James Madison University

Passion for Activities Laboratory

Posted: December 17, 2015

JMU students

Approximately 5 years ago, Dr. Bryan Saville realized that he was becoming overwhelmed with all that he had on his plate. In addition to heavy work responsibilities, he and his wife were expecting their second child (which, although wonderful, was nevertheless stressful when added to everything else). Eventually, burnout set in, and Dr. Saville started to question whether he was still passionate about the career he had worked so hard to build.

Around the same time, he also began to notice how many students said they didn’t enjoy their academic experiences. For example, it was not uncommon for students to describe how much they disliked studying and going to class. Many also seemed to be choosing careers they didn’t seem to be very excited about.

Together, these experiences led Dr. Saville to switch his research focus to the topic of passion. Specifically, for the past few years, members of the Passion for Activities Lab have examined how students’ passion for their academic activities is associated with a variety of psychological and performance outcomes.

Dr. Saville and his students have found, in accord with earlier research, that there are two different types of passion, each of which involves loving, valuing, and spending time on an activity. Harmonious passion emerges when students freely choose to engage in an activity and then receive autonomy support from others when doing so. This type of passion becomes nicely balanced in a student’s life and creates the feeling of “being in control.” Moreover, as a result of this “freedom,” students who are harmoniously passionate typically experience positive emotions and tend to show better academic performance in school.

In contrast, obsessive passion emerges when students feel pressured to make certain choices. Although they still enjoy the academic activities they choose, students often make these choices because other people in their lives (such as parents or professors) want or expect them to do so. Consequently, because of the external pressure involved, students’ academic activities start to overwhelm them and create the feeling of being out of control. Unfortunately, obsessive passion is associated with variety of negative emotions and with decreased academic performance.

In their studies, Dr. Saville and his students have found that a large percentage of students tend to be obsessively passionate about their academic activities. Moreover, those students who have higher levels of obsessive passion are more likely to experience excessive stress, burnout, drinking problems, exercise addiction, eating disorders, and sleep problems. Obsessively passionate students are also more likely to report cheating on their class assignments. Finally, obsessively passionate students typically have significantly lower GPAs than harmoniously passionate students. In fact, students who are obsessively passionate about their academic activities often experience psychological and performance outcomes that are no different from students who are completely non-passionate about college.

More recently, Dr. Saville and his students have begun to study what might cause the different types of passion to emerge in college students. They have found, for instance, that receiving positive support from parents, teachers, and friends is associated with more harmonious passion. In contrast, students whose parents, teachers, and friends pressure them, for example, to get good grades are more likely to be obsessively passionate about their academic activities. Finally, Dr. Saville and his lab students have found that students who feel as if they have a good relationship (or “rapport”) with their teachers are more likely to be harmoniously passionate about their academic activities.

Ultimately, Dr. Saville wants to better understand passion so he can help students realize the many benefits that come from being harmoniously passionate about their academic activities, their majors, and their chosen careers. If he can help students choose careers they love and value, Dr. Saville believes he might be able to help them keep from becoming burned out and dissatisfied with their work the same way he was 5 years ago.