For the past few years, I’ve taught an undergraduate seminar on the psychology of passion. About 2/3 of the class is devoted to studying scientific research, and the other 1/3 is spent discussing how students can identify what they are passionate about and then pursue those passions in thoughtful and meaningful ways.
Getting students to understand and “buy into” the research is pretty easy. The harder part is getting them to consider the possibility of actually doing what they love (rather than what others want them to do). Quite often, when they start thinking about pursuing activities they’re passionate about, they come up with all kinds of excuses:
“It would be too hard.”
“I’m not good enough to do that.”
“I wouldn’t be able to make any money.”
“My mom and dad would be disappointed in me.”
“It’s too risky.”
Essentially, most of their excuses are rooted in fear.
This is something I certainly understand. When I was younger, I loved to play music but was afraid to give it a try for fear of not being successful and of disappointing others.
Unfortunately, the excuses don’t wither away with age. Instead, they hang around and provide the same “fearful” reasons for why we shouldn’t do the things we truly love and value—the things we are most passionate about.
Resistance and The Lizard Brain
In this best-selling book, The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield refers to these excuses as “Resistance”—that little voice in the back of our head that tells us it’s too difficult, that it’s silly, that we’d never be successful doing that. Resistance is what ultimately keeps us from forging ahead and doing the things we know we should be doing in order to experience the fulfillment (and success) we ultimately crave. Some examples of Resistance might include:
Checking Facebook instead of studying.
Answering meaningless emails instead of writing that book you want to write.
Identifying “good” reasons for staying in a safe but unfulfilling job instead of venturing out and starting your own business.
Practicing guitar in your house instead of getting out and playing music with other people (as I’m prone to do).
Coming up with excuses for not approaching that attractive person in your biology class.
Sabotaging a big, risky project just as you’re nearing its completion.
I’m sure you can think of other excuses that nicely fit the mold.
Best-selling author Seth Godin has suggested that Resistance comes from our “lizard brain,” the oldest part of our brain (evolutionarily speaking) that is responsible for anger, stress, fear, anxiety, and the like. According to Godin, the lizard brain doesn’t care about what’s rational. It only cares about protecting you.
This idea coincides nicely with some well-established psychological theories that posit the existence of two different modes of thinking: one, much like the lizard brain, that is faster and more “automatic” in nature; the other that is slower and tends to “think things through” (for a recent discussion of this idea, see Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling book, Thinking Fast and Slow).
For the most part, the excuses my students give for not pursuing their passions nicely align with this idea of the lizard brain keeping us “safe.”
But I Don’t Want to Be Selfish
But there’s one other excuse that pops up from time to time—one that seems to be less rooted in fear and more rooted in reason. It goes something like this:
“I don’t want to pursue my passion because it’s a selfish thing to do.”
I understand why my students make this argument. People often believe that doing something you’re passionate about means working 100-hour weeks, skipping meals because you can’t pull yourself away from what you’re doing, and ignoring family and friends for days on end because your “passion” has taken over.
They envision Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, who had a reputation for being incredibly passionate about his work but who was also notorious for being selfish, mean spirited, and egomaniacal. (If you’re interested in reading more about Jobs, check out Walter Isaacson’s fascinating book, Steve Jobs.)
It’s understandable, then, why some people might shun the idea of pursuing their passion. They don’t want to come across as being self-centered and uncaring.
But what I would like to argue is that pursuing something you’re passionate about can be a much more selfless act, one that actually allows you to give your very best to others.
Passion, Harmonious and Obsessive
Before we take a minute to discuss this idea, though, let’s briefly revisit what passion entails. As Vallerand and colleagues first proposed, to be passionate about something, you need to (a) spend time on it, (b) think it’s important, and (c) love it. If any of these components is missing, you are not passionate about that activity.
There are also two different types of passion.
* Obsessive Passion
The first is obsessive passion. This is a “bad” type of passion where you feel controlled by an activity. Because the activity controls you, you feel as if you have to do it (rather than wanting to do it). Consequently, you have a hard time pulling yourself away, even when you should be doing something else. This feeling of being controlled results in psychological conflict and decreased well-being. Moreover, the inability to pull yourself away from an activity tends to, somewhat paradoxically, inhibit your performance (probably because you experience conflict and distraction while doing it). And, almost by definition, it creates a life that’s out of balance.
