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Passion and Positive Psychology

Activities passionately pursued make life worth living — usually.

Love has no pride when I call out your name.
Oh ... I'd give anything to see you again.
-Eric Kaz & Libby Titus

Positive psychology is concerned with what makes life worth living, and since its beginning, positive psychologists have done a good job of moving under their umbrella more and more relevant concepts. Passion is one of the recent notions claimed by positive psychology, and my purpose in this blog entry is to talk about research into passion by psychologist Robert Vallerand at the University of Quebec (Montreal).

First a little background about "passion" that is relevant to contemporary research. The word apparently comes a Latin verb - patoir - meaning to suffer and endure, an intriguing origin considering that nowadays we often use the term to describe pursuits that we enjoy and - indeed - to describe active pursuits as opposed to the passive endurance of painful events.

The term was used to describe the suffering of Jesus (cf. Mel Gibson's 2004 movie "The Passion of the Christ") and Christian martyrdom. Following these uses, "passion" came to mean more generally very strong emotions, not only suffering but also what sustained the person who suffered. Even today, I suspect that one indicator of how passionate someone is about a pursuit or goal is the willingness to sacrifice in order to achieve it. In one of the memorable lines from The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch told his audience that the barriers in our lives are put there so that we can show how badly we want something.

Through Western history, passion was often juxtaposed with reason, implying that passion - at least from the viewpoint of an outside observer - is irrational, a point to which I will return.

Somewhat more recently in etymological history, passion was used more narrowly to describe strong sexual desire, a still common use, although nowadays we also see passion referring to any and all strong emotions: love or joy or hatred or anger.

Vallerand (2008) defines passion as "a strong inclination toward a self-defining activity that one likes (or even loves)." Note that he limits "passion" to activities that people like or love, which is why his work fits well under the positive psychology umbrella. I suppose it would be interesting to explore the darker passions, those marked by hatred or anger, but that has not been Vallerand's purpose. I refer interested readers to AM talk radio.

Vallerand's qualification that our passions define us is important and distinguishes his work from superficially similar investigations of notions like persistence and perseverance. So, I persist doggedly every April to complete my income tax returns, but I would never use the word passion to describe what I do (except when I feel like an IRS martyr).

Vallerand uses the examples of playing the guitar and playing basketball. Many of us do these things, but they become passions when we start to think about ourselves as guitar players or basketball players.

Is passion as Vallerand defines it a positive psychology topic? Obviously. The activities about which we are passionate make our lives worth living - usually - even if psychologists have typically neglected them. (There is an extended psychological literature on so-called "interests" which strike me as the tepid relatives of passions.)

Where do we find our passions? Some folks are passionate about their work, and others passionate about their loved ones. In my opinion, these folks are fortunate but not typical. Freud famously wrote, "Work and love and work ... that's all there is." I disagree. What about play?

Leisure activities are where many of us find our passions. Because he is my friend, I happen to know that Robert Vallerand is passionate about playing the guitar and about playing basketball (not at the same time, to my knowledge). And I am passionate about playing Scrabble and rooting for the University of Michigan football team. One need not be all that skilled at an activity to be passionate about it; I am at best a mediocre Scrabble player, although I am better at playing tiles these days than the Wolverines are at playing in the Big Ten.

Leisure activities may lend themselves readily to passion because they are voluntary and intrinsically motivated. It is much easier to define yourself in terms of an activity that you choose to do as opposed to one that you must do.

In any event, I suspect Robert Vallerand is also passionate about his research as a psychologist because he has carried out an impressive line of work into passion, one that he writes about and speaks about with great enthusiasm.

His early work entailed surveys. He found that 85% of his adult respondents could readily identify at least one activity about which they were passionate. As I have suggested, most of these activities are recreational. People on average spend 8.5 hours per week on their most passionate pursuit, and they had done so for many years, usually starting in adolescence. (It can't be a coincidence that the central Eriksonian task of adolescence is to create an identify for one's self.)

Then he developed a self-report scale to measure passion, and its important wrinkle is the distinction between two types of passion, a "healthy' type that Vallerand dubs harmonious passion and an "unhealthy" type that he labels obsessive passion. Although distinguishable, they can co-occur and - interestingly - both contribute to one's self-image. The difference is that a harmonious passion has no psychological strings attached other than its enjoyment. In contrast, an obsessive passion entails dependence on the passionate activity. Consider two passionate joggers who injure themselves. The one who has harmonious passion about running will take time off and heal. The other who has obsessive passion will keep running and likely make the injury worse.

Not surprisingly, harmonious passion is linked to the usual suspects that comprise the psychological good life: positive affect, life satisfaction, physical health, and good performance (at the passionate activity). Obsessive passion in general shows the opposite pattern of correlates and furthermore can interfere with social relationships. And those with an obsessive passion may experience shame during or after the activity.

Do the empirical findings about obsessive passion contradict the etymological history of passion that highlights one's willingness to suffer in pursuit of an activity? I don't think so. What makes a passion obsessive is that it actually gets in the way of itself. A hobbled jogger is not much of a jogger and will become ever less so as his or her jogging continues. Someone obsessively passionate about gambling will likely run through his or her money and not be able to place future bets.

In sum, passions make life worth living but need to be pursued in ways that sustain themselves. That passions can entail sacrifice actually define them as passions. They are healthy when the sacrifice is as freely undertaken as the activity itself and does not undercut the goal of the passionate activity. That passions may strike others as irrational is irrelevant in describing them as harmonious or obsessive, healthy or unhealthy. After all, passions are personal and what matters about our passions is whether they make sense to us.

As a Scrabble player, I love the words QAT, QAID, and QI - among the Q words that can be played without having a U. Whether these words matter to you is not all that important to me, unless you happen to be my opponent, in which case I hope that you do not know them.

Vallerand, R. J. (2008). On the psychology of passion: In search of what makes people's lives most worth living. Canadian Psychology, 49, 1-13.