How Using Our Talents in Service of Others May Help Keep Obsessive Passion in Check
Passion Gone Awry
I have this friend who felt called to express herself through the performing arts. She’d always wanted to be a great actor and singer. She spent the first 30-something years of her life in service to that calling. She made countless sacrifices at great cost to her personal relationships, financial stability, health, and well-being. She had a career that, to many, looked like a big success. But to her it was never enough.Excruciatingly often, she’d been told that she was going to be the next big thing. She studied and trained harder. She dieted and highlighted her hair. What was preventing the Hollywood gatekeepers from anointing her the new it girl? Who knows? The Hollywood audition process is a black hole for feedback.
As she started making up stories about all of the things that must have been wrong with her, her love for performing began to dwindle. She began to dread her auditions and became depressed and despondent. One day on a stage in Las Vegas singing to an indifferent crowd of several thousand people, she found herself unable to let go of the image that she’d developed a meaning-shaped hole in her soul.
Have you ever had one of those how-did-I-get-here-and-who-have-I-become realizations? Pursuing a passion-based career, perhaps regardless of the industry, generally results in some loss of agency. It means no longer doing the things we love entirely for the intrinsic satisfaction of doing them. Making a living from a passion requires external validation in order to pay the bills. The dependence on approval from others can lead to burnout or depression. How could we dedicate ourselves to doing what we love most and somehow manage to eradicate all of the joy, engagement, and meaning that inspired our endeavors in the first place?Harmonious versus Obsessive Passion
Maybe the answer is somewhere in that murky transition from harmonious to obsessive passion. Vallerand distinguishes the two by how we internalize the passion within our identity. Harmonious passion comes from autonomous, intrinsically motivated desire, while obsessive passion demands outside validation. It’s ego-driven and consumes everything in its path.
Spoiler alert—the “hypothetical friend” is actually me. Thankfully, through a series of unexpected opportunities gifted by a benevolent universe, I became a professor of acting at a performing arts college and discovered, quite unexpectedly, that I experience tremendous meaning and satisfaction in teaching.My college students were qualitatively different from the actors I had taught in Hollywood. I think that the primary difference is that these students self-selected for a college program that gave them opportunities to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth through an arts education outreach program. With each incoming class, I have witnessed this experience prove to be life-changing for students. I began to remember my own experiences of using my talent in service that happened long before my career eclipsed all else.
I couldn’t help but wonder if service might be a key to meaning, well-being, and the maintenance of harmonious passion. It was clear that through this service learning opportunity, my students were using their love for performing as a tool for connection, compassion, inspiration, and real impact on the lives of others who desperately needed to know that they mattered. It turns out that mattering is important both ways.Stepping Outside Ourselves
Unlike other altruistic behavior like donating blood or writing a check, volunteering is highly associated with:
- Elevated happiness
- Better physical and mental health
- Improved access to social and psychological resources
- Increased self-reported happiness while countering depression and anxiety
What’s more, by using their talents in service to others, my students’ service learning experiences provided the following benefits:
- Buoyed self-efficacy, self-esteem, and confidence
- A positive outlet for dealing with stress, feelings of alienation, or guilt
- A strong sense of meaning and purpose
However, volunteering is not a one-size-fits-all proposition; the type of volunteering we do matters. Consistent with Lyubomirsky’s research on the importance of person-activity fit with positive interventions, robust research on volunteerism suggests that the helper’s benefits will vary based on the degree of fit between the volunteer’s needs, motivation, and type of service work performed. In other words, an actor might derive more meaning from volunteering to help children with incarcerated parents express themselves through performing their own show than organizing a book drive.
Here’s where it gets very interesting. Musick and Wilson argue that volunteer work is elevated in significance among populations whose other roles have been diminished, such as the elderly. What about those performing artists stuck in the audition loop who continue to offer their creations only to have them unceremoniously dismissed? If volunteering benefits populations whose roles have been diminished, what effect might it have on those who are at risk of abandoning their passion-based careers? It could give them an outlet to share their gifts, where the gifts may actually have a positive impact on others.When a passion becomes a calling and that calling leads to a career, the forced reliance on another’s permission to practice it can be soul-crushing. Volunteering provides an eye-opening reality check and has been shown to reinforce volunteer gratitude for what they have in comparison to what the receivers of their gifts may lack. The resulting outward focus is a powerful reminder that other people matter. Of course, the primary purpose of volunteering is to uplift others in need. It is a welcome consequence that volunteering can greatly benefit the giver as well as the receivers.
Maybe the boost in positive affect, renewed passion for craft, and a revitalized sense of meaning from using our talents to benefit others could also help us maintain harmonious passion. By providing a pathway for passions to be practiced in service of other people, rather than only in service of our careers, volunteering could be a protective factor against burnout and depression.
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Photo Credit: Most of the images are used courtesy of the The Young Americans®.