7/27/2016 35 Comments
Actors and the Science of Passion by Phil Willmott
When someone tells you they have a passion for acting, how do they seem to you? Perhaps a warm smile spreads across their face as they describe their feelings for the craft; or perhaps a steelier, more determined look appears in their eyes. The response you get may well be influenced by their levels of what psychologists call ‘harmonious’ and ‘obsessive’ passion.
Harmonious passion is experienced by an actor as a pure enjoyment of something she’s good at. When the acting is finished, she goes about the rest of her life quite happily, looking forward to the next time she can act, but her passion is in balance – harmony – with the other things in her life that are important to her.
Obsessive passion, by contrast, develops when other important psychological needs are tied up with the activity: the young actor who realises that acting is a way to get her parents’ approval, or a feeling of belonging, enjoys her craft every bit as much as the ‘harmonious’ actor, but when the acting is finished, all that sense of approval and respect disappears too, leaving her with anxiety and low self-esteem, and a desperate desire to get back to acting as soon as possible. A degree of obsessive passion may be useful for professional actors in providing a drive to get out there and find more work, but – perhaps not surprisingly – it is also linked with anxiety and burn out.
A study at the University of East London is currently looking at how different levels of these two types of passion impact on psychological well-being and career satisfaction in professional actors, and how harmonious and obsessive passion arise. Lead researcher, Andrew Sharp, told me, “Passion is clearly very important for actors – no one becomes an actor because it’s the sensible option! – and I’m interested in the role it plays in well-being. We know that harmonious passion is associated with higher levels of happiness and well-being, and what we’d call ‘flow’ – that satisfying sense of complete absorption in your work that makes you forget about time passing, or needing to eat or drink.”
“Obsessive passion, too, appears to be important in most professional actors’ lives, although we don’t yet quite understand how – which is another thing we’re hoping this research will shed some light on. Not enough of it, and the actor may simply give up and do something else when times are tough; too much of it, and the resulting anxiety may damage both their mental health, and their chances of finding or getting work. Obsessive passion may well be at the root of that toxic feeling of desperation that many actors experience in audition rooms after a period of unemployment.”
Because of the scarcity work, and the multitude of agents and casting directors, who sometimes appear to act as gatekeepers to what little work there is, actors can often feel rather powerless. This perceived loss of autonomy can be deeply corrosive to actors’ well-being, and many can come too feel like they’re no longer in control of their careers. By better understanding how passion works, the researchers hope that more actors will be able to take back control both of their careers, and of their psychological well-being. “One of the things we’re seeing from initial results is that activities that keep your skills honed, and put you back in control – like having your own creative projects, or collaborating with other creative people – is strongly correlated with harmonious passion, as well as positive psychological traits such as hope, a sense of meaning & purpose in life, and career satisfaction. Agents hate their clients having their own projects, of course, because they can stop people from being available for paid work, but there may well be a scientific case for finding a balance between availability, and pursuing less profitable ventures that nourish one’s passion, and one’s sense of autonomy.”
If you’re a professional actor, and you’d like to participate in this research by taking an online survey, you can find more details here:
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