Finding Harmonious Passion in Life

One thing I miss about working with a large team is all the personal development exercises people find. All too often I was pulled into a meeting where we would all list out our “signs of defensiveness”, detail what we’d like to “start, stop or continue” in our work lives, or even analyze our StrengthsFinders results with our peers.

I would dutifully join in, excited for a chance to pause whatever else I was working on. Within an hour I’d have a new understanding of an unexplored part of myself. Usually, it was something small. An observation about how I act in a specific situation. An understanding of how taking a specific action impacts others negatively. Or a reframing of a motivation.

In a way, these exercises feel like the adult version of LiveJournal back in college. “Copy this post and answer each question about yourself”. I’d enjoyed those then too.

The Role of Passion

The idea of passion gets thrown around a lot. The philosopher Plato (429-347 BC), posits that passion entails a loss of reason and control. I can understand that definition. “Crimes of passion” are their own entire category, one whose motivation can infer enough to sentence people to jail.

In Steve Jobs’s viral college commencement speech, he never uses the word passion. His takeaway is to “find what you love”. The focus is on searching and maybe eventually you’ll find it. I guess when you find it you’ll know?

Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, believes “follow your passion” is bad advice. In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, he even goes on to say this about passion:

…the happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.

Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

From a scientific point of view, maybe he’s right. Researchers including Robert J Vallerand have studied the role of passion in sustainable psychological well-being.

Passion is defined as a strong inclination toward a self-defining activity that people like (or even love), find important, and in which they invest time and energy on a regular basis. The model proposes the existence of two types of passion: harmonious and obsessive. Harmonious passion originates from an autonomous internalization of the activity into one’s identity while obsessive passion emanates from a controlled internalization and comes to control the person.

From the abstract of The role of passion in sustainable psychological well-being, by Robert J Vallerand

I’m fascinated by this description of passion. “Self-defining activities that people love, find important and invest time in” is exactly what I had in mind when I choose Passion as my theme for March 2023.

The concept of “harmonious passion” and “obsessive passion” isn’t one I’d previously thought of, but the concept resonates with me. I have a tendency to get obsessed with things. Specifically, projects I’ve decided to spend time on. When I’m excited about something I’ll let it completely overtake my life. Obsession wears me out, I tire, and eventually, move on.

The entire paper by Vallerand is filled with insightful quotes about passion. Here are a few of my favorites:

Thus, there should be little or no conflict between the person’s passionate activity and his/her other life activities

The role of passion in sustainable psychological well-being, by Robert J Vallerand

Obsessive passion impacts other parts of your life. Harmonious passion fits into your life like a missing Tetris block.

This takeaway from the study stood out to me:

Because so much is riding on doing well for obsessively passionate individuals (e.g., maintaining their identity and their sense of self-esteem), failure may have a more devastating psychological impact on their well-being than for those who are harmoniously-passionate and who have a secure sense of self allowing them to face the negative information head on, in a mindful and non-defensive manner. Thus, whereas harmonious passion protects people’s well-being in failure situations, such should not be the case for obsessive passion.

The role of passion in sustainable psychological well-being, by Robert J Vallerand

The results showed that being harmoniously passionate for a given activity leads to higher levels of psychological well-being on both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being relative to being obsessively passionate and non-passionate.

The role of passion in sustainable psychological well-being, by Robert J Vallerand

For all of my life up until reading this study, I’d grouped both types of passion together as healthy. Sure, I’d obsess sometimes, but I was productive in whatever I was obsessed with.

This helped me to refine my goal for this month: find harmonious passion.

The Role of Obsession

When I’m obsessed with something, I can realize the moment my obsession begins to decline. During the lockdown, I played a tremendous amount of Stardew Valley – you could even say an obsessive amount. I had (have) a cellar of kegs making aged starfruit wine. I had 3 barns and 3 coops keeping a consistent flow of cheese and mayonnaise. I even had obelisks to teleport me around and save time.

