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The Psychology Behind Passion


The Psychology Behind Passion

What is passion? Passion can be defined as a strong inclination or enthusiasm towards an activity, subject, or cause that we find deeply interesting, meaningful and enjoyable. Passion goes beyond ordinary interest or enjoyment – it involves having an almost obsessive focus, motivation and engagement in the passion domain.

The Dualistic Model of Passion

The dualistic model of passion proposed by psychologists Vallerand et al. (2003) differentiates between these two types of passion – harmonious and obsessive. Under this model, both harmonious and obsessive passion entails valuing and loving activity. However, they differ in how the passion has been internalized into one’s identity.

Harmonious passion arises when an activity that one loves has been autonomously integrated into the self in a flexible, non-contingent way that is compatible with other aspects of the person’s life. There is a sense of volition and personal endorsement about engaging in the passionate activity. With harmonious passion, individuals remain in control of the passion and can decide when to and when not to engage in the passionate activity.

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Conversely, obsessive passion refers to engaging in a passionate activity in a rigid, uncontrolled way that overtakes other activities in the person’s life. Passion comes to control the person due to certain intrapersonal or interpersonal pressures that make the self-worth of the individual contingent on being able to continuously engage in the passionate activity. Therefore, obsessive passion tends to result in rigid persistent behaviour where persons feel compelled to engage in the activity they are passionate about, even when it is not appropriate to do so.

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Passion and Well-Being

Research on passion provides insight into how passion can both help and harm well-being. Findings show harmonious passion tends to contribute to greater psychological health, subjective well-being and life satisfaction. Since the passionate activity is integrated flexibly into other life domains, individuals high in harmonious passion experience positive affect and flow states during passionate engagement that further reinforce the sense of meaning in their lives.

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In contrast, obsessive passion has been linked to negative outcomes like anxiety, rumination and aggressive behaviour when prevented from engaging in the passionate activity, along with interference in maintaining interpersonal relationships and role obligations. Hence, while obsessive passion provides meaning by being highly valued, the compulsive need to engage in the passions accompanied by the negative effect of being unable to do so results in impaired psychological functioning. However, obsessive passion isn’t entirely maladaptive – studies show it can still be linked to some positive outcomes like greater deliberate practice and mastery of skills.

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Passion as Quest and Identity

Psychologists Vallerand et al. (2003) argue passion shapes both intrapersonal and interpersonal processes. Intrapersonally, passion provides purpose and direction by motivating people in the pursuit of long-term, aspirational goals that align with their interests and talents. Thereby it acts as the driving force for the quest of finding one’s calling and sense of purpose. Interpersonally, passions shape social interactions by determining who we develop friendships and relationships with based on shared interests and values.

Thereby, passion contributes to identity construction and finding one’s niche groups and communities. However, only harmonious passion facilitates this adaptive intrapersonal and interpersonal functioning. Obsessive passion compels a narrow focus on the passionate activity itself at the expense of healthy identity growth and integration with other life domains.

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Cultivating Passion

An important question is how does one cultivate passion? Using the dualistic model, some key ways to foster passion are: Experimentation with different domains to discover one’s interests and Pursuing autonomy towards the activities one finds interesting and enjoyable. Mental contrasting and reflection to integrate the passionate activities with other important domains and responsibilities.

Together, these help develop harmonious passion by identifying the right fit activities that align with identity while avoiding the need for external contingencies or validation. Specialised interventions like Passion-Centred Growth Therapy also help people recognise existing passions and find better ways to integrate them into life.

The Evolutionary Basis of Passion

Evolutionary psychology offers some explanations for how passion might be an adaptive trait selected for survival and reproductive purposes. Work fulfilment researcher Paul Dobransky notes that harmonious passion towards fitness-indicating domains like art, innovation or altruism can display genetic fitness to potential mates, thereby serving an evolutionary purpose.

