The age-old wisdom everyone recites is that we have to follow our passion to be happy in life. A life without passion, we’re told, isn’t going to be a very fulfilling one. This might be true, but the science behind passion is a bit more complicated than that. And a general lack of understanding about how passion really works can result in destructive behavior and leave us burned out or even depressed.
So how can we successfully harness our passion without encountering these pitfalls? Luckily, a deeper understanding of how biology and psychology affect passion can enable us to take our dream endeavors to the next level. It makes no difference whether you’re striving to be an athlete, entrepreneur or artist. In The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life, author Brad Stulberg explains how the often-paradoxical mechanisms behind passion can help you achieve your dreams, whatever they might be.
The story of passion is one that stretches back a long way. Although nowadays we tend to view passion as a term with positive attributes, this wasn’t always the case.
Passion finds its linguistic roots in the Latin “passio,” which literally means “suffering.” For much of its history, this suffering was exclusively associated with the passion of one person – Jesus Christ.
But, as for many other words, passion’s meaning changed over time. By the Middle Ages, passion was also being used to refer to the suffering of people other than Christ. And by the Renaissance, the term slowly took on non-negative connotations. Poets like Geoffrey Chaucer began to use the word to describe surging emotions in general, and it was Shakespeare who finally used the term in a more positive light to describe the uncontrollable desire one feels for another person.
The story of the term doesn’t end there, however. It took another couple of centuries for the meaning of passion to extend beyond people to activities or career choices. By the 1970s, phrases like “follow your passion” had begun to emerge; passion-seeking had finally become an important part of the average person’s life.
And the concept has only become more important since then, with Generation X and Millennials even more enthralled by fulfilling their personal passions than their baby-boomer predecessors.
Just like the word “passion,” the biological mechanisms of passion itself have both positive and negative connotations.
That’s because passion is regulated by dopamine, a powerful neurochemical that motivates us to do things. Once released by the brain, dopamine pushes us toward our goals and makes us crave rewards. Dopamine drives passionate people in their pursuits but also motivates drug addicts to satisfy their cravings.
Only the finest of lines exists between the personalities of extremely passionate people and those of drug addicts. That’s because while dopamine motivates us to pursue rewards, the chemical dissipates once we receive them. This, of course, leaves us yearning for more.
And, as with addictive drugs, the more dopamine we experience, the higher our tolerance for it becomes. We begin to set our goals higher and place ever-increasing importance on chasing our passions. And we’re never satisfied with the reward; it’s the process of reaching the reward that releases that sweet dopamine.
If the biological mechanisms that kindle a passion aren’t so removed from those of drug addiction, it’s probably important to consider the method by which we find – and grow – our passions.
Look at passion in the context of romance. We often think we’re destined to fall in love with our soul-mate and that we’ll only be able to truly love that one person. But searching for “the one” can lead to an impossible quest for finding the perfect fit, an all-or-nothing approach that passion researchers call the fit mind-set. Studies show that 78 percent of us think this way – and not just when it comes to romance. We think we need to feel passion immediately after starting a new job or activity and that this is the only way that new pursuits can result in long-term happiness.
But, whether in romance or work, the fit mind-set has its pitfalls. For starters, people with this mind-set are prone to giving up new pursuits when they hit the first obstacle. Then they search for something new to try, seeking the fleeting pleasure of the initial dopamine rush that comes with starting fresh. What they don’t realize is that with each restart, they’re sacrificing possibilities for long-term growth.
But if the fit mind-set isn’t the best way to kindle your passion, what’s the alternative?
Well, instead of going all in from the get-go, consider a more incremental approach. Identify potential hobbies or lines of work that you find interesting and slowly begin to explore whether or not you can see yourself engaging in them over the long term.
If so, it’s important to accept that you won’t find perfection right away. That helps regulate your brain’s production of dopamine to a more reasonable level. Then when you make initial mistakes, and your dopamine levels reduce, your mood won’t feel like it’s dropping off a cliff.
