We all have inclinations toward certain activities that we like and find meaningful. If this inclination feels intense enough, we may describe our attraction as a passion. Passion is a powerful force. It can inspire us to invest time and energy with focus and dedication. However, passion has a dark side. Read on to find out about the dark side of passion, why we’re attracted to it, how to measure your tendency toward it, and what you can do to keep your passion working for you, not the other way around.
Particularly for high performers, passion can begin to control us. Think of the athlete who feels compelled to train through the pain of injury or an ambitious executive who feels like they can never switch off from work, even though it’s compromising their relationships.
I would describe myself as a passionate person. Throughout my life, my passion for certain activities has been a powerful source of motivation. As a young teenager, my passion for an obscure sport called Inline Speed Skating encouraged me to sacrifice a social life for training, and I won multiple medals at national and international level. Later, my passion for road cycling led me to make the decision to leave my friends, family and move to France, to pursue my dream of securing a professional contract. In business, my passion for entrepreneurship has led me to found, co-found, or been an early-hire in several companies, some of which were profitable…
In good times, my passions have been a source of inspiration and energy. I’ve also experienced the dark side of passion. Sometimes, these activities feel like they have sucked the life out of me. I’ve felt exhausted to my core but have been compelled to keep going. I’ve made sacrifices that I shouldn’t have, and I’ve hurt myself and the people around me in the process. In these times, the passion was controlling me, and it certainly wasn’t healthy. However, at the time, I was under the mistaken impression that this level of obsession was a requirement for me to succeed and even felt that I was encouraged to cultivate this rigid persistence.
The Dark Side Of The Force
Passion is a powerful force. It has intrigued humanity for generations, and the idea the passion has a light side, and a dark side has existed in philosophy for centuries. The French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, René Descartes, described passions as strong emotions that, providing they were underpinned by reasoned thought, could be a positive source of motivation. Later, Georg Hegel, the German philosopher, went one step further, arguing that passion was vital to reaching the highest levels of achievement, providing we are in control of it. The dark side of passion has never been far away from our thoughts, though. Both Plato and, later, the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, suggested that passion can cause a loss of reason or control. However, the field of psychology did not begin to explore the concept of passion until centuries later.
Why We’re Attracted To The Dark Side
In 2003 a group of researchers, led by Robert J. Vallerand, proposed a dualistic model of passion: They described the light side as Harmonious Passion (HP). In this case, passion leads individuals to choose to engage in an activity they enjoy, promotes healthy flexibility in relation to the activity and positive outcomes. The dark side is described as an Obsessive passion (OP). In this case, the passion for the activity controls the individual and is associated with perfectionism, anxiety, and fear of failure, resulting in adverse outcomes and the rigid persistence I referred to in my story. If you can remember yourself thinking “I know it’s not good for me, but I can’t help myself, I just have to continue doing this activity”, you’ve likely experienced obsessive passion.
The Hustle & The Grind
‘The hustle’ and ‘the grind’ are perhaps the most destructive manifestations and celebrations of obsessive passion. Search #hustle on Linkedin, and you’ll get a good idea about what it’s all about. The hustle and the grind fetishise a particular kind of ‘success’, often based on piles of cash and the belief that the only way to achieve is by long working hours, even if it’s at the expense of health and relationships.
Thankfully, I think this approach to life and work is on its way out, and it’s certainly subject to more critique, but even if we are not inclined to post photos of 4:00am workouts, and #entrepreneurlife moments, obsessive passion can still leak into our psyche. I think our problematic relationship with passion is driven by many factors, but three of the most potent are:
- The media and ‘influencers’ continue to celebrate obsessive passion, associate it with success, and this still attracts our primal brains, even if we suspect it’s a load of rubbish.
- Obsessive passion is associated with paradoxes and contradictions:
- We are likely to continue in an activity, despite it being associated with increasing levels of negative feelings.
- We may feel negative emotions during the activity, but also feel bad if we are prevented from doing the activity1.
- We don’t have the tools at hand to examine our relationship with passion and, as a result, we are unsure how to make passion work for us, not the other way around.
Maybe High-Performers Achieve Success Despite Obsessive Passion
Despite what #hustle may say, obsessive passion is rarely helpful. Obsessive passion may be associated with commitment, focus, and dedication. However, the form of commitment is likely to be excessive, the focus compulsive, the dedication inflexible, and the inability to disengage is a fast-track to bad habits and burnout. In all likelihood, many high performers achieve their success despite obsessive passion, not because of it.
In contrast, harmonious passion correlates with positive emotions and flow – the experience of being fully immersed, energised and effortlessly focussed on an activity. Harmonious passion is also associated with creativity and innovation – real differentiators and the antecedents of performance in 21st century knowledge work.
Measure Your Passion
You may be interested in trying out the following questionnaire, created by the researchers who proposed the obsessive and harmonious passion model. The survey features 14 questions, seven related to obsessive or harmonious passion, respectively.
Calculate your average score for the first seven questions and the last seven questions separately. The average rating for items 1-7 is your ‘harmonious passion’ score. The average score for questions 8-14 is your ‘obsessive passion’ score. Please note that your score is not necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead, use the scores to get a sense of the relative balance of harmonious and obsessive passion. Which is higher?
3 Steps To Use Your Strengths To Resist The Dark-Side
Unfortunately, there are not many practical intervention studies to draw on when exploring how to increase harmonious passion. However, the research into how harmonious passion develops provide some ideas.
So how can we resist the dark side?
- Recognise that we may have a tendency towards obsessive passion.
- Measure it, to establish a starting point.
- Try to increase our harmonious passion as much as we can, so that we achieve a net-positive position.
Research suggests that one of the most effective ways to boost our harmonious passion could be to apply our ‘signature strengths’3. Signature strengths are the most influential or most prominent strengths in your character strengths profile. For example, my signature strengths include curiosity and love of learning. You can find out what your signature strengths are, using this free survey.
Once you’ve found your signature strengths, you could try the following exercise.
- In detail, describe an experience of when you were working at your best. What did it look like, and how did you apply your signature strengths? How did you feel before using your strengths, while using your strengths, and after using your strengths?
- Think of a way that you can use two of your signature strengths in new ways, during the next two weeks.
- Reflect on the positive outcomes that were associated with using your signature strengths.
According to the evidence, this short activity could put you on the right track to a more harmonious relationship with passion. Let me know your experiences of harmonious or obsessive passion, and how you’ve been using signature strengths in the comments, or on Twitter.
- Vallerand RJ, Mageau GA, Ratelle C, Léonard M, Blanchard C, Koestner R, et al. Les Passions de 1’Âme: On Obsessive and Harmonious Passion. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003;85(4):756–67.
- Chen X-P, Liu D, He W. Does Passion Fuel Entrepreneurship and Job Creativity? A Review and Preview of Passion Research. In: Shalley CE, Hitt MA, Zhou J, editors. The Oxford Handbook of Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press; 2015. p. 159–76.
- Forest J, Mageau GA, Crevier-Braud L, Bergeron É, Dubreuil P, Lavigne GL. Harmonious passion as an explanation of the relation between signature strengths’ use and well-being at work: Test of an intervention program. Hum Relations. 2012;65(9):1233–52.