Clinical psychologist Leon Seltzer echoes similar ideas by suggesting that early humans who pursued their creative or intellectual passions were able to contribute most towards the survival and growth of their social groups. Thus, harmonious passion might have developed as an adaptive mechanism signalling competence in contributing towards collective survival goals. However, obsessive passion tends to get narrowly focused solely on individual passions rather than benefitting the larger social group, thereby losing its evolutionary and adaptive value.

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The Downside of Over-Cultivating Passion

However, some psychologists have also highlighted the shadow side of overemphasising passion to the point of excess. Psychiatrist Neel Burton cautions against the advice in popular self-help literature to simply “follow your passion”. He argues that constantly seeking passion can be counterproductive to well-being – “pathologizing the normal” by never feeling satisfied and happy with everyday life. He suggests looking wider than passion by focusing on the broader idea of the “good life” filled with diverse sources of meaning like relationships and service to others.

Research by Oleander Keefe supports this view by showing expectations of passion as central to life is linked to paradoxically lower career satisfaction. Hence, crafting an identity solely around passions to the exclusion of other important things may be detrimental. Burton summarises this well – “the path to happiness lies not in seeking a purpose, but purpose in the life one leads”. Essentially, passion is important but it shouldn’t come with sacrificing other elements.

The Role of Passion Across Cultures

An important question is whether these conceptualisations of passion hold across diverse cultural settings. Research led by workplace psychologist Robert Vallerand in 2017 examined whether the dualistic model of passion applies equally to the more collectivistic cultures of China and Japan as it does to individualistic Western cultures. Contrary to predictions, they found the structure of harmonious and obsessive passion to be similar across Eastern and Western cultures.

Key differences were also observed – Japanese participants scored lower in harmonious passion compared to Canadians possibly indicative of their cultural discouragement of open emotional expression. Chinese students were lower in obsessive passion which authors explained from the social pressures towards self-control in collectivist cultures. Hence, this shows the pursuit of self-defining passions and intrinsic motivations is considered important across cultures. However, culture shapes social appraisals of how passion gets expressed and balanced with other obligations.

Summing up

In conclusion, passion is a complex psychological trait that has major implications for well-being and purpose. The dualistic model differentiates between harmonious and obsessive passion which creates awareness of both constructive and detrimental expressions of passion. Research provides guidance on how to cultivate passions adaptively by integrating them flexibly alongside other domains. Passion also serves self-growth purposes like identity construction and goal pursuits. But taken to an extreme, the obsessive pursuit of passion can also undermine health. Consequently, developing self-insight around passion is valuable for leading a balanced, fulfilling life.

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References +
  • Burton, N. (2018). Hide and Seek with Life’s Meaning. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/hide-and-seek/201807/life-s-meaning
  • Dobransky, P. J. (2013). The Human Mating. Infinity Publishing.
  • Keefe, O. K., Bush, A. J., Carpenter, H. M., & Daly, J. P. (2016). What’s wrong with being passionate at work? The infiltration and contamination of passion in workaholism research. Journal of Management Inquiry, 25(4), 393-405. https://doi.org/10.1177/1056492616647134 
  • Seltzer, L. F. (2021). Evolution and the passions: Love, joy, sorrow, anger, surprise, fear, and the passions in human life. Dialogue and Universalism, 31(1).
  • Vallerand, R. J. (2015). The psychology of passion: A dualistic model. Oxford University Press. 
  • Vallerand, R. J., & Verner-Filion, J. (2013). Making People Passionate about Enhancing Their Quality of Life: Passionate Love Is What Ignites Passion for Life. In I. Boniwell & S. David (Eds.), Oxford handbook of happiness. Oxford University Press.
  • Vallerand, R. J., Zhao, G., Shi, R., & Wang, Q. (2017). Passion for learning in Chinese and Canadian students: Exploring cross-cultural commonalities and differences and the role of autonomy support. Learning and Individual Differences, 58, 150-157. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2017.08.001
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