What is a passion, exactly?
Psychologist and researcher Robert Vallerand has made it his life’s work to study the psychology of passion.
After decades of research and work studying thousands of people who had “found their passion,” Vallerand came to the following conclusion:
Passion is a strong inclination toward an activity that has these three qualities:
- It’s something we enjoy.
- It’s something we value.
- It’s something we can dedicate ourselves to.
In addition to these three points, he also suggests two more important ideas about passion:
- Passion is almost always tied to identity.
- The most passionate people are intrinsically motivated toward their passions
Based on a close reading of this research, plus my own work with clients struggling to find a sense of purpose or passion in their life, I’ve come up with a handful of questions anyone can ask to help clarify which types of activities are likely to have a high passion potential.
QUESTION #1: Does this activity have a high potential for positive reinforcement?
Vallerand’s research on passion suggests that the first important criterion for what type of activity counts as a passion is one that we enjoy.
Seems obvious, right?
I think we can elaborate a little more helpfully on this, though, by thinking of enjoyment in terms of positive reinforcement.
Things we enjoy tend to be things we get positively reinforced for doing. We enjoy eating ice-cream because that frozen yet smooth combination of sugar and fat makes our brain’s pleasure center light up like a Christmas tree.
While pleasure is one form of positive reinforcement, there’s a lot more to positive reinforcement than mere pleasure.
Let’s stick with the ice-cream example. While the momentary pleasure of ice-cream is positively reinforcing, eating ice-cream doesn’t actually have a very high positive reinforcement potential because the first bite, while delicious, is as good as it’s gonna get.
By the time we hit the bottom of the Ben & Jerry’s pint, we’re shoveling down the last spoon fulls simply because we don’t want to be the one who leaves the pint of ice-cream in the freezer with 2 spoonfuls left, not because we’re getting any more enjoyment or pleasure from it.
Another way of putting this phenomenon is that eating ice-cream has a lowsatiety threshold, meaning we quickly become satiated and stop getting much enjoyment out of it.
On the other hand, making ice-cream might have more potential as a high passion potential activity because of its high satiety threshold:
- As long as we succeed in producing some ice-cream, we still end up getting to eat ice-cream. So we’re already not doing any worse.
- But in addition to the pleasure we get from the ice-cream itself, we also get the satisfaction that comes from making something ourselves (what psychologists call a sense of mastery or self-efficacy, which is very positively reinforcing).
- Next, if we’re at all concerned about our health, we’ll probably end up sharing some of our delicious homemade ice-cream for others to enjoy. And this sharing then leads to more positive reinforcement because we’ve both done something nice and — if the ice-cream’s any good — we’ll probably get some praise and positive feedback from the people we shared with.
- Finally, once we start making ice-cream more regularly, we’ll be on the lookout for new flavors and recipes to try, and we could easily end up joining a Facebook group or Pinterest board or some other association with other ice-cream makers (intellectual stimulation and social connection are both very positively reinforcing).
Making ice-cream has a much higher positive reinforcement potential than simply eating ice-cream because it contains many possible sources and types of positive reinforcement. It also tends to generate new ideas and activities the more you put into it, which leads to a virtuous circle of ever-increasing positive reinforcement.
So when you’re considering the passion-potential of a given activity, ask yourself:
What’s the positive reinforcement potential of this activity?
QUESTION #2: Does this activity help me clarify and elaborate on my values?
Vallerand’s second characteristic of passionate activity is that it is personally important to the person engaging in it. To me, this means thinking about activities in terms of how they relate to our values.
If we’re looking for an activity with high passion potential, we obviously don’t want to pick something that directly conflicts with our values. If you’re passionate about animal rights, big game hunting’s probably not a great choice.
But the more important idea here is that — in addition to avoiding value-conflicting activities — we also want to look for activities that support our values and, ideally, help us clarify or elaborate on them.
Suppose environmentalism and the appreciation of nature and the outdoors are very close to your heart, and you enjoy hiking and volunteering for local state parks from time to time. Instead of simply hiking as a side project, what if you started an email newsletter and small website where you shared interesting local hikes and outdoor volunteer activities?
Not only would you be engaging in an activity that supports and doesn’t conflict with your values, but the process of researching and sharing experiences and ideas related to hiking and environmentalism might help you learn more about them by coming in contact with other people’s approaches, philosophies, methods, etc.
But what if I don’t have something I really care about, like environmentalism…?
If you’re finding it hard to come up with a value that you really care about, ask yourself:
- What do I get really fired up about?
- What topics or ideas tend to get me really frustrated or even angry?
If you can’t come up with something yourself, ask a friend or family member who knows you well about those two questions as they pertain to you.
QUESTION #3: Is this activity logistically feasible?
Vallerand’s third mark of passionate activity is that it’s one we can invest significant amounts of time and energy into.
