Is Your Passion Making You Unhappy

"Follow your passion," they say. It's one of those pieces of advice that sounds good. Obviously, nobody is actually going to tell you to do something you hate, right? Don't worry -- I'm not here to burst that bubble with some sort of counter-intuitive psychology research. Instead, I'm here to ask if you're approaching your passions in the right way. Robert Vallerand and his associates published a paper in 2007 that looks at the Dual Model of Passion and found some interesting results. The Dual Model of Passion essentially says there are two types of passion, harmonious passion and obsessive passion. As you might expect, people with harmonious passion seem to have better outcomes than those with obsessive passion. 

Passion, in general, is defined as a strong inclination toward an activity that you like (or love), find to be important, in which you spend time and energy, and which comes to be internalized as part of your identity. If you're passionate about playing guitar you're likely to define yourself as a "guitarist." Passionate video game players are "gamers" and people who feel passionately about dancing think of themselves as "dancers." That's what it means to internalize something as part of your identity. Passion is fine, as long as it develops in a healthy way.

Obsessive passion results from what is called a "controlled internalization of the activity." Basically, you tie social acceptance ("I do this because other people like me more when I do it") or self-esteem ("I'm a better person when I do this") to the activity. What develops is an unhealthy obsession to execute the activity even at the expense of your social relationships or work commitments. The real kicker, however, is that you probably won't even feel very good while you're partaking in your passion if you have an obsessive orientation to it. You'll likely feel guilty while you're doing it ("I shouldn't be doing this right now") and have trouble engaging with the activity (or entering flow).

Harmonious passion, on the other hand, is marked by "autonomous internalization" of the activity into your identity. There are no contingencies on doing the activity and you're free to choose whether or not to do it. The activity still occupies a significant amount of time but it does not overpower your identity. The real bonus is that if you have a harmonious passion approach you're likely to feel happier when you're doing the activity and be more likely to become fully immersed in the activity.

Anders Ericsson's 10,000-hours-of-practice-makes-an-expert (deliberate practice, remember) research is pretty much accepted nowadays thanks to Malcolm Gladwell. To practice something so consistently, especially considering deliberate practice is rarely fun in itself, obviously requires passion. According to this paper, it looks like both obsessive and harmonious passion can result in performance attainment (being a master guitar player, artist, or athlete, for example). Both types of passion positively correlate with deliberate practice and that is the most important factor in reaching goals. However, the path from passion to actually achieving a concrete goal is much more direct with harmonious passion.

 If you care about something deeply, strive for harmonious passion. If you have this type of passion you focus almost exclusively on mastery goals (getting good at the activity itself -- not the results of being good at the activity). When you care about mastery goals, you focus your attention and time on activities that lead to performance improvement. For example, you practice guitar because you love playing the guitar and not because you want to be a rich rock star. Mastery goals lead to deliberate practice which eventually allows performance attainment to happen. As a nice added bonus, your subjective well-being (happiness) is likely to be high and you're likely to experience flow.

On the other hand, you can care deeply about something and have an obsessive passion toward it. In this case the path to your ultimate goal is not so straightforward. You pursue a variety of goals including mastery (like people with harmonious passion) but you also care about not appearing less capable as compared to other people (performance-avoidance goal). Your focus on mastery goals will help you in your quest for performance attainment but because you're also worried about not appearing less capable than the people around you, you progress more slowly in your development as an expert. You may eventually reach whatever your ultimate goal is, but it'll likely take you longer, you won't be very happy while you do it and you won't have fully enjoyed yourself in the process of becoming an expert.  

Think about the things you're passionate about. How do you feel when you can't partake in them? Do you feel lost and irritable or are you able to move on with your day and not let it bother you too much? Do you enjoy the time you spend in your passion or do you feel guilty when you're doing it because you should be doing something else? The sign of a healthy passion is something you love to do for the sake of doing it, not because you think it will provide the path to some kind of external goal later on.  

If you're concerned that your passion is perhaps entering the obsessive realm (or already has), it's worth thinking about how you can align it to be more harmonious with your life. Not only will you enjoy the time you spend doing it more, you're likely to reach your end goal of mastery quicker. A win-win situation if there ever was one.

Do you have any stories about a passion that ended up becoming obsessive and the effect it had on your life? Have you successfully navigated the path between obsessive and harmonious passion? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.


Vallerand, R. J., Salvy, S.-J., Mageau, G. A., Elliot, A. J., Denis, P. L., Grouzet, F. M. E. and Blanchard, C. (2007), On the Role of Passion in Performance. Journal of Personality, 75: 505–534. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2007.00447.x