Should you really “Follow your Passion“? Yes, but…

StinkefingerOne of the most common pieces of self-help advice is to “follow your passion”. Countless authors propagate this is the surefire way to lasting success and happiness at work (please also read Following your Bliss vs. following your Blisters).

Research suggests that, on the one hand, this may be good advice, but that things are not as simple as they seem, on the other hand. According to Robert J. Vallerand and his colleagues, there is a distinction between what they call harmonious vs. obsessive passion. In general, they define passion as

a strong inclination toward an activity that people like, that they find important, and in which they invest time and energy. Thus, for an activity to represent a passion for people, it has to be significant in their lives, something that they like, and something at which they spend time on a regular basis.

They further propose that

there are two types of passion, obsessive and harmonious, that can be distinguished in terms of how the passionate activity is internalized into one’s core self or identity.

In detail:

Harmonious passion results from an autonomous internalization of the activity into the person’s identity. An autonomous internalization occurs when individuals have freely accepted the activity as important for them without any contingencies attached to it. This type of internalization produces a motivational force to engage in the activity willingly and engenders a sense of volition and personal endorsement about pursuing the activity. Individuals are not compelled to do the activity but rather they freely choose to do so. With this type of passion, the activity occupies a significant but not overpowering space in the person’s identity and is in harmony with other aspects of the person’s life.


Obsessive passion results from a controlled internalization of the activity into one’s identity. Such an internalization originates from intrapersonal and/or interpersonal pressure either because certain contingencies are attached to the activity such as feelings of social acceptance or self-esteem, or because the sense of excitement derived from activity engagement becomes uncontrollable. Thus, although individuals like the activity, they feel compelled to engage in it because of these internal contingencies that come to control them. They cannot help but to engage in the passionate activity. The passion must run its course as it controls the person. Because activity engagement is out of the person’s control, it eventually takes disproportionate space in the person’s identity and causes conflict with other activities in the person’s life.

Vallerand as his coworkers have developed a scale to assess whether a certain aspect in our lives is a harmonious or an obsessive passion, e.g., for harmonious passion:

  • This activity allows me to live memorable experiences.
  • This activity reflects the qualities I like about myself.

And for obsessive passion:

  • I have difficulty imagining my life without this activity.
  • I am emotionally dependent on this activity.

After having developed and validated the scale, they evaluated some of the consequences of having harmonious vs. obsessive passion in our lives. Here’s their synopsis:

Harmonious passion was positively related to positive affective and cognitive (concentration and flow) experiences and to the absence of negative affect during and after activity engagement. In addition, harmonious passion was unrelated to negative affect and cognition when people were prevented from participating in the passionate activity. Conversely, obsessive passion was unrelated to positive affect and cognition during task engagement but positively associated with negative affect during and after activity engagement, as well as when prevented from engaging in the passionate activity.

Additionally, there were able to show that

the positive affect experienced during task engagement seems to spill over onto how the person feels in general in his or her life. More specifically, it appears that harmonious for the activity leads to increases in general positive affect over time even when the person is not directly engaged in the activity.

So, in the future you might want to be a little more careful when giving someone the advice to follow their passion. Only those that are intrinsically motivated and really fit it with the “overall system” of that person will lead to growing satisfaction and a fulfilled live.

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