Monday, May 13, 2013

Is ambition making you miserable?

A guest post by Kelly Opferman (further information below) to open up discussion on an interesting topic.

There have been some interesting discussions recently about the role that ambition plays in our overall feeling of happiness, including one piece in The Atlantic. The question is whether or not your reaching for career success undermines your sense of happiness and your overall well-being. There has not been a conclusive answer to the question, but the consensus seems to be that  is indeed a trade-off that you make when you shift your focus to your career and other accomplishments.

Here are a few reasons why too much ambition may be undermining your happiness and maybe even making you miserable:

Comes at the Cost of Relationships
The primary reason why your ambition could by making you unhappy is that it comes at the cost of your relationships. Tim Kasser, the author of the book The High Price of Materialism, argues that the pursuit of money, possessions and social status creates distress and lowers well-being, primarily because of the damage that such pursuits inflict on relationships.

Researchers John Helliwell and Robert Putnam found in a 2004 study that marriage, family, social ties, civic engagement and working relationships all had a significant impact on happiness.

If it is our relationships that make us happy, then neglecting these in the pursuit of our ambition can cause us to become profoundly unhappy.

Leads to Loneliness
Conventional wisdom says it's lonely at the top. That's because you don't have time for relationships when you are putting in the long hours to achieve your goals or try to gain prominence in your workplace. Even if you manage to maintain relationships while pursuing your ambition, you likely won't have the time that you would like to spend with those people and to enrich your relationships.

As a result, you will have achieved great successes, but it will likely feel empty. You may feel happiness at having accomplished something great, but the victory will feel hollow when you don't have those strong personal connections to form the foundation for a happy life.

Creates a Lot of Stress
Working long hours without making time for family and friends can lead to unhealthy levels of stress, which can bring down your mood and put you at risk for a number of health problems. A new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that ambition is negatively associated with longevity -- meaning that ambitious people are likely to live shorter lives. Ongoing high levels of stress can lead to depression, sleep problems, and a number of other chronic health conditions. Not only can it reduce your overall feelings of happiness, but it can also shorten your life span.

The researchers in the Journal of Applied Psychology said that more research is needed to determine the real link between ambition and happiness. However, the research that has already been done shows that there is reason to believe that the more ambitious you are, the less happy you are likely to be.

What are your thoughts? Do you think that ambition can make you miserable? Share your thoughts in the comments!

The Author:
Kelly Opferman is a seasoned writer who at this time focuses on her site at: Her educational background includes finance, teaching, and economics.

Postscript by Winton

I have now had an opportunity to read a version of the article in the Journal of Applied Psychology, that Kelly refers to. The overall findings in the article, by Timothy Judge and John Kammeyer-Mueller, suggest that the effects of ambition are generally favourable for the individuals who have it. The qualification about longevity seems to me to be more about inconclusive results than evidence of a negative relationship. The authors found that ambition is positively related to educational attainment, incomes and satisfaction with life.

The study seems to be soundly based. Data are from the Terman life cycle study in the US, involving a sample of 717 individuals followed over seven decades. The most important qualification about the sample is that subjects were chosen for inclusion in the Terman study because they were assessed to have high ability.

The definition of ambition used by the authors is ‘persistent and generalized striving for success, attainment and accomplishment’. It is measured by a combination of self-assessment and parental assessment of whether the individual has ‘a definite purpose in life’ and whether ambition is listed among the individual’s most favourable qualities or lack of ambition is listed among the individual’s most serious faults.

In their suggestions for further research, the authors acknowledge that the effects of ambition may depend on the goals that are sought. For example, other research suggests that people who seek fame or wealth for the pleasure they imagine that it will bring them, are less likely to have happy lives than those who have nobler ambitions.  


Anonymous said...

My own ambition has been for many years to be the most inconsequential, unremarkable, nondescript member of our Dear Leader's workforce.

I agree with the author that this ambition has made me less happy than I might otherwise have dreamed of, but then it must be said that I at least now have a bed of sorts, and one regular meal a day - some days. Except not in winter.

But I would be most remiss if I didn't pass on my thanks for the most succinct example I've yet come upon of that phrase 'first world problem'.


Winton Bates said...

Hi kvd,
Your comment reminded me of Adam Smith's parable of the poor man's son whom heaven in its anger had visited with ambition. It is people like you and the unfortunate poor man's son who keep in continual motion the industry of mankind.

Anonymous said...

Hello Winton

I no longer believe in 'heaven' except as release, and I think of 'motion' as a disguise for 'lack of progress' .

Apart from those qualifications, please accept this as complete agreement with your own position.