Fuel Your Passion

We often believe that passion is an essential part of our success and well-being. Yet we see passionate people who seem to suffer because of their passion. Consider what the former professional soccer player, Eric Cantona said, “If you have only one passion in life … and you pursue it to the exclusion of all other things, this becomes dangerous…” If that passion ends, so does the individual’s purpose. 

According to research by Robert J. Vallerand, Professor of Psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, passion is broken down into two types: harmonious passion (HP) and obsessive passion (OP). Each leads to different outcomes.

Passion is defined as a strong inclination toward an activity (e.g., work) that one loves, finds important, in which significant time and energy are invested, and that is part of our identity. A person who is passionate about playing basketball does not merely play ball. He or she is a basketball player.

Obsessive passion (OP) entails relentlessly pursuing that which one is passionate about.  The activity overpowers the person. A sense of self-control is lost such as the inability to cease the activity which causes feelings of guilt, shame, or burnout. 

It is not uncommon to find those with obsessive passion experience contingent self-esteem, that is, the person is reliant on what one is passionate about to produce feelings of self-worth. There is a need to focus control over what is outside of the person with a regimented belief that this will lead to the outcomes desired.  

Obsessive passion involves the ego and the rigidity of how to go about the activity. As a result, there is an inability to be adaptable or step away, when beneficial, from the activity which can negatively conflict with other areas of the person’s life as well as interpersonal relationships.

What the person is passionate about becomes their central focus even when away from the activity. The person finds it difficult to be present as the mind is consumed by thoughts revolving around work, a sport, or whatever the passion may be. There is difficulty in knowing, “Who am I outside of this passion?”

With harmonious passion (HP), the activity integrates into the authentic self because it is highly valued, and the person chooses to engage of his/her own free will. Mastering of oneself, such as improving skills, is the focus rather than controlling what others do. 

If the person is unable to pursue an area of passion, it does not shut down the ability to enjoy other activities or life in general. The pleasure of partaking in the process itself is rewarding and viewed as an opportunity to discover more about oneself. Stepping away from the activity happens without much angst, and recharging is a positive experience free from guilt. 

Harmonious passion is also linked to “flow state” which occurs when one is immersed in a task for the pleasure of engaging in the behavior itself. Contingent outcomes are not of importance. Even when focused on an activity, those with HP are able to remain flexible, mindful, and open which leads to more enjoyable experiences.

The activity feels effortless while the person loses a sense of self, becoming one with the task and enhancing concentration. Harmonious passion reinforces psychological functioning, physical health, overall well-being, greater self-growth, life satisfaction, favorable relationships, and positive emotions. 

Obsessive passion does not necessarily always incite negative outcomes. In the short-term, it can lead to a sudden burst of effort for improved performance. However, if one maintains such an obsessive engagement for a prolonged period of time, it can turn into burnout.

Here are a few tips that have been empirically supported to nurture HP:

1. Visualize a time when you experienced harmonious passion stemming from your work or a meaningful activity:

  • What did you do?
  • How did you feel?
  • What were other areas you were passionate about that were in balance with the rest of your life? 

2. Anchor yourself in the present, fully engaged in your activity. After the experience is over, express gratitude, then release it, and look forward to partaking in others.

3. Let go of your ego. Focus on the pleasure of simply doing what you love.

4. Make autonomous decisions in line with your values and not dependent on outcomes.

5. Decrease activities that adversely impact other areas of your life, or engage in them to the degree that they fit well with what is worthwhile to you. 

6. Leave room to enjoy various areas of interest with family and/or friends.

Passion breeds zest, enthusiasm, and makes one feel spirited. It drives growth and builds resilience. It would be wise to pursue what you are passionate about, however, you will be much better for it if you do so harmoniously.