Research shows that doing what you love drives happiness and meaning.
As children, we are told to live our dreams and follow our passions, but as we age, it gets harder to integrate our passions into our busy lives. We get caught up in “adulting,” and engaging in a passion can seem self-indulgent or a waste of precious time from making a living, raising a family or otherwise being successful. But, recent research shows that having a passion is highly beneficial and can improve performance, enhance relationships and support physical and psychological well-being. And not having a passion can lead to a decrease in psychological well-being over time. In short, there are numerous reasons why we want to be passionate, we just need to give ourselves permission to do so.
The Definition of Passion
Robert Vallerand, Ph.D., is at the forefront of research on passion. In his book The Psychology of Passion he defines the emotion as a “strong inclination for an activity (or object, person or belief) that we love, value, invest time and energy in, and is part of our identity.” Our passions are our “ers”—as in writer, painter, horseback rider. Our “ers” become a part of who we are.
What the Research Says About Passion
Robert and his colleagues found a strong relationship between having a passion and positive emotions, concentration, flow (Vallerand et al, 2003) and enhanced psychological well-being (Rousseau & Vallerand, 2008). Engaging in your passion has direct health benefits up to three weeks after engaging in the activity. Our energy levels are high when we engage in a passion, and we experience relaxation afterward, which improves functioning. This is why having a passion promotes performance in many areas of life.
Having a passion can also promote positive relationships, even those that take place outside of the passionate activity (Philippe et al., 2010). A 15-year longitudinal study among hockey players shows how passion supports athletic performance. Compared to regular “practice,” being passionate about the activity has the added benefit of making us happy. Having a passion is also helpful when we go through life transitions, such as retiring. Rather than losing a work identity, we can use passions to engage in and nourish.
Giving Ourselves Permission for Passion
Sometimes we get so caught up in our lives that we forget what we are passionate about. I’ve found that when people learn about the well-being benefits, it gives them permission to rediscover their passions. I have experienced this myself.
I was a passionate artist as a child; it was a part of my identity and self-expression. When I graduated from high school, I remember looking at the professional artists in New York and I wasn’t able to see myself sustaining my passion for drawing and painting the way they did. I decided to major in psychology and minor in fine art, business and philosophy and vowed that art would always be a part of my life. I would never let myself get too busy to create art.
Fast forward from graduation, and 10 years passed since I had picked up a paintbrush! Robert’s research touched me, yet re-engaging my inner artist felt scary. I spent years building my skill and craft. What would happen when I touched my brush to canvas? I studied perspective, colors and techniques for blending and laying down paint. What if I tried and it was all lost?
Robert’s research got me painting again. While I don’t yet consider myself a passionate painter who devotes many hours a week to art, I do consider myself a creator. Creating is my passion. I create experiences for people as a speaker and a teacher. My programs, slides and materials used to be my main works of art. Taking the time to doodle, sketch, paint or color felt like wasted time. Now I see how it fuels my success and well-being.
Sometimes engaging in passions requires remembering what you loved as a child. Other times, it requires a research study. Do you need permission to find your passion? What will be your first step? _______________________________________________________________