"I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious." Albert Einstein, genius
Some years ago, I met the mother of a twelve-year-old who was up each morning by 4:30. She dressed herself for two hours of early morning ice skating practice, packed her lunch, and did her school homework.
“It’s all her. She wakes herself up; she does it all. She just loves skating,” the mother said. She was emphasizing she had no part in this atypical behavior.
“She’ll be in the Olympics,” someone in the group said. Everyone nodded smilingly. But was it cause for joy? Is this what we'd call passion?
I was left with other questions like:
1) What is exactly is the connection between motivation, particularly self-motivation, and achievement?
2) Is being highly motivated to engage in an activity a good thing in terms of happiness and well-being – does it lead to the good life? This is the big question after watching many Olympians as of late coming forward with mental wellness issues.
3) If high motivation does lead to the good life, how do we develop it---in various times in our lives?
The person’s whose research most addresses these questions is Dr. Robert Vallerand.
Vallerand’s studies indicate that passion is the concept we need to understand more.
We may typically think of passion as a “red-hot” date we had fifty years ago, but that’s not what Vallerand primarily studies. His work is mostly about the strong attractions people have to an activity, like skating.
But passion is more than a love for something. When people are passionate about an activity they also value it – they find it meaningful. They regularly invest time and energy doing it. It is part of their identity; they don’t just skate, they are skaters.
Passion is the thing that leads to high self-motivation which leads to hard work, practice, paying attention to feed-back, pushing past failures, and achievement. That’s the answer to question 1 about the connection between motivation and achievement.
Now question 2. Is passion a good thing? Let’s take the easy part first. The person with little or no passion is not going to be as happy as a person with at least a moderate amount of passion. Next.
Here I must stop and add a word to the reader. Some people cannot think about the word passion without getting confusing images – probably still thinking about that hot date years ago. Though it would make researchers shiver, if this is a problem for you, I suggest that you mentally substitute the words “high motivation” or “great enthusiasm” for the word “passion.”
Let’s move on to consider the passion problem. According to Vallerand, there are two different types of passion. One type is healthy and leads to happiness and the good life, but the other isn’t and doesn’t so much.
Vallerand calls the more healthy type, harmonious (if this word sounds too foo-foo for you, broaden you mind, be tolerant. Vallerand is from Quebec, perhaps Canadians are less squeamish about using these sorts of words) and the more unhealthy type, obsessives.
The harmoniously passionate people are a lot happier than the obsessives. Why?
The harmonious group takes up their activity because they choose to; they want to for their own internal reasons. They are intrinsically motivated.
The obsessives largely engage in the activity for external reasons, for the rewards of respect and acceptance, for example. They are more extrinsically motivated.
The difference in “why-they-do-what-they-do” leads to a difference in goals and enjoyment.
The harmonious ones are much more able to get into a state of flow so that time passes quickly; to be creative and to enjoy themselves while doing their activity. They tend to have what researchers call “mastery goals.”
Mastery goals are not about beating others or about being beat by others. Mastery goals are about improving one’s ability to achieve a certain objective outcome like being able to run a mile in five minutes.
Obsessives are much more focused on winning or not being last. This preoccupation about performing better than others leads them to worry and get anxious while they are performing and feel ashamed after they lose.
Answer to question 2. Passion can be a good thing. It can make you happy, but only if it is of the harmonious type, freely chosen.
Question 3. How do we develop healthy passions in ourselves and others? Here’s the short answer.
Remember harmonious passion comes about through choice and support, not control.
Researchers suggest exploring a number of activities – sports, music, movies, cooking, art, travel, or different ways of working.
Notice what things are exciting, meaningful, and resonate. We can do this at any stage of life. This may be especially important if we have given no thought to what we might pursue after retirement or when the kids leave home.
Develop a few of those interests or cultivate current ones; passion for activities often intensifies with a little time and experience. Create mastery goals rather than comparisons with others. Use word like “I want to” rather than “I have to.”
And a wrap up note, doing anything ...even being with your loved ones or becoming a more virtuous person, is not, according to passion researchers, going to be very helpful in improving your relationships nor your happiness if you are doing it because you think you must rather making it your own choice.
How might we develop a healthy passion (or great enthusiasm) and journey together to The Good Life?