Where is the Line Between Passion and Pathology?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Today, people tend to view passion as a positive thing. “Follow your passion!” many motivational slogans declare; “Do it with passion or not at all.”  But while it can fuel motivation, facilitate success, and imbue a variety of pursuits with a gratifying emotional intensity (or engagement), passion can also give rise to obsession, pathology, and harm (to self and to others).

In fact, the etymology of the word passion reveals that it originally denoted suffering – especially that of martyrs (think: the passion of Christ). And we need only call to mind crimes of passion to remember the intense sentiments other negative connotations.

Defining Passion

According to the late American philosopher Robert C. Solomon, passion comes in three “species”:

  • Emotions
  • Moods
  • Desires

Emotions, Solomon argues, inject feeling into life’s inherent boredom; moods dictate how we “find” ourselves in the world; and desire transforms things and concepts outside of ourselves into tools, objectives, opportunities, or setbacks. All “bestow meaning to the circumstances of our lives.”

Psychologist Robert J. Vallerand concurs with Solomon’s understanding of passion as a vehicle of meaning in life. However, in a 2003 study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he distinguishes the passion which can “fuel motivation, enhance well-being, and provide meaning in everyday life” from the passion that “can arouse negative emotions, lead to inflexible persistence, and interfere with achieving a balanced, successful life.”

The former, he calls “harmonious passion; the latter, he dubs “obsessive passion” – which, upon close examination, looks eerily similar to addiction, arguably rendering it passion’s pathological iteration.

Testing Harmonious and Obsessive Passion

Defining “passion” as “a strong inclination toward an activity that people like, that they find important, and in which they invest time and energy,” Vallerand and colleagues conducted four studies to test how harmonious and obsessive passion differentially affected various individuals’ lives.

The researchers administered a questionnaire measuring harmonious and obsessive passion (the Passion Scale) as well as questionnaires measuring wellbeing, motivation, and pathological behavior patterns to hundreds of different people, including college students, football players, and regular gamblers.

Time and again they found that respondents whose passion checked out (per the passion scale) as more obsessive than harmonious tended to also display higher rates of pathology…-Katherine Schreiber

Time and again they found that respondents whose passion checked out (per the passion scale) as more obsessive than harmonious tended to also display higher rates of pathology – especially when it came to the gambling cohort: Those who scored highest on the obsessive passion spectrum were most likely to qualify as problem gamblers.

Higher scores of obsessive passion also correlated with decreased well being – both during, after, and when prevented from engaging in the activity to which a respondent expressed feeling passionately devoted.

What causes a passion to remain harmonious or deviate into (or, for that matter, breed) obsession? Vallerand and colleagues point to the way in which an activity or behavior is integrated into the identity (or self-concept) of the individual regularly carrying out that activity or behavior:

“Obsessive passion … results from a controlled internalization of the activity into one’s identity. Such an internalization originates from intrapersonal and/or interpersonal pressure either because certain contingencies are attached to the activity such as feelings of social acceptance or self-esteem, or because the sense of excitement derived from activity engagement becomes uncontrollable.”

By contrast, they posit that:

“Harmonious passion (HP) results from an autonomous internalization of the activity into the person’s identity….[which] occurs when individuals have freely accepted the activity as important for them without any contingencies attached to it… Individuals are not compelled to do the activity but rather they freely choose to do so. With this type of passion, the activity occupies a significant but not overpowering space in the person’s identity and is in harmony with other aspects of the person’s life.”


Depending upon how a passion was adopted as well as upon how the activity it fuels is felt, viewed, and repeatedly approached (i.e., rigidly or flexibly) determines whether it smacks of health or of pathology. A huge red flag indicating pathology is at play is when a person does not feel enlivened by their coveted activity but, rather, they feel constrained, “hooked,” and increasingly unwell as a result of engaging in it on a frequent basis.

The Blurry Line

The line between passion and pathology is very blurry when it comes to behaviors – especially those that can and do have positive outcomes (i.e., exercise).

…if a pursuit repeatedly introduces more difficulty, rigidity, isolation, unhappiness and suffering into a person’s life than it alleviates, it has traversed into the territory of pathology.-Katherine Schreiber

Even when it comes to substances there can be some confusion. For instance, when is a wine or liquor enthusiasts’ enthusiasm for his/her substance of choice doing more harm than good to his health, his relationships, and his professional prospects? What about a healthy or “clean” eating proponent who declines social events that involve food she does not feel comfortable ingesting?

This determination will vary on an individual basis. But if a pursuit repeatedly introduces more difficulty, rigidity, isolation, unhappiness and suffering into a person’s life than it alleviates, it has traversed into the territory of pathology. At this point, professional help and/or other external sources of support may be required to recalibrate that passion (or properly channel it) so that it becomes a (more) flexible source of joy, purpose, and improved wellbeing – as opposed to a source of entrapment, constraint, rigidity, and suffering.

Images Courtesy of iStock

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