Debate Magazine

Is Pursuing Your Passion Always a Good Thing?

By Stevemiranda

PSCS’s tagline is “turning passion into achievement.” We talk about passion constantly with kids, with the goal of helping them figure out what they love to do, and what activities bring them joy. “Passion” is a very important word at PSCS.

It helps, then, to know exactly what it means.

I came across an article by Kathryn Britton, who is an Associate Editor at Positive Psychology News Daily, that offered an important perspective on passion. In the article, she draws inspiration from Dr. Robert Vallerand, the president of the International Positive Psychology Association.

Researchers describe two kinds of passions. The first is harmonious, and is characterized by autonomy and flexible persistence. “People pursue these activities because they want to, not because they want to please someone else,” she writes.

The second is obsessive, which is “connected to extrinsic motivations—wanting to please others or to maintain a certain status that is important to self-esteem.”

In a recent study of 187 individuals with a passion for music, researchers observed that those with a harmonious passion tended to focus primarily on mastery. They loved music and wanted to be awesome at it. Their desire for mastery led, predictably, to improved performance.

Those with an obsessive passion, on the other hand, tended to focus heavily on performance goals. In this case, researchers were “were surprised to find that working to outdo others tended to undermine performance.”

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I sometimes describe PSCS this way. If you started with a blank sheet of paper and said, “Let’s create a school based on the most robust findings in all the behavioral sciences,” you’d create PSCS.

When traditional schools force kids to perform in order to get an “A,” they’re steering them away from harmonious passion. When teachers help kids discover what they love and encourage them to set their own goals, they put them on the path towards pursuing mastery of their chosen field of study.

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Here is perhaps the most important observation from examining the data: “As expected from other studies, harmonious passion was positively related to life satisfaction, while obsessive passion was unrelated to it.”

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