When Passion Becomes an Obsession

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It’s great to be passionate about our pursuits, whether work, sport, or other hobbies and interests. Well – this might often be the case, but not always. It depends on how we exercise our passions. As explained by Professor Robert Vallerand, an expert in the field of positive psychology, it depends on whether our passion is harmonious or obsessive.

First – some general background. There is much to be said for being passionate about something, including our work. Our passion can energize us and give us focus. It helps us to achieve goals by investing time in something we value. It can contribute positively to our sense of identity, especially in the context of having an otherwise rewarding life, with a number of other enjoyable pursuits and interests.

However, our passions can also get out of hand. What if we feel so compelled to work that we spend very long hours at the office – beyond what is necessary – in a way that compromises our relationships and can lead to burnout? What if our sense of identity is so bound up in being good at work, or in sporting competition, that we feel less of a person if we are not able to perform at our usual standard – perhaps through illness or injury? What if we feel so compelled to engage in any activity, like a computer game (or Pokémon Go for that matter) that we leave other important tasks undone and various responsibilities unmet? Or perhaps we feel so frustrated when we have to discontinue a game or activity that it leaves us feeling unsatisfied.

These are some of the features of obsessive passion. It’s a bit like an addiction. Our approach is somewhat compulsive, or rigid. We are driven to keep going with the activity rather than freely choosing it. It is not woven in so flexibly, or harmoniously, with our other activities and interests. It may interfere with our relationships. In the case of competitive sport, obsessive passion might be reflected in being overly invested in winning rather than having fun with others and improving our skills. By continuing to play through minor injuries, they might become more chronic. We might otherwise ignore warning signs related to our wellbeing or safety.

Engaging in a harmonious passion is generally very positive for our well-being. The activity, whether work or leisure, is consistently enjoyable. It doesn’t detract in a significant way from our relationships or other responsibilities. We can readily switch off from the activity, which is in harmony with our overall lifestyle. It is consistent with our values. When we engage in the activity we are typically in a state of flow rather than feeling driven, or feeling we have little choice but to keep going.

How are we pursuing the various passions in our lives? Are we engaging in those activities in a flexible and harmonious way, or is there a rigid and obsessive quality to them? Either way we shall likely develop skills. We are also more likely to achieve long-term goals when we are passionate about our pursuits beyond merely being talented. But whether our passion is harmonious rather than obsessive will make a substantial difference to our well-being.