It's one of the oldest and most heated of debates around career advice. 'Follow your passion!' screams one team of counselors. 'That's ridiculous,' responds another. 'Only do that if you want to be broke and miserable.'

So who's right? Is following your passion a necessary ingredient for engagement and eventual success? Or is putting your passion center stage in your life only a recipe for unhappiness and possible financial ruin?

Perhaps neither viewpoint is right. That's the fascinating takeaway from a recent Big Think video featuring University of Pennsylvania psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman. In it, Kaufman explains that not all passions are the same. Some are healthy and some are really not, and how much weight you should give your passion in your life very much depends on which type you have.

Harmonious passion

What's the good type of passion? Psychologists call it 'harmonious passion,' and it's most distinctive feature is that doing that activity, whatever it is, makes you feel good. You're passionate about whatever you're passionate about for the inherent pleasure it gives you, and you don't feel conflicted at all about what you're doing.

"The activity that you're engaged in is really healthfully integrated into your identity," says Kaufman of a harmonious passion. "Every time you engage in that activity it's something that makes you feel really good about yourself. So you're saying, 'oh wow this is really congruent with the rest of my value system.'"

Obsessive passion

Obsessive passion is the less healthy alternative. When you have an obsessive passion it's about achievement -- about proving something to someone -- not pleasure in the moment. The obsessively passionate person is thinking, "I'm engaging in this because I want to feel good about myself or I'm engaging in this because I want to please my grand mom or I'm engaging in this because I want to win, win, win, win," says Kaufman.

So should you follow your passion?

If you suspect your passion is obsessive, the answer is pretty clearly no. As Kaufman explained on HBR, "those with obsessive passion display higher levels of negative affect over time and display more maladaptive behaviors. They report higher levels of negative affect during and after activity engagement; they can hardly ever stop thinking about their work, and they get quite frustrated when they are prevented from working."

In short, obsessive passion makes you a miserable workaholic. Plus, "those with obsessive passion are at much higher risk of experiencing burnout," Kaufman says in the same article. Interrogate obsessive passion, don't follow it.

But harmonious passion is a whole different story. If whatever you do brings you intrinsic satisfaction, of course you should do it! Maybe as a career, maybe as a hobby, but certainly fit it into your life somewhere. Not only will doing whatever it is give you pleasure, but practice will probably also make you better at whatever you love, and being better will make you more passionate about it. In the best cases, "effort and passion is this continuous cycle," claims Kaufman.

Be honest, Is your passion for your work harmonious or obsessive?

Published on: Mar 22, 2016
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