Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
Author’s Note: This article is about work by the upcoming president of the International Positive Psychology Association, Robert Vallerand. Along with other Positive Psychology luminaries, Dr. Vallerand will be speaking at the IPPA World Congress in Philadelphia this weekend. I will be reporting on the congress for PPND. My hope, if my fingers are nimble enough, is to tweet interesting quotations live during the conference (@PosPsych). Articles on keynotes and other significant events will follow over the next month.
I have to confess that I have heard the word “passion” too often in the last few years, to the point that it makes me wince internally. Looking through my collected email, I see statements like, “Come hear successful people share their passions!” or “The one thing you must have is passion for what you’re doing–always.” The word has almost the same impact on me as too many exclamation points.So I found it really refreshing this week to hear Dr. Robert Vallerand, upcoming president of IPPA, speak on the IPPA conference call about passion in very specific terms, terms that rule some things in and some things out. It was also helpful to hear about his research that differentiates harmonious passion, which is beneficial, from obsessive passion, which is not particularly beneficial.
First, What is Passion?
In a recent paper, Dr. Vallerand defined passion as, “a strong inclination towards a self-defining activity that people love, that they consider important, and in which they devote significant amounts of time and energy.”A self-defining activity means one that contributes significantly to a person’s identity — the difference between being a clarinetist (a passion) and playing a clarinet (a pastime).
The rest of the attributes are self-explanatory, except the definition of “significant” with respect to time and energy. Vallerand references work by Anders Ericsson and colleagues about building expertise through extended deliberate practice: “the engagement in special practice activities that allow performers to improve specific aspects of their performance with problem solving and through repetitions with feedback.” Various numbers have been posited, such as 10,000 hours to become an expert.
So let’s say that significant time and energy means on track to achieve excellence, which may take many years.
All Passions Aren’t Created Equal
Dr. Vallerand describes two types of passion, with differing impacts on the people who own them.
- Harmonious passion is freely chosen for the pleasure that comes from the activity, a concept very similar to intrinsic motivation. Harmonious passion is characterized by autonomy and flexible persistence. People pursue these activities because they want to, not because they want to please someone else or outshine someone else or avoid being outshone. This kind of passion is adjustable, leaving time for other life pursuits rather than filling the entire picture.
- Obsessive passion is connected to extrinsic motivations — wanting to please others or to maintain a certain status that is important to self-esteem. As the name implies, obsessive passions can become unmanageable, controlling a person’s life, filling up the whole picture. With obsessive passion, not being able to perform the activity, perhaps because of injury or obligations, can cause anxiety, guilt feelings, and loss of self-esteem.
Not surprisingly, Vallerand has found in numerous studies that harmonious passion is positively related to life satisfaction, while obsessive passion is not. In work with Frederick Philippe and others, he has also found that people who have harmonious passions tend to be enjoyable to be around, probably because they experience positive emotions as they participate in their passion. Also they are flexible about the ways they engage in their passions, and thus are able to adjust their behavior to the needs of the moment, including the needs of other people. In contrast, people with obsessive passions are likely to experience negative emotions along the way, and be driven inflexibly. Their interpersonal relationships may suffer as a result.
Passion, Goals, and Performance
How does this distinction between harmonious passion and obsessive passion show up in the pursuit of excellence in various fields?In a recent set of studies, Bonneville-Roussy, Lavigne, and Vallerand studied musicians who have achieved considerable expertise. All 187 of their participants had a passion for music, either harmonious or obsessive. They hypothesized that people with harmonious passion were more likely to create mastery goals focused on improving performance, which would lead to deliberate practice, which would lead to performance improvement. They also hypothesized that people with obsessive passion would make a wider variety of goals, some mastery goals but also performance goals based on social comparison – being able to outperform others (approach-oriented) and not to be outperformed by others (avoidance-oriented).
- Harmonious passion predicted mastery goals, which did predict performance improvement, as expected.
- Performance goals of either type–approach or avoidance–were negatively associated with performance. This was unexpected. The researchers had expected this association for avoidance goals, but they were surprised to find that working to outdo others tended to undermine performance.
- Obsessive passion in this study predicted primarily performance goals. They had expected obsessive passion to predict mastery goals as well, but did not find that to be the case.
- As expected from other studies, harmonious passion was positively related to life satisfaction, while obsessive passion was unrelated to it.
Parents, Children, and Passion
What might this mean to parents who want to encourage the musical (or artistic or sports or …) talents of their children or to budding musicians themselves?
- Provide a high level of autonomy support. Give choices!
Next time you start to ask, “Have you practiced your instrument today?” pause for a moment to decide if it is really necessary. Vallerand described that sentence as the fastest way to kill harmonious passion.
- Avoid interpersonal comparisons. Self-comparison, seeing oneself getting better with practice, is much more compatible with harmonious passion.
- Watch out for the passion becoming too enveloping. A harmonious passion is flexible and allows for other interests and activities in life. When a passion becomes all-absorbing, for example when someone continues to practice in spite of an injury, it is time to look around for other activities that might be enjoyable.
Vallerand has studied passion in other contexts, such as yoga and various sports, also seeing the general breakdown into harmonious and obsessive passions, their associations with positive and negative emotions, and some of the impacts on performance.
So passion, yes. But let it be flexible, autonomous, and self-comparing.
Bonneville-Roussy, A., Lavigne, G. L. & Vallerand, R. J. (2011). When passion leads to excellence: the case of musicians. Psychology of Music, 39, 123-138.
Philippe, F. L., Vallerand, R. J., Houlfort, N., Lavigne, G. L. & Donahue, E. G. (2010). Passion for an activity and quality of interpersonal relationships: The mediating role of emotions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(6), 917-932.
Ericsson, K.A. (2005). Recent advances in expertise research: A commentary on the contributions to the special issue. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19, 233–241.
Members of IPPA can log into the Members Only section of the IPPA web site to listen to past speeches of positive psychology luminaries, including Ed Diener, Ruut Veenhoven, Mike Csikszentmihalyi, Sonya Lyubomirsky, Barbara Fredrickson, Martin Seligman, David Cooperrider, and Kim Cameron. Robert Vallerand’s talk on passion is there now too.