This article was first published on the Medium account of the Canadian Association of Positive Psychology Student Ambassadors in its “Positive Psychology Concepts” series (Cimon-Paquet, 2021). This blog has been reviewed by Katya Santucciand Claire Gaudreau, edited by Rémi Thériault.
In the Positive Psychology Concepts series, we will introduce you to different aspects of positive psychology and to different science-based practices that will help you increase your well-being.
“Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.” – Martha Graham
This famous quote from choreographer and dancer Martha Graham inspired me throughout my teenage years, a time when I was practicing ballet. In many sports, passion is considered to be a key ingredient for success. It is thought that when a dancer is passionate, one can see and feel it. Several scientists studied what makes passion so incredible. Their studies show that passion can lead to great achievement, notably because it creates physical and mental energy, positive emotions, vitality and flow ^1. However, and surprisingly for some, passion can also have a dark side.
What is passion and why is it so important?
Well-known Canadian researcher Professor Robert J. Vallerand, from the Université du Québec à Montréal, has been seeking to answer these questions for nearly 20 years. According to the model of passion he developed, passion is an activity that we love and to which we devote a lot of energy and time; it is highly valuable and becomes a part of our identity ^2.
Passions can be different in nature. Some people are passionate about sports, whereas others prefer reading or playing an instrument. One can also be passionate about video games, children or a romantic partner. It is important to note that many of us are multi-passionate (polyamorous). I certainly consider myself a multi-passionate person. I used to be passionate about dance and I am now passionate about running (I ran a full marathon in 2018), scientific research, and science communication. These activities are truly important for me and I devote most of my time to learning new skills related to these activities (such as writing this blog post!). Although there isn’t a lot of research on multiple passions yet, there is increasing evidence that most people do have several and that they can benefit from each of them ^3.
Passion plays a central role in our lives. It can enhance our motivation, energy, and even provide us with purpose and meaning ^1,4,5. Our passions are part of our identity. It is not uncommon to see people define themselves through their activities (e.g., runners, athletes, parents). This is often observable on social media, where people share their passions in their biographies and create personas around their interests. On social media, but also in real-life settings, passion can promote the creation of new interpersonal relationships. Moreover, passion most likely plays a role in the quality of our relationships ^6. On the one hand, if we share our passions with our loved ones, this may strengthen our relationship because we have meaningful conversations about it and feel connected to each other. On the other hand, if our passions keep us away from our loved ones, it may hinder our relationships.
As we devote a great amount of time to our passions, it is normal that we wish to share them with our friends and relatives. For instance, from 2016 to 2020, I was really active on social media. I had a running blog called She runs Montreal, and I shared about my running journey every day on Instagram. I am grateful for the people I met through Instagram and the moments we shared on this platform or in real-life events, such as official races.
On harmonious and obsessive passion
According to the dualistic model of passion developed by Prof. Vallerand ^1, there are two types of passion: harmonious passion and obsessive passion. Passion can bring out the best and the worst in ourselves. While harmonious passion leads to positive consequences, obsessive passion can lead to maladaptive outcomes. Passion is harmonious when we engage in our activity freely and it fits well within our different life domains (e.g., family life, leisure time, work). Conversely, it can become obsessive when we feel pressured to practice our activity because it is associated with our self-esteem and self-worth. The desire to pursue our passion then becomes uncontrollable. A harmonious passion can lead to better health and subjective well-being, whereas obsessive passion is associated with negative emotions, conflict, rumination, sleep problems and even symptoms of depression ^1,5,7,8.
In the midst of this worldwide pandemic, we all know someone who has found a new passion for watercolour painting, gardening, or baking bread. When our basic psychological needs are not met, passion tends to become obsessive ^9. For instance, when lockdowns limit our capacity for social interactions and we have a passion for baking, we might throw ourselves excessively into this activity to seek a sense of self-worth. We may feel an uncontrollable urge to bake, and end up neglecting other parts of our life. You may even induce fear in your neighbours as they apprehend your knock on the door as you bring them a seventh loaf of bread for the week and it’s only Wednesday…
Let’s remember, however, all the benefits of passion, including enhanced resilience and many positive outcomes. As a researcher, I am currently studying whether obsessive passion can be adaptive during the pandemic lockdown. In extraordinary times, obsessive passion may help us cope with uncertainty.
Although my passions for sports and work were harmonious at first, there are times when they felt obsessive. I am a perfectionist and I pursue excellence in all my favourite activities. In the past, I experienced eating disorders, anxiety and depressive symptoms because of obsessive passions. This is not uncommon. Lopes and colleagues found that obsessive passion for sport can lead to conflict and burnout in athletes, whereas harmonious passion can help us satisfy our psychological needs and reduce burnout ^10. Another study by Carbonneau and colleagues showed that harmonious passion for yoga leads to positive outcomes, including positive emotions, fewer physical symptoms and anxiety. Yet, an obsessive passion for yoga can also have deleterious outcomes such as negative emotions ^11. Even if yoga is well-known for its positive effects, I know that comparing myself to others, for instance wondering why I’m not as thin or as strong as others, leads to negative emotions during my practice and feelings of inadequacy after my yoga practice.
