The Downside of Following Passion

When doing what you "love" undermines well-being and performance


Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Many are quick to advocate that the key to happiness is finding something you can't live without. But the research shows otherwise: Overly identifying with some kinds of passion can be unhealthy and detrimental to performance in the long run.

The term passion in common usage can describe a variety of experiences. Consider a school teacher who might feel more alive when he's practicing watercolors than when he's inside the classroom. That kind of passion is markedly different from that of an artist like van Gogh, who forswore all semblance of a normal life so he could hone his life's craft. But social psychology didn't begin measuring an individual's relationship to the things he loves to do until Robert J. Vallerand, a professor at the University of Quebec, first proposed the Dualistic Model of Passion in 2003.

Vallerand devised the Passion Scale, a way to measure one's attitude towards the few activities we engage in enough to consider a true passion.

Those with harmonious passion really love something, but ultimately can leave it, since it's a "significant but not overwhelming part of their identity." Harmonious passion doesn't interfere with other aspects of life, like relationships or education. In contrast, obsessive passion resides in individuals who derive their self-esteem and identity primarily from their performance during the activity itself. Internalizing the activity exacts many costs. A lousy day on the basketball court threatens to undermine an obsessively passionate player's entire identity.

Just thinking about success and failure affects the performance of the obsessively passionate, but not the harmoniously passionate, according to a recent paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which evaluated several studies on passion.

In the first, volunteers at a gym squeezed a handgrip, and then completed the passion scale test to gauge the nature of their relationship to physical training. After the categorization exercise, half of them wrote about recent failures, while the other half spent time writing about successes. Afterward, all participants squeezed the handgrip again.

Thinking about wins or losses had no influence whatsoever on the harmoniously passionate. But for the obsessives, thinking about failure resulted in a significant improvement in how hard they squeezed the handgrip.

"When they are threatened, they are motivated to redeem themselves, because they are insecure," said Jocelyn Bélanger, the paper's lead author and a graduate student from the University of Maryland.

"Self-concept vulnerability," said Bélanger, "influences individuals to perceive failure as threatening."

The paper also included other studies following much the same pattern. In one, researchers gave subjects anagrams to solve, which were again followed by the Passion Scale test. Then a few minutes of writing about either success or failure, and finally, more anagrams. Even then, writing about failure affected the performance of the obsessively passionate.

The third experiment mimicked the second, but instead of writing, subjects were subconsciously exposed to words relating to either success or failure. Again, the obsessives got better test scores.

"We showed that [the obsessively passionate] are so predisposed to feel insecure that even subliminal presentation of failure threw them off and made them respond to it. It's an overlearned reaction to failure."

That the prospect of failure increases motivation among some people when they deem the task important might be taken for a good thing. But according to Bélanger, those who react this way are the ones at the greatest risk.

"[Fear of failure] can help if you're starting a new job and have to make your mark," he said. "But it also leads to burnout, increased stress, and decreased longevity." As for the workers, students, and athletes who don't feel so threatened by failure? Bélanger doesn't believe they're lazy; they just have a healthier attitude toward their work.

Previous research has shown that in children, a maladaptive relationship with what's supposed to bring joy can develop from intense specialization, identification with the activity, and how much worth parents place on the activity. Students who were offered a sense of autonomy and self-direction, by contrast, were likeliest to develop harmonious passion. These appear to be the most notable areas to allow for when asking whether you're on the right track in pursuing your passion.