I can remember the specific moment while playing when I didn’t feel the need to play anymore. It was still a fun game, but I felt my obsession wane. It felt like I was on a roller coaster that was starting to slow down.

Soon after I stopped playing near as much. I still have a coop farm with my wife, niece, and nephew, but that’s been less obsessive and more fun.

While I enjoyed playing Stardew throughout those obsessive days, it was at the cost of a balanced life. Little chores around the house were delayed, I spent less time with friends, and I worked less on projects I enjoyed. It was fun – don’t get me wrong – but not without its impact on my life.

Lately, I’ve been playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the first time. My relationship with the game is completely different. I pick it up and play it when I have some downtime, but I don’t feel the need to spend every available free moment playing.

I’ve been obsessed with many other things over the years. Personal coding projects, personal fitness/body, FIRE, and finances – just to name a few. With each of these, I can look back at my passion for them and realize it was an obsessive passion. Likewise, I can remember a time when each obsession began to shrink.

I experience these two types of passion differently within my own body. Obsessive passion I feel in my throat. Constricting slightly, adding pressure on my chest and reminding me it’s there.

Harmonious passion I feel in my stomach. It feels like butterflies. I’m excited and euphoric to spend more time with my passion.

I don’t have many obsessive passions right now – or at least ones I’m conscious of. My work on Hardcover can very easily sway towards obsessive when I don’t set clear boundaries.

33 Things That Bringing Me Harmonious Passion

Everything that brings harmonious passion can also bring obsessive passion if you let it. This list includes what I have a strong inclination toward and that I love. In some cases, I invest a great deal of time in them. For others, I can invest more time into it.

In all cases, the goal is passions that I enjoy the process, not because of what I get out of them.

I started by writing down as many as I could. Once I was done

I’m Passionate About Learning

  1. Learning new programming concepts that I can put into practice immediately
  2. Making elaborate dinners at home for my wife and me
  3. Exploring the natural world
  4. Experiencing new cultures
  5. Eating and drinking things I’ve never tried
  6. Having new experiences
  7. Learning about advancements in technology
  8. Looking at and creating data visualizations
  9. Thinking independently and coming to my own conclusions (which are then strong opinions, weakly held)

I’m Passionate About Personal Health

  1. Self-improvement
  2. Building a life I want to live in
  3. Challenging myself with exciting, fun thingsIdentifying and working toward goals
  4. Identifying and working toward goals
  5. Performing experiments and seeing results

I’m Passionate About Deep Relationships

  1. Growing closer and more in love with my wife
  2. Having heart-of-heart conversations with friends
  3. Having adventures with my wife
  4. Playing board games with my friends
  5. Being vulnerable and sharing my own mistakes

I’m Passionate About Stories

  1. Discussing stories with other humans
  2. Experiencing stories in any form (movies, TV, books, games, podcasts)
  3. Sharing what I’ve learned to help others learn and grow
  4. Sharing my journey and life through this blog

I’m Passionate About Building Things Online

  1. Building things people enjoy using
  2. Ruby (the programming language)
  3. Seeing progress in projects I take on
  4. Side projects
  5. Being able to take an idea and execute it solo

I’m Passionate About Harmony

  1. Creating a beautiful living space to enjoy
  2. Waking up naturally
  3. Creating a harmonious living space that inspires action
  4. Decluttering (physical spaces, digital spaces, my mind)
  5. Supporting politicians (and people) who value equality
  6. Using a todo list to offload mental clutter
  7. Treating people fairly

Brainstorming this list was a learning experience. Whether an activity or a mindset, thinking about each of these does give me butterflies in my stomach.

Now that I have this list I’m not sure how I’ll use it. I think I’ll start by reviewing it on Sundays when I do my weekly task planning. That’s a time when I mindfully set intentions for the week. The old me might have attempted to maximize my “harmony”. Try to see how many of these I can cram into a week.

Now I’d rather use this as one more input to living a happier, healthier life.

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I'm , a full-stack product developer in Salt Lake City, UT. I love enlivening experiences, visualizing data, and making playful websites.

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