Passion: Is yours good for you?

13th November 2016

By Rory Darkins

This article speaks to three of the most important questions all athletes (and anyone for that matter) need to answer:

1. What are you passionate about?

2. What type of passion is it?

3. Is your passion helping or harming you?

The first question is relatively straightforward – you probably already know what you are passionate about. Be it a particular sport, past-time, or activity, the majority of people have one or more passions. Passions are important – they are sustained interests that play a key role in our quality of life. Can you imagine a life devoid of passion? Passion is also central to performance. To excel in any pursuit, conventional wisdom tells us we need to work hard, and passion helps us to do just that. To run a marathon, for example, one must run upwards of 100km/week, gradually building volume for months (ideally years) on end. To some, this may sound like their worst nightmare; to others, it is their dream. The difference? Passion. If you are not at all passionate about running, good luck sticking to the program!

The second question may be somewhat puzzling. What do you mean ‘type of passion’? Earlier this year, when I was presenting my research at the Canadian Positive Psychology Conference, I had the privilege of meeting the world’s leading researcher on passion, Dr Bob Vallerand. Bob has received awards from the International Olympic Committee for his work on passion, and has a message that all athletes need to hear. His message is this:

There are two types of passion: one will help you and one will harm you. It doesn’t even matter what the activity is that you are passionate about, it is the type of passion you have for it that matters. One type is called ‘harmonious’ passion, the other is called ‘obsessive’ passion. The key difference between the two is that, with harmonious passion, you love the activity and it is important to you BUT you have control over your engagement in it. With obsessive passion, the activity has control over you.

Bob uses a strange (but true) example to portray the difference. In his native Canada, he noticed that even on sub-zero winter days with heavy snowfall, some people could be seen out cycling. This is obviously a treacherous, and seamingly pointless activity in these conditions; but, nonetheless, people donned their lycra and peddled away (you can imagine how they went!). Now, I hope not to offend any of my cyclist friends, but surely you would use the trainer on such days? The Canadian cyclists in question no doubt knew it wasn’t the safest or smartest thing to do, but, such was the control that their ‘obsessive passion’ had over them, they did it anyway. At this point I encourage you to pause for a second to think back to your passions. Ask yourself the question: do you control it, or does it control you?

To the third question, Dr Vallerand and his team have found a number of significant differences between harmonious and obsessive passions, including:

  • Both harmonious and obsessive passion can be paths to performance, mainly because people with passion for an activity engage in ‘deliberate practice’. However, obsessive passion also brings greater risk of injury and burnout. 
  • Harmonious passion is associated with higher levels of well-being; obsessive passion negatively influences well-being.
  • Obsessive passion leads to negative emotion; harmonious passion leads to more positive emotion.
  • People with harmonious passion are able to savour small successes; those with obsessive passion are always in goal-pursuit, so are unable to do so.
  • With obsessive passion, self-esteem is dependent upon performance; with harmonious passion, self-esteem is not dependent upon performance.
  • People with harmonious passion experience ‘flow’ more often (flow is both a peak experience and peak performance state).

To conclude, the type of passion you have for an acitvity is not fixed. I, for one, have most definitly experienced both types of passion. There was a time when I would have proudly said I was “obsessed” with cricket. Those who knew me knew that it ruled me. Like many people, I had bought into the myth that ‘success’ belongs to those who try the hardest; who want it more and who sacraficed most. I can tell you, this belief only gurantees disappointment and burnout, because no matter how well you may perform, it is never enough. With harmonious passion, the inverse is true; you are always enough, and so your step is light; small successes taste sweet and failures are welcomed as food for growth. 

Passion presents two paths to performance; but only one brings well-being. Which one will you choose?

My next article will outline key strategies for peak performance and well-being (including how to move from obsessive to harmonious passion) identified from my research interviews with six Legends of Australian Cricket. If you would like more information on the psychology of passion, or have any related questions, please feel free to contact me. 

Rory Darkins is a Sport & Positive Psychology researcher and coach at Jock Athletic. His research focuses on performance and well-being in elite athletes. Rory has presented at both the Canadian and Australian Positive Psychology Conferences.
Instagram: @rorydarks