Clearly, obsessive passion is the type of passion people are thinking of when they envision the highly passionate person whose drive to succeed trumps anything else in his life.
And this is why my students are concerned about being selfish.
But there’s a second type of passion that is much more desirable in nature and thus has the potential to produce significantly better outcomes.
Harmonious passion is a “good” type of passion where you feel in control of an activity. Because you control the activity (and not the other way around), you are able to do it when you want to. But you can also step away when necessary. This feeling of being in control produces a number of positive outcomes (which I will discuss shortly).
Harmonious Passion—The Road Away From Selfish Passion
Rather than being a completely selfish endeavor, I propose that if a person is harmoniously passionate about an activity, it has the far-reaching ability to positively affect others.
Let’s take a look at three reasons why.
1. Harmonious passion produces positive emotions.
In an early study, Vallerand and colleagues found that people high in harmonious passion were more likely to experience positive emotions both during and after engaging in their passionate activity. Likewise, Philippe and colleagues found that people who were harmoniously passionate about an activity were more likely to experience increases in life satisfaction over a 1-year period than people who were either obsessively passionate or non-passionate. Finally, Vallerand and Houlfort found that passion for work not only affected happiness during one’s career but also in retirement. Specifically, people who were harmoniously passionate about their work experienced the highest levels of psychological adjustment during retirement, whereas people who were obsessively passionate experienced the lowest levels—levels that were even lower than non-passionate people!
2. Harmonious passion improves performance.
In my lab, we’ve collected data showing that students who are harmoniously passionate about their academic activities have significantly higher cumulative GPAs than students who are either obsessively passionate or non-passionate. Similarly, Vallerand and colleagues found that students with high levels of obsessive passion for studying were more likely to pursue performance-avoidance goals (which means their biggest goal was not to do well, but only to make sure they didn’t do as poorly as others), which ultimately reduced their performance in class. The same seems to be true in both sports and work settings.
3. Harmonious passionate is defined by balance.
A person who is harmoniously passionate about an activity has the ability to step away from his or her passion when the time requires it. This is likely one reason why people who are harmoniously passionate about their work report greater work-family balance, whereas those who are obsessively passionate report more work-family conflict.
Being the Best Version of Yourself
Ultimately, being harmoniously passionate about an activity produces numerous positive benefits: It improves your psychological well-being, it improves your performance, and it allows you to have better balance in your life. (There are other positive outcomes as well. Interested readers can check out this review.)
In short, being harmoniously passionate helps you to be the best possible version of yourself—which improves your ability to positively impact others.
In contrast, when you are obsessively passionate or non-passionate about something, it negatively affects you—which inhibits your ability to give your best to others.
I know this has been the case in my life. When I was going through a period a few years ago during which I was obsessively passionate (or maybe even non-passionate) about my work, I know I wasn’t my best possible self. I also know that my negative mood impacted others—my students, my colleagues, my friends, and especially my family.
And here’s a hard truth that still bothers me to this day: They didn’t deserve that. My students didn’t deserve to be yelled at (which they were). My colleagues and friends didn’t deserve to hear my constant complaining (which they did). And my wife and kids certainly didn’t deserve to see me mad and anxious and stressed out.
When it comes right down to it, not giving them my best means I wasn’t considering them as I should have.
And isn’t this, at least partially, what it means to be selfish?
Ultimately, I agree with Parker Palmer, who stated, “Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.”
By pursing things you are (harmoniously) passionate about, you are not being completely selfish. Rather, by doing so, you have the opportunity to be your very best, to reach your highest levels of performance. And when you do that, I believe you are in a better position to give your very best to others: to your co-workers, to your friends, to your family, and to anyone else you happen to encounter.
In essence, you have the ability to give more of yourself, to be more selfless to those you care most about.
And when it comes right down to it, isn’t that what they ultimately deserve?
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