≡ Menu
Serenity Hacker

Is Passion Necessary for a Meaningful Life?

Keeping passion at bay or surrendering blindly to it - which of these two attitudes is the least destructive? I don't know. ~Paulo Coelho

Keeping passion at bay or surrendering blindly to it - which of these two attitudes is the least destructive? I don't know. ~Paulo Coelho

I’ve posed this question to myself for the past week, since Lisis’s post Networth vs. Selfworth: The Passion Paradox at her blog QuestforBalance. There’s been a slew of great posts this week in response, all of them listed at the end of hers, so I would recommend heading over there and checking them out. They’re all worth a read.

Ultimately I began to wonder whether passion is really required for a meaningful life. After all, that’s what most people are ultimately seeking, not necessarily the passion itself. And that’s where marketers mostly seem to cash in on the passion principle.

Peddling Passion

Passion is a necessity, or so we’ve been told (and sold) over and again. Passion is something we should have regarding our work, at least says the title of many best-selling books. This idea presupposes that we have a passion to “follow” or “cash in” on, and that this is the best way to live. And if you don’t have one? Well, there’s help out there for that, too! There are countless books on how to “find” your passion and thus live your life’s purpose.

Passion and Purpose

So far, the assumptions go like this: we must have passion (or “a” passion), and if not we should find or discover it. This will give us purpose (which is associated with meaning). So, passion equals purpose. Also, if we’re particularly lucky or skilled, we get to have even more purpose because we turned our passion into work. Now we can experience passion with more frequency, so our lives are even more meaningful. If you really don’t buy this formula, there are plenty of salesman out there willing to convince you (but then you will buy it… literally).

So the path is as so:

Find Your Passion -> Live a Meaningful Life

(and further down the “path to fulfillment”):

Sustain Your Living from Your Passion -> Live an Even More Meaningful Life

So What is Passion, Anyway?

Before I could go any further thinking about this promised path, I really needed to get a clear handle on the meaning of passion. According to Merriam-Webster, passion is:

extreme, compelling emotion; intense emtotional drive or excitement; and or a strong liking or desire or devotion to some activity, object, or concept

So passion is mostly emotional, and or a state of strong desire. (It’s worth pointing out here the etymology of the word, its Latin and Greek roots, have to do with suffering and agony. Just food for thought.)

What’s the idea behind this passion requirement, really? Are we to find something that causes us to experience extreme and compelling emotional states? Are we better off living with a strong desire for (or devotion to) that activity, object, or concept? Is this really necessary in order to live a meaningful life?

Emotional states are fluid and changing, and extreme emotional states usually aren’t sustainable, nor should they be (for the sake of our mental health). Yes, excitement and extreme pleasure feel good and we like them, but strong desires for those extreme states often lead to suffering when they can’t be fulfilled. (Interestingly, that brings us back to the root of the word…)

A Deeper Look: A Psychological Needs Study on Passion and Activities

A recent psychology study on passion (in which the authors reference the very scant amount of research in this area) defines passion toward an activity as:

a strong inclination toward a self-defining activity that one likes (or even loves), finds important, and in which one invests time and energy

Sometimes, these activities become so self-defining they come to “represent central features of one’s identity.” The activities people became passionate about happened to fulfill their psychological needs for:

  • autonomy  (a sense of personal initiative)
  • competence (the ability interact effectively with the environment), and
  • relatedness (a feeling of connectedness)

The Pleasure Principle

In other words, activities people tend to become “passionate” about are ones that make them feel good in several ways, and produce positive emotional experiences for them while engaged in the activity. Interestingly, the study also unveiled two very different types of passion. This is where the buyer need beware.

Obsessive Passion

  • uncontrollable urges to engage in the activity
  • feelings of social acceptance and self-esteem are dependent on the activity
  • sense of identity is strongly associated with the activity
  • more pressure, guilt and shame associated with the activity (and less flow)
  • frustration and rumination when not able to engage with the activity, difficulty experiencing pleasure in other activities
  • activity engagement leads to conflict with other areas of life, like personal relationships and responsibilities
  • a rigid persistence toward engaging in the activity despite conflicts, risks, and negative consequences
  • lower levels of general psychological adjustment to other experiences in life
  • more experiences of depression and anxiety related to general life satisfaction
  • difficulty giving up the activity, despite obvious negative consequences

So, people with an obsessive passion for planting petunias (to use Lisis’s example, but feel free to fill in a different passion) derive pleasure from it but also suffer more, are less well adjusted, and have developed a psychological dependence on it. (It should be noted that this type of passion can also lead to pathological behaviors).

Harmonious Passion

  • no uncontrollable urges, chooses freely when to engage in the activity
  • feelings of social acceptance and self-esteem are not dependent on the activity
  • though activity may be integrated into identity, it is not overpowering
  • more frequent pleasure (and flow) during the activity
  • higher rate of adjustment, concentration and pleasure in other activities in life than obsessive
  • activity engagement does not lead to conflict with other areas of life, like personal relationships and responsibilities
  • a flexible persistance toward engaging in the activity: conflicts, consequences and risks are weighed appropriately
  • broadened thought and greater psychology adjustment to other experiences in life
  • greater life satisfaction, meaning, and vitality than obsessive counterparts
  • ability to give up the activity with little to no difficulty if negative consequences arise from it

Compared to people with obsessive passion, people with harmonious passion for planting petunias also experience pleasure from it but this has a positive effect on other areas of their lives. They also experience pleasure from other unrelated activities, report greater general life satisfaction than the obsessives, and can give up planting petunias without suffering.

Seems pretty well-rounded and balanced, right? (Someone pointed out to me that this sounds more like “enjoyment” than “passion” as we think of it. Probably so.)