As you get better at your chosen pursuit, incrementally increase the energy and time you put into it. The more competent you get at your passion, the more risks you can begin to take. Eventually, you can contemplate the biggest risk of all – quitting your day job and going all in on your passion!
Cultivating your passion with an incremental approach rather than a fit mind-set is much more likely to be a successful approach. You’ll be committing real time and energy to it rather than giving up at the first sign of difficulty.
There was once a CEO of a major company who valued passion above everything else. He only employed the most passionate people, and he expected his whole organization to emulate his high level of performance. Under his stewardship, Fortune named the organization America’s “most innovative large company,” and it was valued at $60 billion.
This company was called Enron, and its CEO was Jeffrey Skilling. But Enron no longer exists, as Skilling’s relentless passion for enriching both himself and Enron’s shareholders led to one of the biggest corporate fraud cases in modern history. When the dust settled, Skilling was behind bars and Enron had declared bankruptcy.
Skilling is now a convicted felon and a classic example of what happens when our passions become obsessive and go awry as a result.
This shift begins when we lose sight of what originally motivated us to work toward our goals and become increasingly focused on things like external validation, rewards or recognition. And when these things replace our original goals, we’ll go to any lengths to achieve them. Whether it be writers engaging in plagiarism to get that book published or athletes using illegal substances to set new records, these sorts of obsessive passions can turn initially joyful pursuits into sinister undertakings.
Remember how kindling a passion and developing a drug addiction both involve increasing tolerance to dopamine? Well, that’s precisely where such obsessive passions can begin. We think that more money or recognition will satisfy our cravings, but as dopamine is only released during the process and not upon reaching the goal, it’s never enough – we always crave more.
And just like when a drug addict goes cold turkey, when people with obsessive passions fail, the sudden, massive drop in dopamine can trigger devastation and depression. This is the point where our passion has morphed back into its original Latin meaning – suffering.
Another unhealthy driver of passion is fear. In the short term, fear of failure can be a useful motivator. If you’ve just started a new job, for example, fear of messing things up at the beginning may help you to learn your way around the position quickly. But in the long run, fear of failure also leads to burnouts and depression.
Luckily, if you feel your passion is becoming obsessive or fueled by fear, there are a number of techniques that can help – we’ll explore these next.
The sad truth is that our fast-paced, results-driven modern society can often cause our passions to become obsessive or driven by fear. This is because we often favor quick fixes over long-term skill development, and instant social media “likes” have become the new currency of recognition for our efforts. All in all, it can be hard to slow down and enjoy our passions purely for their own sake.
This is where the pursuit of harmonious passions comes in. We engage in harmonious passions only for the joy they bring us, not for the potential rewards or recognition that their obsessive or fear-fueled cousins require. And it turns out that when we do this, we’re actually more likely to attain those external rewards and reach our goals.
But here’s the crux – this only works when the pursuit of our passion is an end in itself. Those who focus on future successes instead of enjoying their passion are less likely to achieve their goals and reap the rewards. This, in a nutshell, is the passion paradox.
Luckily, it’s possible to cultivate a harmonious passion by adopting a mastery mind-set that focuses on continuously and sustainably developing your passions. There are a few basic principles to it – for one, focusing on the process rather than the results.
That means that rather than obsessing over your goal and despairing at how far you are from attaining it, you focus on and take pride in all your small achievements along the way. This helps you stay motivated as you continue steadily on toward mastery.
Another part of the mastery mind-set is harnessing the timeless virtue of patience. The road to mastery will involve peaks and troughs, and when you’re suffering through a low point, it’s important to step back and embrace patience. Take a deep breath and slowly meditate on the reason you set out on the journey in the first place.
And finally, adopt the twenty-four-hour rule to avoid becoming overly concerned with success or failure. This means spending 24 hours ruminating on the successes or failures that come your way, then getting back on the road to mastery.
This gives you valuable perspective. After all, you’re guaranteed to encounter failure and external motivators like money on the road to mastery of your passion. But these shouldn’t stop you – they’re just bumps in the road. Harmonious passions are lifelong journeys, and your focus should be not on being the best but on continuing to improve.
Check out my related post: How to find a hobby you love?