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Could Loving What You Do Be A Problem?

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Interview with Professor Robert Vallerand

Do you love your work? Do you believe that what you do each day is making a positive difference? Does it give you a sense of identity and a feeling of purpose in the world?

I consider myself fortunate to be able to answer each of these questions with a resounding "Yes!" After all a meta-analysis of almost one hundred different studies of working adults in almost every conceivable profession finding that when our interests match our jobs we are generally more satisfied and happier with our lives.

And yet we know many people struggle to find any real engagement in their work.

But I've also noticed lately that the more passionate I've become about my work, the harder I've found it to switch off. I'm working longer and longer hours because I feel so engaged and committed to how I want to help others. When I run, I've started listening to audio books and podcasts to keep up with the latest research. And even my mindfulness and meditation practices have become a positive psychology experiment.

I have to confess I've started to wonder if loving what you do at work actually become a problem?

"Our passions can be either harmonious or obsessive," explained Professor Robert Vallerand from the University of Quebec when I interviewed him recently. "A passion is harmonious when you feel in control of what you love doing. But when your passion starts taking control of you and making it difficult to engage in other things or with other people, these are the signs that it's become obsessive."

"Our latest studies suggest that passions often become obsessive when they light up your life," explains Robert. "Engaging in your passion can make you feel so competent, good and alive that it becomes a way to compensate for what's missing in the rest of your life. The problem is that when your self-esteem and sense of self-worth start to become contingent upon engaging and doing well in this activity then disengaging gets harder and harder."

As a result Robert's research is finding that obsessive passion can damage your relationships, undermine your wellbeing and eventually lead to burn out. In contrast, when your passions remain harmonious you continue to be fully engaged in the activities you love, but your ability to put it aside and also be present in other parts of your life seems to help you experience higher levels of physical health, psychological wellbeing, self-esteem, positive emotions, creativity, concentration and work satisfaction.

While it can be tempting to believe that encouraging or allowing passions to become obsessive in workplaces may cause people to work more unpaid hours and be more committed to their careers, their teams and their organization, this appears to deliver only a short-term payoff. Instead Robert suggests that the findings are very clear when it comes to the long-term benefits of encouraging and allowing employees to put their work aside when they go home so they can come back feeling more refreshed, alive, creative and harmonious the next morning.

So when it comes to your work how can you make your passion more harmonious?
Here are three approaches Robert recommends:

  • Rebalance your life -- Short bursts of obsessive passion to meet a deadline or prepare for a special event rarely do any lasting harm, but when the milestone has been reached it's important to rebalance your life and put your passion back into perspective. Remind yourself of the other things you love. Go back to your normal schedule. Revert back to who you really are when life is harmonious.
  • Cultivate passions outside of work -- When people have more than one passion in their life studies find they are much better off. Each additional passion you cultivate outside of work gives you an opportunity to value the strengths you have beyond your job and lowers your chance of burnout. Think about what else interests you? What would you like to pursue purely for the joy of the activity? What lights you up outside of work? This is an approach every workplace should encourage for their staff.
  • Be passionately mindful -- Studies are finding that even activities found to be good for us like practicing yoga, will only deliver positive benefits if you have a harmonious passion for them. Intuitively you know when a passion is becoming obsessive so be mindful of the impact your passion is having on your wellbeing and performance and adjust your commitments accordingly. Listen to what your internal self is saying. Are you in control of your passion, or has it take control of you?

How are you maintaining a harmonious passion for your work?

To hear Robert speaking about his research be sure to check out his Mind & It's Potential talk here or grab a copy of his book The Psychology of Passion.

This interview was produced in partnership with the Canadian Positive Psychology Association and the 3rd Canadian Conference on Positive Psychology. For more information please visit

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