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What about Passion?

written by Kathryn Britton 22 July 2011

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, 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.

  Robert Vallerand

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.”

Clarinetist Eddie Daniels

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.

    Passion for pole vaulting

  • 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?

  Piano practice

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).

They found:

  • 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.

Clarinetist Eddie Daniels courtesy of Professor Bop
Pole vaulter courtesy of Carl Blake
Piano Practice courtesy of kittakitts
Child practicing piano courtesy of Tom Hart

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M.G. Piety 22 July 2011 - 3:26 pm

I enjoyed this article very much. I’m a Kierkegaard scholar and Kierkegaard talks a lot about passion and its importance for the development of the self. Kierkegaard talks, however, about what sorts of things are adequate objects on which to base one’s passion. That’s the only thing I miss from this article. Would it be possible for one to have a harmonious passion for, for example, raising pit bulls for dog fighting?

Kathryn Britton 22 July 2011 - 3:38 pm

I’m glad you enjoyed it. I have forwarded your question to Dr. Vallerand, in hopes that he may weigh in. I know, however that he is very busy with IPPA.

I can say from my own perspective that a passion for dog fighting doesn’t seem like a great candidate for harmonious passion, but I haven’t read deeply enough to be able to say that the definition distinctly rules it out.


Delyan Savov 25 July 2011 - 2:52 am

Thank you, Katheryn for this well-written post that brings up very important aspects in a quite exploited theme.
First, with regards to M.G.’s comment/question I believe that this is only a matter of values and not science and therefore I would think that this aspect was not covered in this particular study or other scientific work by Vallerand on the subject of passion.

Now to my own comments. Thank you again, your article moved me and made me think about a lot.

“Obsessive passion is connected to extrinsic motivations — wanting to please others or to maintain a certain status that is important to self-esteem.”

Obsessive passions can very well be connected to intrinsic motivations, as well, even though the passionate person might not like the fact that s/he is driven by these motivations. In this case the passion is again very well characterized by controlling. I have personally experienced that, which I am not proud of.

“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.”

I doubt that there exist a (so pure) form of Harmonious Passion that when the passionate person is not being able to perform the activity s/he would not feel any anxiety or loss of self-esteem, To me it would be ridiculous for a passionate baker for example to injure his both hands and not be able to bake for a year and to experience no anxiety or loss of self-esteem at all. It would take a Buddha or (at least a Buddha to be) for someone to experience no loss of self esteem when you are taken away something that is self-defining for you.

“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.”

I think that the results would be different if the study was done on sportsman and particularly those in game sports (e.g. basketball, football, volleyball etc.) in which the indication of mastery (at least for the general population) is whether you can beat the opposing teams rather than experiencing flow in a well-played game.

“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.”

I think that the “Have you practiced your instrument today?” question could also happen to be one that is strengthening a Harmonious Passion in the case where the child answers: “No today I did not feel like practicing” or “No today I went out with my friends which was more important for me.” It would be very rare to see such assertiveness in a child but this depends on the kind of the parent-child relationship that has been established. If a relationship with high level of autonomy and respect in the child has been built then that would be quite possible. In this case the question would serve as throwing your child in the water in order to accelerate learning to swim.

Morgan 25 July 2011 - 11:10 am

I’ve always been interested in passion, so really finding a article on the topic. Thank you for sharing. I find myself wondering what kind of paper a passion-focused positive psychologist could write on Hemingway. Passion features heavily throughout his work, particularly in his use of “aficionado” in The Sun Also Rises and, of course, the entirety of The Old Man and the Sea. I imagine one could find examples of both harmonious and obsessive passion in the text, and perhaps some places where the line is a little more grey.

Just thinking aloud now. Thanks again for the article!

Editor S.M. 26 July 2011 - 12:57 am

Kathryn will be back to answer comments on Tuesday night or Wednesday. She is currently covering the IPPA conference as the reporter from PPND. You can follow the live updates at http://www.twitter.com/pospsych.

Morgan 27 July 2011 - 10:36 am

I have an off-topic question for the community. I relatively recently finished reading Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. I was thinking about Murphy’s Law this morning, (anything that can go wrong, will, and usually at the worst possible time). At first, I discarded Murphy’s Law as pessimistic, but it struck me that according to Seligman’s optimism, wouldn’t someone putting responsibility for bad events on Murphy’s Law be considered optimistic since it’s an external factor? Or is it a tool of learned helplessness since it puts control of all events beyond the subject’s power? What do you think?

Kathryn Britton 27 July 2011 - 2:39 pm

M.G., I did find Robert Vallerand at the conference and asked about your question… My memory of his response is not crystal clear, but I think at first he was separating the content of the passion from the process — but then felt there might well be some dissonance that might affect the quality and intensity of passion with something so out of line with common values. I do think it’s a good question, and still open.


Kathryn Britton 27 July 2011 - 2:44 pm

How well you point out that life is complicated and things aren’t black and white. Of course if something is self-defining, not being able to do it will affect self image. So I guess there’s probably a shading between harmonious and obsessive passion where it gradually tips over from one to the other.

May I edit your comment to put in quotation marks around what came from the article and what you added in response? I find it a little hard to follow…

I’ll answer the rest when I get back from the conference…


Delyan Savov 28 July 2011 - 2:11 am

Thank you Katheryn for the response,
I apologize for the layout. I meant to bold or color the article text in order to differentiate it, but that was not possible in this format. To be honest it did not come to my “clever mind” to use the quotation marks.
Sorry again.


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