This step is pretty pragmatic and straightforward. When considering activities that may have a high passion potential, make sure that you have the required time, energy, and finances to pursue it given your current situation or stage of life.
We often get so excited about an idea that we jump right into it, only to realize it’s untenable in our current circumstances.
For example: If you’re a poor graduate student with lots of debt, little income, and a dissertation to finish up in the next year, you probably want to choose something that’s more modest or minimal in terms of time commitment, energy, and money.
Let’s say this hypothetical graduate student always wanted to fly planes.
Taking up aviation lessons may be a little unrealistic given their lack of funds and the time/energy constraints of grad school. But they could volunteer at the local aeronautics museum twice a month and give tours; or start a model airplane building meet-up in their city; or create a shared Pinterest board that collects and posts vintage photos of World War II fighter planes…
To sum up: Make sure that the activity is doable logistically given the constraints of your current situation.
QUESTION #4: Can this activity be broken down into consistent routines?
My advice in questions 1–3 were based on Vallerand’s 3 characteristics of a passionate activity: enjoyment, values, and dedication.
Question 4 is related to Vallerand’s suggestion that passion tends to be tied to our identity. Obviously, Question 2 is an important part of this — choosing an activity that aligns with and helps us elaborate on our values is important because values are a key component of identity.
But in addition to values, an overlooked part of identity is routines. What we do on a regular basis plays an important role in our self-concept and how we think about ourselves.
Consider two people:
- Tom is obsessed with the idea of being a runner: He reads running magazines, has the newest and most stylish running gear, and talks about running with almost everyone he meets. He runs every once in a while at the gym, but usually for about 15 minutes before he decides to get in a conversation with someone about running.
- Annette is a 52-year-old middle school science teacher. Every morning before work, she slips on her running shoes and goes for a 5 mile run in the trails behind her home. She rarely talks about it. But she’s been running nearly every morning for 25 years.
Which person would you call a runner?
While values are an important component of identity, consistent behavior or routines is equally if not more important.
The implication for finding a passion is to look for an activity that can relatively easily be turned into a routine — something you can do on a consistent basis.
If it can, it will be much more likely to become a part of your identity.
Suppose you’re interested in and care a lot about travel and learning about new places, people, and cultures. Travel is tough for most of us to just do, even on a semi-regular basis. For a lot of reasons, most of us can’t jump on a jet and see a new state or country every couple weeks.
Then again, that’s only true if you confine the idea of travel to interstate or international travel. What if you thought about travel as a local, even hyper-local, activity?
What if every week, you choose a specific neighborhood in your city and went for a walk there, followed by dinner in a restaurant you’ve never been to? Then, when you got home, you wrote a short blog post about your “Local Travel Adventures.”
The point is: When considering activities that you can truly become passionate about, try to think creatively about them in terms of routines, small behaviors you can do on a regular basis. This will mean there’s a higher likelihood of the activity becoming a part of your identity and therefore something you consistently feel passionately about.
QUESTION #5: Is this activity intrinsically motivating?
Vallerand’s research shows that, overall, while passionate activities can be done both for their own sake and for some external reason, it’s the former than tend to lead to the best outcomes.
An intrinsically motivating activity is one that we enjoy for its own sake:
- Emily doesn’t build ships in a bottle so she can win Ship in a Bottle Person of the Year; she builds ships in a bottle because she enjoys building intricate structures inside of bottles.
An extrinsically motivating activity, on the other hand, is one we do because it gets us something else:
- Sally sells insurance because it leads to a paycheck which means she can provide for her family, not because she especially enjoys it.
When it comes to finding a passion, look for an activity that’s primarily intrinsically motivating — something you enjoy for its own sake. If it happens to be extrinsically motivating as well, great!
A good test for this is to imagine yourself several months into an activity that you think really has some passion potential. Then imagine that all of a sudden all of the extrinsically motivating benefits disappear and you’re only left with the activity itself and whatever satisfaction you got from it.
Would you keep doing it?
BONUS QUESTION #6: Is This Activity Something I Can Achieve Mastery In?
In his excellent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport makes the case that trying to find or discover your passion is basically a waste of time since most of us aren’t born with a passion to be discovered.
Instead, he argues, we should attempt to build a passion by finding activities that we can achieve high levels of skill, competency, and expertise in.
In other words, he argues that Passion is the result of Mastery.
Of course, in some ways that just begs the question: How do I know which activities are worthwhile to pursue mastery of?
Well, that’s where I’d send you back to Questions 1–5.
Whether or not you can find a passion or have to build it, obviously the process involves both understanding your own innate inclinations and preferences (questions 1–5) as well working to cultivate and develop a passion that sits on top of those natural preferences.
I think it’s the dialectic between discovery and cultivation that gives us the best odds of actually finding a passion.