What is passion, and are you sure you want it?
Posted May 15, 2017
What is passion?
Everyone has an idea of what passion means, but when we start talking with others about our understanding, it often turns out that different people mean different things when they say “passion”. Most people would agree that passion refers to a strong motivation mixed with intense emotions. Less clear is whether these intense emotions are positive or negative, as both have been linked to passion. For some people, passion refers to sexual attraction and passing limerence of one person for another, which is described as a transient state likely to fade away after a while. For others, passion refers to a long-term interest or commitment of a person for a topic or activity that this person pursues through life no matter what obstacle comes in the way. Nowadays, many people seem to agree that passion is important and impactful, although there is some disagreement about the question of whether passion should be pursued or ignored, or even avoided.
Why would I want passion?
On one hand, passion is considered a desirable trait in all fields related to achievement and performance, such as work, entrepreneurship, management, learning, and sports. In advertisement and branding, for instance, passion is the talk of the town. One example were the Olympic Summer Games in 2016, which were themed “Passion for Transformation”. Likewise, the theme of the Deutsche Bank has been “Passion to Perform” for many years. Yet another example for the interest in passion is the great success of Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit: Passion and Perseverance” in America and beyond, which describes the success of individuals who persevere in effortful courses of action instead of giving up (a personality trait known as conscientiousness in the psychological literature). The much-cited passion researcher Robert Vallerand goes so far as to conclude “passion is what makes life worth living”. What makes passion appear a desirable trait is that it combines in one framework the intense motivation needed to get going and the perseverance needed to overcome obstacles and frustrations that people typically encounter sooner or later in their learning and work processes. Thus, passion describes why some people literally burn for engaging and persisting in activities that require lots of sacrifices from them and might even make them feel miserable for extended periods of time. Such perseverance in the face of obstacles is much needed for the development of expertise, high achievement and success, and many other concepts of motivations (such as interest, commitment, engagement, task values, or flow) seem to fall short in explaining such a paradoxical combination of co-occurring pain and joy, intense engagement, readiness to make sacrifices, tolerance to suffering, and yet experiences of intense interest, and absorption.
Fine, if it’s that great, why wouldn’t anyone want a passion?
On the other hand, concerned parents have started to ask whether the push for everyone to find a passion was harming children, and questions have been raised whether exploring a diversity of options and a more balanced, less extreme motivation for learning or work would be just as beneficial, if not even more so. In a similar spirit, the German enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant was convinced “Nobody wishes to have passions. For who wants to be put in chains when he can be free?”. Likewise, The Guardian writer Oliver Burkeman concluded his column on passion with the words “Passion may not be worth getting too excited about.” There is indeed much research on the potential downside of unbalanced (obsessive) passion, which include an increased risk to experience negative emotions, rigid and harmful persistence when it would be better to give up or do something else, addiction-like behavior, burnout, increased injury risks among athletes, and other undesirable outcomes. The resemblance of passion with excessive and harmful working behavior such as workaholism and addiction is another reason to keep in mind that in all things, the dose makes the poison. Much of the research on passion distinguishes between an adaptive, positive form called “harmonious” passion and a harmful form called “obsessive passion”, and sometimes this conclusion has lead to statements such as “harmonious passionate people feel joy and a strong sense of freedom”, and “people with an obsessive passion can thus find themselves in the position of experiencing an uncontrollable urge to partake in the activity they view as important and enjoyable.” Although this may sound as if you could cherry-pick the upsides of harmonious passion without having to suffer the obsessive downsides, several recent studies have shown that most passionate individuals experience the positive and negative aspects together, meaning they love what they do but yet may suffer and have a hard time letting go of their passionate activity, even when it would be wise to quit for the day.
Okay, I have decided whether or not I want a passion. Now what?
Whether you want to get more passionate or get rid of a passion, my forthcoming series of blog posts on the research on passion will tell you how over the next weeks and months. The next posts will discuss how to initialize and find, sustain and persevere, and get rid of and recover from passions in learning, work, or athletics, or leisure activities.
In the meantime, you can find a collection of interesting reads, such as:
- Some introductions to the present research on passion in Psychology can be found on my homepage and passion researcher Robert Vallerand's page.
- A compelling historical introduction to the roots and philosophical fundaments of the term passion can be found in Thomas Dixon's book “From passions to emotions. The creation of a secular psychological category”. Dixon shows that, far from being a new concept, the term passion has its roots in Christian Theology and was actually removed from the vocabulary of psychologists ever since psychology emancipated itself from its theological roots when becoming a secular discipline. Fun fact: Attempts to re-introduce passion as a psychological construct have been made as early as a hundred years ago, although only in 2003 psychologists’ interest in passion spiked after Robert Vallerand reintroduced the concept.
- Finally, for readers wondering about the relationship between passions and balanced contentment, I recommend the beautiful novel “Lost Horizon” by James Hilton, which explores the question whether passionate striving or rather the absence thereof make life worth living.