groove simply by taking improv or dance classes, or just regularly getting out of the city.
“It’s not only that you’re passionate about something; it’s that it brings fun and joy, and those are feelings you need to experience on a regular basis,” she says. “It opens the space up for creativity.”
As someone who did leave her job for her passion, Saif says it's a decision others might not easily embrace. "You'll have conversations with a lot of people, telling them you've decided to pursue your passion, and you'll have a lot of people who may have similar ideas, but will put their own fears on you." This won't make you only think twice, she says, but 100 times.
In the end, though, only you know what you should be doing and what you feel inside, Saif advises. "If it sparks a feeling in your heart, then you have to follow that feeling, because you are good at it and you probably have a message to spread."
We speak to four other people who found their calling and discover their keys to a fulfilling life.
Troy Payne: Always look up
The tag line on Troy Payne's email signature is simple: "Eccentric chef." The Australian national wrings maximum joy out of life in Dubai and it's not only the big things he loves, such as his job and spending time with his wife, Rida. Dancing to Muse's Uprising while his dinner marinates, flying drones and remote-control planes, making his own line of T-shirts because he couldn't find any he liked in a shop – "There is always a skull or a car or some stupid logo" – and tending to his balcony garden daily are among his other pursuits.
"That's [how] I was brought up," says Payne, 43. "My dad said: 'If you don't enjoy it, stop doing it.'" Payne has nourished and cultivated his passion for food for almost 30 years, and has worked for Sergio Lopez and Tom Arnel's Bull & Roo restaurants, and as executive chef for Lopez's first solo venture, Sanderson's at Al Seef Resort & Spa in Abu Dhabi. And he's putting it all into his latest venture with Lopez, The Pangolin in Dubai Sports City. In search of the thoughtful menu items he is fond of concocting, Payne has gone down more than a few happy rabbit holes.
"I've brought in pasta presses from an old Italian man in northern Italy who still hand-carves them from wood," he says. "I've been teaching myself how to make a form of pasta that only about 10 women in the world, who are all over the age of 80, know how to make."
Payne's other keys to a happy passionate life? Look up, talk to strangers in the lift, never contract your own life, and never stop learning and exploring.
Hameed Yousuf: Everything else will just fall into its place
It’s not easy to get up at 4am on a Friday when everyone else is sleeping, says Hameed Yousuf. But missing out on a tear through the sand with the Desert Nation 4x4 club would be a fate far worse, he adds.
"I like to be away from concrete buildings at times," says Yousuf, 31. "That's the reason I go to the desert every weekend." The digital marketing consultant, who is from India but grew up in Dubai, has a long list of passions. In addition to his job and professional affiliations, he runs the website and YouTube channel Hami Vlogs, and loves photography and tending to his aquascapes.
Yousuf got into creating a mini sea world in an aquarium about four years ago, after he had to stop scuba diving (another passion) when he started getting frequent nosebleeds. "Aquascaping is like building a similar ecosystem that you don't need to go diving for," he says. Furthermore, despite having only 100 subscribers to his YouTube channel, he landed a TV show about tech and gadgets. Wicki Techie ran for two years on the now-defunct Malayam Channel D.
Yousuf was a competitive Bollywood and hip-hop dancer, although he had to stop in his early 20s after an ankle injury. “I thought to myself, I have so much free time. I didn’t know what to do, so I just started doing every single thing possible,” he says.
Yousuf thinks a lot of people don't pursue their passions because they think it will take too long. But the effort, he says, will reap big rewards in terms of quality of life. "If you feel something is worth your time, and it makes you happy and you can be a better person in this world, go ahead and do it, and everything else will just fall into its place."
Vicki Matheson: First and foremost is helping
Last year Vicki Matheson knocked off some major life goals: running the Tokyo marathon and getting a 1.46-hour personal best in the Ras Al Khaimah half-marathon. This year, it’s all about helping other people do the same.
That's why she was pacing a group during this year's Dubai Standard Chartered Marathon 10km race and will be pacing her mum's first big race at the age of 64 in April's London Marathon. Then there is the Adidas Runners club she helps out with, and the race shirts she collects and donates to labourers.
Matheson, 38, lost her way for a while when she moved from Glasgow to Dubai for a teaching position 10 years ago. She gained weight, had no real goals, and felt aimless and unaccomplished. "The whole weekend would just be spent seeing other people and then not really doing what I wanted to do," she says.
In her effort to lose weight and heal from a slipped disc, she became obsessed with Flywheel and Flybarre. Then she tried indoor stair-climbing and started running, soon graduating from short races to marathons. Now a weekend doesn’t go by that she isn’t running, if not racing. Matheson was also able to wrap up her teaching career after a decade and transition into events, another passion.
She believes the most important thing is to keep trying new things. "Literally, everyone has a passion for something, whether it's fast cars or coffee, whatever."
Nura Arabi: Be a lifelong learner
For Nura Arabi, 29, having a passion is all about loving something enough to face risks and challenges in pursuing it, ultimately finding deep reserves of strength along the way. The Canadian physical education teacher, who lives in Abu Dhabi, counts among her passions nutrition – in particular, the benefits of macrobiotic eating – teaching, fitness and writing. She’s also earning a PhD in how e-learning impacts child development and is a passionate influencer to her 11,000-plus followers on Instagram.
“Fitness gives me energy and helps take my stresses away,” says Arabi. “It has taught me self-respect and confidence, and that self-care is important. I learnt what it means to be committed to something and be committed to my well-being.”
Arabi has also taken her passion for health and teaching to YouTube, creating whimsical videos aimed at helping children improve their nutrition. “A passion for teaching means I need to keep educating myself all the time. I enjoy being a lifelong learner.”