Passion as our inner fire
Ultimately, passion can be portrayed as a fire within us. When it is not kept under control, it encroaches on many areas of our lives and can cause substantial damage. However, it can also give us incredible energy and concentration that motivate us to practice our favourite activity for hours on end. It can improve both our physical and mental health. The positive effects of passion spill over into almost all areas of our lives.
As students, we may have a passion for schoolwork that is generally harmonious but becomes obsessive during midterms or finals. This is quite common. Most passions are both harmonious and obsessive to some degree ^4. However, taking time for other important activities and areas of our lives (e.g., leisure, rest, family and friends, side projects) is one of the many ways we take care of ourselves. Allowing ourselves to take time off even when we feel an uncontrollable urge to work or study is a way to stay harmonious. Culpability most likely plays a role in this uncontrollable urge to work. I often felt like I should study all the time when I was in CEGEP or during my undergraduate studies. I knew I needed an excellent GPA to get into my PhD program and felt pressured to the extent that I believed this number defined my self-worth. When I realized that my passions were obsessive, I thought about other parts of my life that were meaningful to me. These are my relationships, my spirituality, and activities in which I express my creativity. I worked with a psychologist to understand why my passions tend to become obsessive. Last summer, I also decided to delete my personal social media accounts because the social comparison nourished my obsessive passions. This small action has been incredibly beneficial for my mental health.
Every few months, try to take some time to think or journal about your different passions. Do you think they are harmonious or obsessive? What can you do to make them as harmonious as possible (e.g., challenge your beliefs about your activity, quit social media)? As Cal Newport would say—one of my favourite authors and researchers—through these different life buckets (e.g., family, friends, work, rest, leisure), you can build a deep life ^12.
The beginning of the new year may be a good time to reflect on your values and parts of your life that are important to you. Afterwards, try to find concrete actions and goals which are consistent with these values and help you invest time in the activities that make your life worth living. This is one way to build a happy and meaningful life, the essence of positive psychology.
Thank you for being here!
If you have any questions or comments, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my website at www.ccpaquet.com. Finally, if you are not yet a member of the Canadian Association for Positive Psychology, I invite you to join our community! If you liked this blog or if it has helped you in any way, please take a moment to like, share, or comment!
Note: This article was inspired by the course given by Prof. Vallerand at UQAM (Psychologie de la passion – PSY9521). He truly is an amazing and passionate researcher!
- Vallerand, R.J. (2015). The Psychology of Passion: A Dualistic Model. Oxford University Press.
- Vallerand, R. J., Blanchard, C., Mageau, G. A., Koestner, R., Ratelle, C., Léonard, M., … & Marsolais, J. (2003). Les passions de l’ame: on obsessive and harmonious passion. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(4), 756.
- Schellenberg, B. J., & Bailis, D. S. (2015). Can passion be polyamorous? The impact of having multiple passions on subjective well-being and momentary emotions. Journal of Happiness Studies, 16(6), 1365-1381.
- Schellenberg, B. J., Verner‐Filion, J., Gaudreau, P., Bailis, D. S., Lafrenière, M. A. K., & Vallerand, R. J. (2019). Testing the dualistic model of passion using a novel quadripartite approach: A look at physical and psychological well‐being. Journal of Personality, 87(2), 163-180.
- Philippe, F. L., Vallerand, R. J., & Lavigne, G. L. (2009). Passion does make a difference in people’s lives: A look at well‐being in passionate and non‐passionate individuals. Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being, 1(1), 3-22.
- 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.
- Vallerand, R. J. (2010). On passion for life activities: The dualistic model of passion. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 42, pp. 97-193). Academic Press.
- Bélanger, J. J., Raafat, K. A., Nisa, C. F., & Schumpe, B. M. (2020). Passion for an activity: A new predictor of sleep quality. Advanced online publication. Sleep.
- Lalande, D., Vallerand, R. J., Lafrenière, M. A. K., Verner‐Filion, J., Laurent, F. A., Forest, J., & Paquet, Y. (2017). Obsessive passion: A compensatory response to unsatisfied needs. Journal of Personality, 85(2), 163-178.
- Lopes, M., & Vallerand, R. J. (2020). The role of passion, need satisfaction, and conflict in athletes’ perceptions of burnout. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 48, Article 101674.
- Carbonneau, N., Vallerand, R. J., & Massicotte, S. (2010) Is the practice of yoga associated with positive outcomes? The role of passion. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(6), 452-465,
- Deep questions with Cal Newport. [Podcast]. https://www.calnewport.com/podcast/