The phenomenally successful are fond of telling us about their passion for their professions.
Consider Steve Jobs: “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle.” Or Oprah Winfrey: “If you really want to fly, harness your power to your passion. Honour your calling. Everybody has one.” Or Donald Trump: “Without passion, you don’t have energy. Without energy, you have nothing.”
If they are to be believed, passion isn’t only essential for success. It’s essential for happiness.
It is only relatively recently, however, that psychologists have started to test these assumptions.
“Having passion for one’s work is an experience with so much media hype around it,” says Patricia Chen at the National University of Singapore. “Yet we hardly have satisfying answers to the questions: ‘What do I have to do to find my passion? How do I become more passionate about my work? And what does experiencing passion even mean?’”
If the advice from business tycoons and celebrities is to be believed, passion is not only essential for success – but happiness, too. (Credit: Getty Images)
Chen is one of a handful of researchers who are trying to provide those answers, and their findings should give pause for thought for anyone who is searching for their vocation in life.
The power of passion
Like any emotion, passion can be hard to capture scientifically, though psychologists such as Chen have now devised tools that can roughly measure the experience.
Chen’s Work Passion Scale asks participants to consider 10 questions to explore the extent of someone’s deep interest and enthusiasm for their work.
For example, on a scale of one (not at all) to five (extremely/a lot):
- How often would you say that you wake up in the morning looking forward to working?
- How central is your work to who you are?
- How much time do you spend thinking about your work because you enjoy it, not because you have to?
Such questions were carefully chosen to differentiate passion from other experiences, such as more general “job satisfaction” – which may involve the feeling of being appreciated for the work you do. Or, it may involve the enjoyment of the organisational environment, without necessarily encompassing a strong identification with the job itself – or the motivation and engagement that comes with passion.
As you might expect, people who score more highly on this scale tend to be more committed to their jobs. They are less likely to consider other lines of employment, for example, preferring to stick with their current profession. But Chen’s research also examined many other less obvious consequences, including some potential downsides of passion. You might, after all, suspect that the emotional investment that comes with passion would be draining or come at the expense of family life.
More passionate employees were less likely to suffer from burnout and reported fewer problems with their physical health
That’s not what Chen found from her scale, however. Over the course of eight months, more passionate employees were less likely to suffer from burnout and reported fewer problems with their physical health. Work passion also seemed to reduce conflict at home: they were less likely to argue with their families over the time they spent at work, for instance – perhaps because they were happier and less stressed in general.
“It could certainly be true that some obsessively passionate individuals would experience greater work-home conflict,” says Chen. “However, when employees are passionate about their work in an adaptive manner, they tend to experience more positive emotions and fulfilment when working, which buffer them from many of the stressors and strain that they might otherwise bring home.”
To find it or cultivate it?
The million-dollar question, of course, is how we should ignite that passion in the first place.
While some people have a clear “calling” from a young age, many leave education without knowing their vocation in life, and may spend their whole careers without having ever discovered a career that truly enthuses them. What can they do?
Employees passionate about their work experienced reduced conflict with their families at home, according to Patricia Chen’s study (Credit: Getty Images)
Some answers come from the work of Paul O’Keefe at the Yale-NUS College in Singapore. In his view, the most basic foundation of passion is an intense interest in what we’re doing. And while that may depend on the type of work at hand, O’Keefe has found that there are some intriguing differences between people and their capacity to develop a deep engagement with what they are doing.
These experiments are inspired by American psychologist Carol Dweck’s pioneering research on “mindset”. Through decades of experiments, Dweck demonstrated that some people tend to see their abilities as “fixed” – you either have an inherent talent for something or you don’t. Meanwhile, others have a “growth mindset”: they believe that your abilities can change over time. (Of course, some people might not have extreme views either way, and your answers might change with context – whether faced with maths, say, rather than music.) Importantly, these mindsets then determine how we face challenges: whether we give up when something is difficult, or if we persevere in the knowledge that we will improve over time.
While mindset theory originally concerned views on academic ability and intelligence, O’Keefe and Dweck have now found similar patterns in our beliefs about our capacity to cultivate new interests, too.
In this case, people with the fixed mindset would agree with statements such as: “Your core interests will remain your core interests; they won’t really change”. Those with the growth mindset instead endorse statements like: “No matter how central your interests are to you, they can substantially change.”
People with the ‘growth mindset’ maintain their interest in difficult topics, wanting to know more despite the difficulties of grasping the technical material
Crucially, the team found that these mindsets determine the way that people respond to material outside their normal field of interest. Consider arts students looking at a piece about science, or “techy” students reading an article on literary criticism. Even if they had very little initial curiosity about the subject, the students with the growth mindset changed their ratings after actually reading the piece: they had allowed themselves to become intrigued. The people with the fixed mindset saw no such improvement.
The mindset also determined how long people’s interest lingered and whether they were prepared to grapple with more difficult content. In one experiment, the participants were first shown an attention-grabbing video about black holes – sparking an initial (if superficial) interest in theoretical physics. Then came the tough part: they had to read a challenging academic paper on the subject. The people with the growth mindset maintained their interest: they wanted to know more despite the difficulties of grasping the technical material. The flame of interest quickly burnt out in those with the fixed mindset, however. “Within the span of seven minutes they went from saying, ‘this is fascinating’ to saying, ‘hell no, I'm done’,” says O’Keefe.
Thankfully, our mindsets are malleable – simply reading an article about our capacity to grow new passions can change those implicit beliefs, so that our minds are more open to venturing into previously unexplored territories. O’Keefe is currently examining the real-world consequences of this. He gave arts students a short online course on the growth mindset during their first few weeks at university, and then saw how it influenced their enjoyment of compulsory STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) courses later in the year. Although he hasn’t yet published the research, the early analyses suggest the intervention had the desired effects on students’ enjoyment and their performance.
People with a “growth mindset” believe your abilities can change over time, a perspective that helps dictate how they approach challenges (Credit: Getty Images)
The long-term effects could be profound. Over the course of your life, a fixed mindset might lead you to continue searching for the “perfect” job that immediately lights and maintains your interest, while you neglect all the other possibilities potentially in front of you if only you put the work in to cultivate those passions. By leading us to focus on narrow interests, the fixed mindset might also prevent us from seeing connections between disciplines – so that you lack the cross-pollination that leads to greater creativity.
Nurture that seed
O’Keefe’s results broadly align with some of Chen’s own research on “implicit theories” of passion. She found that the majority of people are “fit theorists” – like the people with the fixed mindset, they think that passion comes from finding the right career and the right workplace; only around 30% are “develop theorists”, who think that passion grows over time.
Chen points out that both can lead to professional fulfilment – a “fit theorist” might find their right job straightaway. But if you keep moving from workplace to workplace without much passion, it could be worth considering whether your mindset is preventing you from cultivating the interest and enthusiasm that could make your job so much more rewarding. Focusing on your work’s value to society, following inspiring mentors and making a special effort to develop your own expertise are all ways that might help to make work feel more meaningful, igniting a sense of passion, she says.
Given these findings, O’Keefe thinks we should move beyond the idea of “finding your passion” – as if there is one secret, perfect job you just need to discover, and that you would know that immediately. “Almost every commencement speech says, ‘find your passion’ or ‘do what you love’,” he says. “But the audience might not understand that if you don't like something at first, it can take time for these things to develop… It's not really this thing that just magically happens.”
With the right mindset, however, a small seed of interest could one day grow into the kind of passion that energises the whole of your life.