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Mind the Myths: Why "Follow Your Passion" is Terrible Advice

Mind the Myths: Why "Follow Your Passion" is Terrible Advice

We have this quote up on the wall in our Chicago office. I despise it. I understand why it’s there: it’s aspirational, it’s motivating, and it’s a great, easy soundbite. What it is not, however, is accurate or helpful.  I’m also pretty sure that it is not a direct quotation from Confucius, considering that he lived in a time that wasn’t particularly known for its thriving, flexible job market. 

Happiness Myths 101 

This ‘quote’ is a great example of what I like to call happiness myths – a misleading belief that is passed down and repeated so often that we simply come to believe it over time. Generally, these myths seem intuitive and are enticing, leading us to want to believe in their veracity. Who wouldn’t want to never again have to slog through a day of painful work?

Happiness is a highly valued outcome in nearly every culture, but it is practically impossible to wrap our arms around its scope, complexity, individualization, cultural nuances, and not least of all, personal manifestation. Because it is so complicated, it is very easy to latch onto myths that sound good and feel nice, a tendency that is helped along by the many cognitive biases that operate behind the scenes of our brain. For example: 

Myth: I know what will make me happy. 
Reality: Research has found that we are not actually good at predicting what will make us happy. This tendency is called the impact bias, where we overestimate the enduring impact that events in the future will have upon our emotions. 

Happiness myths are dangerous because they directly inform the choices that we make in our lives and the way that we think about those choices, both of which are critically important to our well-being. 

Deconstructing the “Follow Your Passion” Happiness Myth

Most People Don’t Have a Passion to Pursue


Research tells us that the common assumption that we all have a singular, encompassing, motivating passion inside of us, just waiting to be awakened or stumbled upon, might not actually be true. One study surveyed over 500 students about their passions. The researchers found that while 84% of people identified a passion in their lives; however, the vast majority – 96 percent – of those passions were for hobbies like dance, hockey and reading. Just 4% of the identified passions were related to employment or school. It is not realistic in most cases to encourage individuals to follow these hobby passions into careers; just 0.02% of hockey players make it into a viable career. Another study from Stanford found that just one in five young people between twelve and twenty-six have a clear vision for their lives and what they want to accomplish.

Most people do not have an overarching passion that guides their career. Therefore, telling them to ‘follow your passion’ is somewhat cruel. They have no idea where to begin.

Advice to "follow your passion" ignores the majority of the population who do not have 1) a sense of their passion and/or b) a passion that can be career-oriented.

 Following Your Passion Doesn’t Guarantee Happiness

Robert Vallerand is a psychologist who has made the study of passion his life's work. Along with his colleagues, he has distinguished between two types of passion: harmonious and obsessive

Harmonious passion is defined by engaging in activities that are freely chosen without constraints, and considered to be important and incorporated in an individual’s identity. Obsessive passion is defined by an uncontrollable urge to engage in the activity. 

Harmonious passion is good for us, both from a well-being and a performance perspective. It inspires positive emotions and correlated with states of flow, which is that state of being where you are so involved in your activity that you are completely engaged in the present moment. This is often colloquially described as "being in the zone".

Obsessive passion is not good for us. It is associated with negative emotional states and a negative view of themselves, and it often creates conflict in other areas of our lives. It has been found to increase the risk of burnout. 

For most of history, this dichotomy wasn't a problem: we were generally born into our occupation, learned our craft from our parents or had work foisted upon us by our economic circumstances. Passion wasn't even a part of the equation. However, these days there is an increasing focus upon encouraging people to find and pursue their passion, a zeitgeist that is certainly well-meaning but with detrimental consequences.

We have already discussed the challenges of ‘finding' one's passion. The determination to ‘pursue’ one’s passion, though, can ultimately transform one’s harmonious passion into an obsessive passion, leading to an increase in negative emotions and a perception that one’s self is less than desirable.

Even if you have a passion, and you are able to pursue it in your career, you still might end up deeply unhappy and unfulfilled.

Work Doesn't Equate to Unhappiness 

Here is a myth-within-a-myth to wrangle with. If I were to ask you where you were happiest, at work or outside of it, what would you say? 

Most people would quickly say that they are of course happiest during their free time. Research has found that this is actually incorrect. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did a study where he pinged participants at random times throughout the day, asking them to record what they were doing and their emotional state at that moment. In analyzing this data, he found something rather surprising: people were happier at work than they were in their free time. 

Why on earth could this be? Csikszentmihalyi argues that it is because work provides an environment that is conducive to flow. Paradoxically, our most enjoyable times are when we are using our skills at the optimal level of challenge, succeeding but using all of our capacity in order to do so. He even found that watching television puts most adults into a state that is mildly depressed. (Note that the average American watches about five hours of television every single day). 

Work is not a necessary evil. Within appropriate parameters, it can be a wonderful facilitator of well-being. It can provide us with all of the major components of well-being, including positive relationships, positive emotions, meaning, achievement, and engagement. 

The advice about following your passion is all about passivity; perhaps therein lies the reason for its enduring presence, in that it offers us the ultimate form of reassurance - it is not something that we can control, and thus, we do not have to worry too much about it. This myth is all about waiting for something to magically fall into your life, pulling the disparate pieces of your current existence together into one neat, comprehensive, coherent package. For a few people, this might work, but most of us will not have that experience. That does not mean that we are doomed to be unhappy or unfulfilled at work.

On the contrary, there are many things that you can do to cultivate happiness at work. Stay tuned for a new post that will articulate what research has found does make us happier in the workplace! 

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