An HBO sports documentary that premiered July 29, 2020, entitled The Weight of Gold, sheds light on the cost of Olympic sport on athletes’ mental well-being. Could there be a correlation with the type of passion athletes, as well as others who focus on a singular passion, struggle with?
Following are quotes from some of the brave Olympians who shared their stories in the documentary:
“Everything revolves around the sole focus, and that sole focus is the Olympics, and now the next 40 seconds will dictate our human lives.” -–Apolo Ohno, Short Track Speed Skater
“I thought of myself as just a swimmer and not a human being.” –Michael Phelps, Swimmer
“I didn't develop outside interests. The transition to ‘normal’ life is difficult—for some it is emotionally devastating.” –Sasha Cohen, Figure Skater
"I've given my blood, sweat, and tears, and all I'm asking is that someone can help me get through this." –Lolo Jones, Hurdler and Bobsledder
We often believe that passion is an essential part of our success and well-being. For instance, the famous singer Jon Bon Jovi said, “Nothing is as important as passion. No matter what you do with your life, be passionate.” While this may be so, we see passionate people who seem to suffer because of their passion.
Consider what the former all-star 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…” It can cause those who do so the inability to sustain life satisfaction because if that passion ends, so does their purpose. Thus, although we may commonly think of passion as a beneficial trait that drives us towards life and career fulfillment, it is not as straightforward as one may think.
In fact, according to research presented at this year’s Western Positive Psychology Conference 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 becoming obsessed with or relentlessly pursuing that which one is passionate about. With OP, the activity overpowers the person. A sense of self-control is lost such as the inability to cease the activity that causes harm, feelings of guilt, shame, or burnout. There is a compulsion to the activity as in becoming controlled by the activity.
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 a rigidness 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 through ruminating thoughts that take up significant mental inventory. The person finds it difficult to be present as the mind is hijacked 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?”
Conversely, 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 or volition. Mastering of oneself, such as improving skills, is the focus rather than controlling what others do. Multiple areas of interest function together harmoniously for the flourishing of the whole being.
If the person is unable to pursue an area of passion, it does not shut down the ability to relish in other activities or life in general. Partaking in the process itself is rewarding and viewed as an opportunity to explore more about oneself. Stepping away from the effort happens without much angst, and recharging is a positive experience free from guilt.
“It's about the journey and what you learn about yourself. Start to ask questions for yourself—to feel whole and to grow as a human being.” –Katie Uhlaender
Harmonious passion is linked to “flow state” which occurs when one is immersed in a task for the pleasure of engaging in the behavior itself while losing a sense of self, hence the ego or contingent outcomes are not of importance. It feels effortless, enhancing concentration. Even when focused on an exercise, those with HP are able to remain flexible, mindful, and open which leads to more contentment and positive associations.
Harmonious passion also reinforces psychological functioning, physical health, overall well-being, greater self-growth, life satisfaction, favorable relationships, and positive emotions. For the human body to function optimally, it must operate in harmony.
Whereas obsessive passion typically results in less adaptive outcomes than harmonious passion, it does not necessarily mean that it always incites negative outcomes. For instance, 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 both at work and in sport.
“If there is one thing I have learned in my own post-Olympics life, it is the importance of finding new goals, a new sense of purpose. Learn to live for the process again without being defined by the results.” –Sasha Cohen
So, how do we engage in passionate pursuits out of harmonious passion while minimizing obsessive passion? Here are a few tips that have been empirically supported to nurture HP:
1. Visualize and relive within your mind 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 passions 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. Practice being flexible and adaptable when striving for goals to better handle unplanned events.
4. Let go of your ego. Focus on the gratification of simply doing what you love.
5. Make autonomous decisions in line with your values and not contingent on outcomes.
6. Decrease activities that cause interpersonal conflict or adversely impact other areas of your life, or engage in them to the degree that they fit well with what is worthwhile to you.
7. Include other pursuits that bring you joy and align with your identity:
- Which activities feel right for you?
- What are you curious about trying just to see how it feels like doing it?
- What did you like doing as a teenager?
8. Leave room to savor various areas of interest with family and/or friends.
Passion stimulates zest, vigor, and determination. It drives growth and builds resilience. It would be wise to pursue Bon Jovi’s advice, “no matter what you do with your life, be passionate"—however, you will be much better for it if you do so harmoniously.
Vallerand, R.J. (2015). The psychology of passion. New York: Oxford University Press.
Schellenberg et al. (2013).
Mageau et al. (2011).
Lopes & Vallerand (2020).
St-Louis et al. (2018).
Belander et al. (2013).
Vallerand et al. (2003).
HBO (2020 July 20). The Weight of Gold (2020): Official Trailer | HBO [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LzGdIh3ciSk
HBO (2020 July 29). The Weight of Gold: Panel Discussion feat. Michael Phelps | HBO [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhgckpatPYY
Cohen, S. (2018) 'Sasha Cohen: An Olympian's Guide to Retiring at 25', The New York Times Opinion, 24 February.