The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Passion

How to tell if your passion for work and life is working for you or against you

Posted Apr 10, 2015

Getty images
Source: Getty images

     I read a story in the New Yorker recently in which the author talks about his three-year-old daughter who has an imaginary playmate named Charlie Ravioli. There’s nothing unusual about a three-year-old having an imaginary playmate, except this one is always too busy to play with her. Whenever she calls Charlie Ravioli on her toy cell phone, she always gets his answering machine and has to leave a message.

A few months later, her father discoverewd that she’s now leaving messages with someone named Laurie, who turns out to be Charlie Ravioli’s assistant, someone he’s apparently hired to return his phone calls for him. 

Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive, but when our three-year-olds’ imaginary playmates are too busy to play with them, and start hiring agents to fend off the insistent phone calls of the children who imagine them to begin with, maybe it’s time to move away from New York. Or rearrange your priorities. Or something. 

The compulsion toward busyness is a pretty good definition of workaholism, which is one of our very few socially-sanctioned addictions—experts just call it a process addiction instead of a substance addiction—and it’s one of the very few you can put on your resume. You can’t do that with most addictions. 

But even if all your works are good works, even if all your busyness is in the service of worthy and noble causes, when the means to those ends is an addictive process, the end result is probably a loss of soul and a depletion of spirit.

One of the drawbacks of the passionate life is that it can sometimes keep you in such hot pursuit of your earthly affairs, running from one excitement and urgency to the next and the next, that you seldom take your nose off the grindstone of details and take in the bigger picture, or question the validity of constantly shoveling coal into the furnace. “Enthusiasm shares a border with fanaticism, and joy with hysteria,” writes Kay Redfield Jamison in Exuberance. “Exuberance lives in uncomfortable proximity to mania.”

To be sure, passion can be either healthy or unhealthy, adaptive or maladaptive. The healthy kind is characterized by flexible persistence toward desired activities, which doesn’t unduly interfere with other aspects of your life like relationships or health, and immerses you in more positive emotional and flow states. Unhealthy passion involves persistence at all costs, work that controls you rather than the other way around, and self-esteem and identity all wrapped up in performance.

It’s the difference between good workaholics and bad workaholics (both of whom have better psychological addjustment, researchers say, than those with no passion at all), and the difference between a satisfying and unsatisfying retirement—i.e. the cessation or even just slowing-down of your passionate worklife. That is, people operating from healthy passion feel less anxiety, depression and stress, and experience more vitality in retirement, that those who can’t control their urge to work and can’t live satisfactorily without it.

Spiritual teachings are always reminding us that it isn’t what we do but how we do it, and that we need to bring mindfulness to whatever or however-many activities we engage in. This, of course, is very true and a noble idea. But sometimes it isn’t about bringing mindfulness to our frenzy. It’s about being a little less frenzied.         

Concepts like time management, stress management, organizing and multi-tasking are good cases in point; they can sometimes just be ways of helping us stay frenzied. Time management, for example, is based on the false assumption that there are enough hours in the day to get done everything you want to get done, and there aren’t! “You can’t have it all,” Ann Landers once said. “Where would you put it?”

You’re also not the only one who’s likely to be affected by your overzealous passion. I read another story recently about a doctor who was on call every other night at a hospital, and wasn’t getting enough sleep. He said that the more exhausted he became, the more tests he ordered on patients. He was so fogged up with exhaustion that he no longer trusted his own intuition and wisdom and had to rely increasingly on tests to figure out what was going on with his patients.

But as soon as he knocked off a bit and got some rest, he was able to see clearly what was going on with his patients and needed only one or two tests to confirm his diagnoses.

Knocking off means disciplining yourself to stop being so disciplined. It means giving yourself what people obliquely refer to as “space,” distance from everything that presses in on you, some penetrating quiet inside, and then holding that silence up to your ear, like an empty shell, and listening to the roar of your own life.

It means reacquainting yourself with some non-work modes of expression, with activities that have no socially redeeming value, are explicitly non-utilitarian, and that you can’t put a price on or attach a goal to. It means allowing yourself the benedictions of play and creative idleness, occasionally stopping what you’re doing and just floating in the slack tide for a spell, in the state of what Sufis call sacred drift, resisting the temptation to reach for a quick fix.

Stepping off the hamster wheel, though, even temporarily, pits you against a trance of monumental proportions: the cultural belief that doing is better than not-doing, that you are what you do, and that value adheres to what you produce. And the belief that if you’re not producing, you’re not creating value—you’re not of value.

So it’s no surprise that you’re constantly doing something. And when you’re busy doing, you don’t have to be busy feeling; feeling that maybe you’re burned out, or you need a change, or your heart isn’t in the work anymore, or that work itself, which normally gives you a sense of control over your life, has instead made your life feel like a parody of being in control, like you’re frantically shoveling coal into a furnace that’s burning it up faster and faster.

People use the term “vegging out” or even a “vegetative state” to describe not doing anything, just hanging out and taking it easy. But if you’ve ever seen buds break through sidewalks, or vines and roots tear old buildings apart, you know the absurdity of equating vegging-out with inactivity, if not uselessness.

A “vegetative state” is a very productive state. In fact, the vegetable sectionof the supermarket is called produce. And it’s especially productive for work addicts, or anyone trading off health for productivity and passion. For them, not-working is definitely progress, because when you’re standing at the edge of a cliff, progress can be defined as taking a step backward! The rub is that it’s hard to feel like you’re taking a step backward, to let go of the status quo, or your own passion and exuberance, even when they’re threatening to send you over the brink. 

What there is to accomplish in life is inexhaustible; you, however, are not, and it’s imperative to know when to stop, how much is too much, how much is enough, and when to say “Enough is enough!”

Having your nose to the grindstone, your shoulder to the wheel, and your ear to the ground is not, for long periods of time, the most comfortable position. Sometimes lying in the bathtub is. 

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