When is passion for our work positive? And when is it negative?

When is passion for our work positive? And when is it negative?

We sometimes hear that we should “follow our passion.” But what happens when we actually do have a passion for our work—or maybe some other aspect of our life? Is this positive? Or is it negative?According to psychologist Robert Vallerand, it could be either, depending on the type of passion.

Robert Valerand and the Psychology of Passion

Vallerand has written a fascinating and valuable book called The Psychology of Passion: A Dualistic Model. Vallerand defines passion as a strong inclination towards an activity, an object, a concept, or a person. When we’re passionate about something, we value it, we invest considerable time and energy in it, and in some ways, it becomes part of our identity.

Passion can lead to positive outcomes, but it can also lead to negative outcomes. On the one hand, it can lead to our personal and psychological growth and development. It can also lead to the development of our skills and competence. On the other hand, it can also have a negative effect, which can be the case whether we’re talking about work-related passion or passions in other areas of our life. Vallerand believes this is because there are two types of passion and that these can have quite different effects. He calls the two types harmonious passion, on the one hand, and obsessive passion, on the other.

With harmonious passion, we can fully engage in the activity about which we are passionate, place a high value on it, and enjoy our involvement, but when it is time to stop working on it, we can leave it behind and turn our full attention toward something else, such as our family. Harmonious passion seems to have a sort of freedom—the individual is in control, not the passion. We engage in it because we decide to do so, not because we are required by outside forces or by the needs of a weak or defensive ego. With harmonious passion, we can also have a natural tendency to gravitate towards activities that are life-giving and that encourage our personal growth.

Obsessive passion, on the other hand, has a compulsive quality. It can be difficult to leave the object of our passion, such as our work, behind when it comes time to stop. Because of the excessive importance we place on it, and how it crowds out other aspects of our life and personality, we are more likely to be insecure and defensive about our work performance and less likely to be open to new experiences and information. We are also more likely to spend time ruminating about what we may or may not have done well.

Paradoxically, when working obsessively, it might also be more difficult to focus productively on the task at hand because we are distracted by our ego needs and external considerations such as how other people will evaluate our work. We can expect that obsessive passion, instead of being energizing, can drain our energy and is more likely to lead to burnout.

Are There Spiritual Implications?

Vallerand does not write from a religious point of view. This is appropriate and perhaps even necessary as long as the discussion remains within a social science domain. But from a theological or spiritual point of view, we can see that there might be religious or spiritual implications to this line of thought. For one thing, harmonious passion contributes to shalom, and obsessive passion works against it. Harmonious passion is more likely to enhance our relationships and engender feelings of peace and fulfillment in our work. And harmonious passion is more likely to lead to spiritual and psychological growth.

We might also speculate about a deeper spiritual connection. If we believe, as I do, that God is in some way working throughout all reality, driving it forward, and that he is accordingly working through our deepest drives and values and our deep desire to become the person that we are meant to be, then perhaps it is only a short step to the idea that when we are in a state of harmonious passion, we might be expressing not only our true selves but also something of God’s Holy Spirit. There might be good reasons why the peace, fulfillment, and sense of purpose often associated with harmonious passion have also been traditionally seen as signs of spiritual growth.

The difference between the two types of passion has critical implications for our work life. Harmonious passion is more likely to lead to higher creativity and a higher likelihood of entering a state of flow, or full absorption in our work and other activities. Obsessive passion is more likely to lead to burnout and trouble focusing on particular activities and relationships.