Enjoyment without Obsessive Dependence

Can you see where this is heading? Harmonious passions are things we like, take part in, enjoy, but do not necessarily define who we are. We experience positive emotions from engaging with them and thus report more general life satisfaction (but we are not dependent on them). This makes us better adjusted in other areas of life than someone who is, well, “obsessed”.  When viewed in this manner, it’s easy to see that many of us who can’t identify a “single” passion probably already have harmonious passions, whether they are writing, a sport, being outdoors, spending time with loved ones, eating healthy or caring about a cause. Whether or not anyone really needs a 200 page book or salesman to discover the things they enjoy is somewhat questionable. And if you’re fuzzy on them, a good self-reflective journal exercise would probably help uncover them.

Purpose, Needs and Fulfillment

Yet the passion that’s peddled to us is most often the obsessive type, the “all-consuming, one thing that makes you jump out of bed, that you would give all your time to if you could.”  There’s no doubt that obsessive passion can give someone a very strong sense of purpose: If I’m obsessively passionate about petunia planting, I probably will jump out of bed to tend to my petunias. It’s probably the first thing I think of in the morning. I have a purpose. So passion does seem to give purpose, at least the obsessive type. Purpose is hard to walk away from, so there may not be as much involved for the harmonious type. But, does a sense of purpose from a passionate activity constitute for me a meaningful life? Is there anything else I value?

If the experience of the passionate activity becomes so valuable to us that we put it above all things, then we might be obsessed. And let’s face it, obsession is usually never good. Even if we don’t meet all the “obsessive passion” criteria, we may unwittingly become dependent on a passionate activity to the exclusion of other things we value. For example, if I have a job that gives me pleasure, that fulfills my psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness as stated above, (and perhaps other psychological needs, too) then I probably find my job very rewarding. I might be passionate about it at some level (I desire the pleasurable experience it gives me, I make time for it, and it’s part of my identity).

The potential danger here, and the problem that passion can present, is that I may subconsciously become so invested in the job to meet those needs that I might neglect my spouse, children, health, or other things in life that I value. The other things I value may also be able to meet some psychological needs, too, IF I give them the chance, time, and effort. But this can be easily forgotten when I’m feeling “fulfilled” (in this case from my work) and not feeling “in need”. So, passion can apparently can be very fulfilling, too. But, that may not always be good…

Why Values Need More Attention Than Passion

If it were my last week on earth, would I go to that job? Might I realize that I haphazardly neglected other things that were very important to me? Would I feel like I lived a meaningful life? How would I spend that last week?

Just because my psychological needs were fulfilled by my job doesn’t necessarily mean I was engaged with what I really value. I may have felt like I had purpose (working gave me a comfortable level of psychological fulfillment, so I repeatedly went). Though I did experience purpose, I may not necessarily have been living what I would have considered a meaningful life. (Perhaps time with my spouse, children, helping the poor, writing, and exploring spirituality were things I actually valued more than my  job, but neglected.)

Thus, passion can relate to purpose, but purpose can be tricky. It’s fulfilling. Sometimes that fulfillment may put us to sleep: we’re comfortable and feel pleasurable. We stop looking deeper. We’re not seeking, because we feel purpose. However, a mindful look at values is in order. Living in accordance with our deepest values is something that really gives us meaning, the type that allows us to look back without regret, seize the present, and have enthusiasm for the future.

If I uncover what I really value, spend my time and construct my life in accordance with those values, then I will probably feel a sense of purpose in doing so. I’ll also probably discover some harmonious passions that reflect my values along the way (though I may give them up if they later conflict with them). I’m likely to invest time and effort learning how to get my psychological needs met by being true to my values, rather than unconsciously letting them be met elsewhere. This may not always fill me with passion, and may not always feel pleasurable. I need to stay mindful and aware. Yet my life will likely feel meaningful. And fulfilling, in an awake, vital, and open way.

Passion is Sexier than Values

It’s probably safe to say that “passion” and everything it connotates will continue to sell more books and widgets than “values” or “integrity” ever will, in business, in pleasure, and in the field of personal development. It’s sexy, it invokes more excitement, and it also has strong associations with the word “love” in our psyches. That’s hard to compete with.

The Final Question: What Really Matters

Maybe instead of searching to find what would we do everyday if we could, what would excite us enough to “jump” out of bed, we should be evaluating something different. Maybe the questions we should start with are better directed at unearthing our values first, rather than our passions. What would we do everyday if we had a week or month left to live? What would we think as we look back? How would we spend our time?

Miss Harmonious Petunias may or may not let the petunias go. It seems she also had other things in her life that she valued as well, from which she derived meaning and was able to attend to. Miss Obsessive Petunias, however, may or may not have a different experience. She might go on merrily planting petunias until her final hour, gracious that she’s been afforded another week or month to do so. But if not, if Miss Obsessive Petunias suddenly realizes she did have other values that went neglected, she may end up sorry that she missed the opportunity to honor them.

If you don’t have a single, living and breathing passion, don’t worry about it. Uncover your values. Be true to them. Build a life around them. Examine them and stay mindful of them. Be passionate about that.

Passion, in some of its forms, has lots of pluses, but there can also be a darker, more insidious type, too. And that kind is not necessary in the way we’ve been led to believe it is. You will likely experience pleasure, enjoyment, fulfillment and a meaningful life by discovering and honoring your values, and trying, at least, to err on the side of the harmonious… in all that you do.

Related and of Interest Elsewhere:


Ready to create a life you love?
Join over 50,000 visitors who get FREE tips and tools for living an even more amazing life!
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.