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


Three Lessons I Learned from TEDX

Last Friday I had the honor of attending a TEDx event. When it comes to TED, I think most people fall into two camps. If you’ve heard of TED and know what it’s all about, you probably think it’s awesome. The other camp usually consists of the question, “Who’s Ted?”

For the uninitiated, TED is a huge conference of incredible people giving 18 minute or shorter talks on various topics. They are huge events but the real goldmine behind TED is on their website where nearly all the talks are available to watch and listen to for free. A TEDx event is a smaller and independently produced version of an "actual" TED conference.

At our TEDx event there were six speakers (check out their bios here) covering topics from non-profit funding, leadership, neuroeconomics, combating AIDS, urban farming, and music. I could write an article for each of these speakers as they all did a fantastic job and talked about incredibly interesting topics. However, instead of going through a point-by-point breakdown of the evening I’d like to just leave you with a couple thoughts that hit me the hardest.


Jesse Dubois gave an excellent talk about urban farming. He is the founder of a company called Farmscapethat is trying to increase the amount of food grown within the city limits of Los Angeles. One of the main problems his company is facing is the fact that people have a hard time thinking about the production of food in a way other than what we understand as “farming.” People think that food has to be grown on mega-sized company farms well outside the city.

Is there really a reason it has to be this way? Jesse asks if the way we think about food production is really the only way to think about it. Going one step forward, why do we landscape our yards with aesthetically pleasing plants that have no actual value to our lives? What if it was normal to landscape your yard with food producing plants?

This talk made me think about other areas of my life where I might just be making assumptions about the way things “have to be.” Where can I reject faulty assumptions and develop a healthier and better way of thinking?


Grammy award winning composer Mateo Messina booked a symphony in Seattle’s new symphony hall before he’d ever even written one. In fact, he couldn’t even read music. He just knew that he always wanted to write a symphony — so he figured out a way to make it happen. He tells the story of how he bought a children’s book about orchestras, a keyboard and some software that would transcribe the notes he played on it. He then sat down and played out the notes that each instrument in his orchestra would play (after checking the picture in the children’s book first, of course).

He had a dream and he didn’t overcomplicate it. He could play the piano and knew there was software that would transcribe what he was playing. Who says you need to be able to read music to write a symphony?

Where am I overcomplicating the things I want to do with my life? Attack your dreams with single-minded intensity and they won’t stand unconquered for long.


The last, and probably most enjoyable, part about this TEDx was the conversation break we had in between the two sessions of talks. Everybody had a name tag that had 3 self-chosen “Talk to Me” points. The easy access to conversation starters and the environment of TED led to incredibly engaging and passionate conversations.

What if it was normal to expect someone to come up to you at any point and ask you about your passions? What if the spirit of TED infused every part of our lives?

If you ever have the chance to check out a TEDx event (or an actual TED conference) I encourage you to jump at the opportunity. I can’t think of another time where I’ve been so surrounded by passion and inspiration.

Have you been to a TED event? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments.



We've Been Doing Passion Wrong

The least useful and yet most overused piece of advice I've both proffered and received is, "Follow your passion!" Hearing that as a high school student is about as helpful as a tissue paper rain jacket. Everybody loves to tell you to follow your passion but nobody seems to have any equally simple advice for how to a.) figure out what the hell your passion might be, b.) how to make money doing what you're passionate about, or most rarely, c.) what the word "passion" even means.

I've been guilty of using this frozen-dinner-like piece of advice myself. It's ever so easy to pull it out of the freezer, peel off the plastic cover, and sprinkle it with whatever your unique spice happens to be. In the end, it's still a frozen dinner and nothing like what you really want. "Follow your passion," is the limp chicken and mystery lump of vegetables of the helpful advice world.

I'm here to do my best to try to fix that mistake.


I still think building your life's work around a topic or a profession that you're passionate is a pretty damn good idea. If you're lucky enough to lose yourself into the flow state doing something that someone will be happy to pay you for, you've got yourself a pretty sweet situation. If you figure out that your passion is helping people while also cutting them open, please, please, please follow that passion into a medical career (or forensics). However, most high school students (and even college students) cannot clearly articulate what their passion might be. And that's perfectly fine as well.


Here's why that advice still works. Everyone assumes that when they are told to "Follow your passion!!" that "passion" equals some sort of job or vocation. Law, teaching, medicine, archaeology, hula-hooping -- these are passions. However, let's start thinking about passion in a completely different way. Instead of using "passion" to mean some sort of job, let's reframe it to mean "passion of process."

Being passionate about doing things well. Passionately developing an autotelic personality. That's what "Follow your passion!!!1!!" should mean. When you focus on developing your ability to do everything well, everything becomes your passion. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done extensive research into what he calls flow and he's concluded that learning how to enter that state can be learned. And, luckily, nearly anything can become an activity that induces flow.

Let's not worry too much about what we're doing. All you high school seniors can stop getting that queasy feeling in your stomach every time a well meaning adult asks you what you're going to do in college and then blasts you with a steaming pile of, "Well, follow your passion!!1!111!!" when you predictably answer that you aren't sure. Find something that seems semi-interesting and then work on developing your passion for the process of doing it well. Learn how to enjoy everything whether that's writing an English paper, conducting field research, working in the cafeteria, or doing surgery on rockets.


Because, here's the secret that not many people are telling you: the economy isn't going to go back to "normal." This is the new normal. And that means you need skills that can transfer across careers and across disciplines. Less and less of us are going to school to do one specific job. Instead, we're learning how to do things well. We're learning the more general skills of critical thinking, writing persuasively, communicating effectively, and thinking broadly. These are skills of process, not product.

Passion-of-process over passion-of-vocation has been the center of my writing and own life experiments for the last several years. It's an idea that I'm going to come back to over and over again. I firmly believe that a focus on developing an autotelic personality (basically, doing things because you receive intrinsic motivation in doing them) is the key to living a fulfilling life. This skill can be taught and developed -- and I hope to show you how.

If you enjoyed this article, you'll probably like what Cal has to say over at Study Hacks. He is another writer that thinks "follow your passion" is sub-par advice and has a lot of good things to say about learning to work effectively.



Using Your Free Time to Support Your Passions

The constructive use of free time is something that is very important to me and lately I've been doing a terrible job utilizing it. In a world with almost endless opportunity for growth, learning, stimulation, and entertainment how do you decide what to spend your free time on? Whenever I feel like I'm in a slump of some sort, it can usually be traced back to the way I've been using my attention and time.

In a perfect world, the way I spend my extra time would be the way that I spend the time making my living. They would be one and the same. However, even if you don't live that perfect situation of having your passion and your livelihood be the same thing, there are still constructive ways to use your free time that will support or improve whatever it is that your "great work" consists of. Or, in my situation, the two things that I am passionate about (teaching and coaching) are not something I can really "do" in my free time. I need to be in a classroom to teach or on the ice to be coaching hockey.

Figuring out what I can dog to make constructive use of my free time while improving myself as a teacher and a coach is what has been consuming the majority of my attention the past couple weeks. I want to get better at what I do, but I don't know how to do that. I can read about teaching/coaching, I can write about it, I can watch videos or listen to podcasts; but unless I am actually DOING the activity, I don't think I'm actually getting any better.

How do you handle a situation where your passion is not necessarily creating something (like teaching or coaching) but you still want to get better at it in your free time? I really don't have any answers to this question. All I know is that in my quest for the simpler life, I want to be able to take steps to become even better at what I do, even during my free time.