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Ambition reported to reduce lifespan and happiness

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
ambition, success, longevity, happiness

NOTRE DAME, INDIANA - Ambition varies widely among individuals. Many ambitious Americans are focused on monetary success and are hopeful that happiness will accompany their affluent lifestyle. Unfortunately, a new study reports that, although ambitious individuals are more likely to land high-paying jobs and the accompanying accoutrements of success, they are prone to shorter and less happy lives

The study, which will be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, was conducted by researchers at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. The researchers analyzed data from the Terman Life-Cycle study, which reviewed the lives of 717 "high-ability" Americans, starting in 1922 when the subjects were children and following them for up to 70 years. Because the participants were above average in intelligence, a significant number earned degrees from colleges and universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Oxford, and held impressive careers as physicians or college professors. Others, however, had more modest achievements; some only earned a high school education while others completed their education at a city college.

Participants were surveyed at certain points in their lives to measure how satisfied they were in five domains of life: occupation, family life, leisure activities, health and ‘joy in living.’ The majority were in their mid-50s, at the peak of their careers. The subjects’ level of ambition was rated according to descriptions provided during their youth by the subjects themselves and their parents. Lead author Timothy Judge, professor of management at the university, noted that the "ambitious" participants were clearly more materially successful, attending esteemed universities, working in more prestigious occupations and earning higher salaries. However, despite their successes, he noted that they were not successful in terms of what might be considered the most important variables: happiness and longevity of life. He explained that even though ambitious people ought to have the happiest lives in the world because they attain so much, they were only slightly happier than the “slackers” and lived for about the same length of time. However, those that did not attain successful careers were less happy and significantly more likely to die before less ambitious people.

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The participants’ self-reports indicated that ambition only weakly correlated with happiness; in addition, those who were identified as the most ambitious had a 15.5% higher mortality rate by the end of the study than the individuals who were the least ambitious. Judge explained that ambitious people who were successful in school and at work lived longer; however, ambitious people who did not find success in these areas lived shorter lives. “So, if one is to be ambitious, one had better insure that they translate it into success. Otherwise, they may experience the negative effects without any of the positive.”

The study did note that ambition strongly correlated with educational and occupational success. Judge noted, “We think that ambitious people set very high standards for themselves and when they achieve success, they raise those standards further. If this is true, ironically, the very thing that makes people successful is also what tends to negate the ability of those things to make them happy. If an ambitious person keeps raising his or her goals after every success, then it’s a bit like Sisyphus in Greek mythology: He rolls the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll down the hill so as to push it back up again.”

Judge supplied a take home message for the study: “I think the main takeaway is to appreciate what ambition gets you—and what it doesn’t,” Judge said. “It certainly does make people more successful in the obvious ways we define success. That’s important…However, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that success in this realm holds the key to living a happy and healthy life. Ambition is important, but so are other things: stable family relationships, enduring friendships, and so on.”

Reference: Journal of Applied Physiolgy