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Don’t Believe Everything You Hear About Passion

There are two types of passion. Here's how to know which type you have.

Key points

  • Harmonious passion is a type of passion that exists in harmony with other parts of our lives.
  • Obsessive passion is an overpowering passion that interferes with functioning in other life domains.
  • Obsessive passion is associated with declines in well-being, quality of relationships, and performance.

Everyone loves a good inspirational story. Stories of unlikely success, of “making it” against all odds, or of achieving a lifelong dream. If you’ve ever encountered such stories, it’s likely that the word ‘passion’ was mentioned somewhere.

Passion is a key ingredient in a successful and fulfilling life. Being passionate about something or someone feels good; it gives life meaning and enhances our vitality, making each day a little more exciting. However, research over the past two decades has consistently found that not all passions are created equal, and the wrong type of passion can be a serious obstacle to a healthy, balanced life.

The Two Faces of Passion

In a large and bright corner office in the French-speaking Université du Québec à Montréal, I met the world-renowned expert on passion, Prof. Robert J. Vallerand. Over 20 years ago, Prof. Vallerand and colleagues conceptualized the Dualistic Model of Passion (DMP; Vallerand et al., 2003), which since then has been established as the primary model used in all passion research.

The model suggests that, unlike what we tend to believe about passion, being passionate is not always a positive thing. There are two types of passion: harmonious passion and obsessive passion.

Harmonious passion is the type of passion that is strong and life-enriching, but is not threatening to the other aspects of our lives. As the name implies, this type of passion can exist in harmony with our other interests, roles, and responsibilities.

For example, a harmoniously passionate video gamer will experience the positive emotions that are associated with passion while playing a video game, but will be able to easily disengage from the game when it is time to do something else.

Obsessive passion, on the other hand, is the type of passion that is glamorized in popular culture as the passion that is necessary for remarkable success, but research paints a very different picture.

Ron Lach / Pexels
Source: Ron Lach / Pexels

Aptly named, obsessive passion is all-consuming. It controls the individual, rather than the individual controlling the passion, and interferes with functioning in other aspects of life. In other words, when we are obsessively passionate, there is little room for meaningful engagement in anything else.

Obsessive passion for video gaming, for example, is something that many people are familiar with. The passionate person is overwhelmed with the need to play video games, often at the expense of relationships, responsibilities (such as work or school), and their own health. When they are not physically engaging with the games, they are thinking about them, which contributes to absent-mindedness and disconnection from other life domains.

The Role of Passion in Well-Being

Prof. Vallerand and I worked together for four years, publishing multiple peer-reviewed papers on the topic of passion. When I joined Prof. Vallerand’s lab, I didn’t know much about passion. Like many others, was under the impression that the only true expression of passion is to sacrifice parts of our lives for it. After all, if you are able to put your passion aside for hours or even days at a time — are you truly passionate?

The answer is yes.

While being obsessively passionate may yield desirable results in exceptional cases, it leads to harm, disappointment, and failure in most people. Research across many contexts (such as sports, work, relationships, education, etc.) has consistently found obsessive passion to be associated with negative emotions (Laland et al., 2017), lower-quality relationships (Bélanger et al., 2021), and negative cognitions such as the tendency to ruminate on past failures (Sverdlik et al., 2019).

Additionally, obsessive passion does not produce the well-being effects that are associated with harmonious passion, such as happiness, life satisfaction, and a sense of purpose in life (Yukhymenko-Lescroart & Sharma, 2022).

Having an overpowering passion therefore appears to have a compounded negative effect. It interferes with important wellness-related functions such as nurturing relationships, maintaining a positive mindset, and establishing a self-care routine. And if that wasn’t bad enough, being obsessively passionate also blocks some of the best passion-related benefits: experiencing life as meaningful and satisfying.

Don’t Let Your Passion Run the Show

It’s easy to get lost in our passions. The feeling of flow that we often experience when engaging with our passion (Carpentier et al., 2012), which completely alters our perception of time, is quite powerful. No wonder we want more of it.

We don’t always choose what we become passionate about, but we can choose how to manage our passion. When we spend our resources – such as time, energy, or money – excessively on our passion, we sacrifice our future for the present moment. And before we know it, we can find ourselves burnt out, broke, and alone.

Treating our passion like an important part of our life, rather than our whole life, will allow us to reap the well-being and performance benefits that are associated with being passionate, while still maintaining a sense of equilibrium. And while that may not make for a very exciting or inspirational story, it is the evidence-based way to live a successful and fulfilling life.

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