In my last post, I spoke about the importance of understanding your ‘Why’ or purpose in life. It’s crucial for wellbeing and life satisfaction, and one of the key elements needed to thrive.

What can help fuel your purpose is passion, which is a powerful driving force that can move you closer towards your goals. Passion is the intense emotion or enthusiasm you feel towards something, and when combined with your purpose, they become a dynamic duo that can guide us towards a meaningful life.

However, like most good things, passion also has its downsides. When passion becomes excessive, it can lead to fatigue and even burnout. This phenomenon is often observed in professions such as medicine, teaching, human resources, and the not-for-profit sector. Recognising this, Professor Robert Vallerand, the Canadian Research Chair in Motivational Processes and Optimal Functioning at the University of Quebec, identifies two types of passion – obsessive and harmonious – which each have different impacts on our relationships, wellbeing, and performance. Yet the good news is that we have the ability to restore the balance when necessary.

What is passion?

Passion can be defined as a strong inclination towards activities that hold personal significance and compel us to invest time and energy (Vallerand, 2008). These activities are more than just hobbies – they play an important part in our identity. For instance, we may identify ourselves as a basketball player rather than simply someone who plays basketball. These passions, which often include pursuits like sports, music, art, or gardening, are the activities we prioritise because they bring us much fulfillment.

What is harmonious passion?

Harmonious passion occurs when we freely choose activities that are important to us and bring us joy, rather than feeling an uncontrollable urge to engage. These activities often elicit positive emotions, enhance satisfaction, and contribute to our overall wellbeing. Research suggests that harmonious passion is associated with better physical health, self-esteem, creativity, and concentration. Achieving harmonious passion often leads to experiencing ‘flow,’ a state of peak engagement and performance.

One of the key features of harmonious passion is that we maintain control over the activity. As a result, we can easily switch off and allocate time to other important aspects of our lives. Unlike obsessive passion, which can overwhelm and create conflicts, harmonious passion allows us to integrate our passions seamlessly with our other priorities, such as spending time with friends or family.

What’s obsessive passion?

Obsessive passion arises when individuals lack control over an activity, and it begins to conflict with other aspects of their lives. Often, this activity becomes deeply intertwined with their identity and may be driven by desires for social acceptance or self-esteem.

Individuals experiencing obsessive passion feel an uncontrollable urge to engage in the activity, even at the expense of neglecting other important areas of their lives. For instance, if work becomes obsessively consuming, individuals may forego holidays, make working late or on weekends a norm, or prioritise checking emails or messages over spending time on hobbies or with loved ones.

Activities of this kind can lead to negative emotions, anxiety, and stress, and can have a detrimental impact on our wellbeing and performance. When people are obsessively passionate about their job, they find it hard to stop thinking about their work, to step away, and can even get upset when they’re prevented from work. This typically occurs when people are reliant on this passion for their self-worth.

How can you get the balance right?

Based on the outcomes associated with the different types of passion, we should be aiming to achieve the more harmonious type.

One of the best ways to do this is to have interests particularly outside of work. Vallerand has found that by having hobbies that light you up can lower your risk of burnout. You also don’t want to have just one interest, which you pursue at the cost of everything else. Because if the passion ends, like a sporting career, what is left?

Additionally, you can consider the following:

  • When it comes to tasks – do you have an endless to-do list or do you mindfully prioritise what is possible each day and either delegate or delay the rest?
  • When it comes to boundaries – do you find it hard to switch off or do you schedule time for rest and recovery and other important things?
  • When it comes to identity – is your self-worth defined by your job? Or not?(@The Wellbeing Lab, 2022).

More and more, we’re seeing obsessively passionate people in the workplace, perhaps because some believe that being obsessively passionate is the best way to succeed.

Of course, leaders want their people to be passionate about their work, as it can lead to greater engagement, satisfaction, and productivity, resulting in higher performance.

Yet, this can be achieved when passion is of the harmonious variety. Although obsessive passion can promote long-term commitment, it can also lead to persistence when it’s no longer sensible to do so and, at worst, could result in burnout. So, leaders should be helping their workers mindfully prioritise tasks, establish and respect boundaries, and support the shift from obsessive to harmonious passion.

Of course, be passionate, but ensure that your passion is of the harmonious kind!