A fellow blogger has provided me with this guest post about the psychology of ambition and happiness. Enjoy!
Imagine there’s a big project at work and you decide to come in on the weekend. The
length of you stay is entirely up to you, but you’ll get paid overtime for each hour.
After six hours you’re starting to feel like you’ve had enough. It’s time to decide
whether to stay another hour.
Both options have their benefits. Leave and you get to go hang out with friends. Stay
and you make more money. You go over the pros and cons in your head, but because
you have complete freedom over how to spend the next hour the choice comes
down to one thing: are you unhappier about leaving or unhappier about staying?
The decision will be made based on whether you feel, or convince yourself to feel,
unhappy and unsatisfied about only working six hours.
The point of this little scenario is that while many of us don’t consciously make
these specific decisions every day, the course of our lives and our happiness is
altered by how we incrementally reach these decisions over many months or years.
Are you going rip yourself apart over still not getting that promotion, or will you be
satisfied that you’ve reached the professional level you dreamed about when you
were a college student? Will you be happy if everything in life is great except for the
fact that you’re single, or will you be so unsatisfied that you have no choice but to
dedicate yourself to finding a significant other?
Happiness is influenced by a number of things that are out of our control – random
events, brain chemistry, immutable mental schemata developed as a young child – but
we can control some piece of our happiness through the stories we tell ourselves.
We can tell ourselves we’re successful and be happy, or we can tell ourselves we’re
not successful enough, and in doing so motivate greater achievement that ultimately
leads to a higher and more-stable level of happiness.
All of this is to say that it seems as though life involves a significant tradeoff between
ambition and happiness. Ambition requires focusing on what you don’t have.
Happiness requires focusing on what you do have. Yet the best way to truly strive
for more is to make yourself unsatisfied and unhappy with your current state. Thus,
in order to achieve more and push yourself to greater long-term happiness, it is
helpful to destroy short- or medium-term happiness.
The big question is what’s the optimal equilibrium between current life satisfaction
(i.e. happiness) and current life dissatisfaction (i.e. ambition)? The answer to this
question is important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s the driver of
many of the big dilemmas people face in their lives. Should you accept what you’ve
accomplished on the grounds that it will keep you happy forever, or should you
convince yourself to feel unsatisfied on the grounds that one day you will wish you
achieved more? Clearly the answer is different for each person at each point in their
The happiness-ambition tradeoff is also one that society as a whole must grapple
with. It’s probably efficient to stigmatize things like delinquency, ignorance,
and lawlessness, but what if there happens to be a smart upper-middle class kid
whose childhood dream is to become a lowly janitor? If somebody has such great
perspective on life that they are truly happy with becoming an uneducated janitor,
is that something social norms should discourage? Is it wrong for society to try and
rob them of their happiness in order to push them to do something that might have
more social value?
The point of all of this is…well, I’m not quite sure. Hopefully it helped generate some
unique thoughts about what happiness really means and what we can do about it.
And hopefully the next time you’re unhappy about where you are in life, you’ll think
more clearly about the emotions driving your thoughts. Is your level of ambition
really worthwhile given what it’s doing to your happiness? Or alternatively, is
your happiness “legitimate” enough that it’s worth taking your ambition down a
Perhaps with improved metacognition you’ll even find a way to mitigate the
ambition-happiness tradeoff – to somehow increase motivation by making yourself
unsatisfied with what you have, but do it without robbing yourself of present
Eric hails from the D.C. suburbs, though he now spends his days in New York City working to improve/ruin the lives of children by conducting research on the benefits of extending the school day. His blog – Peer-reviewed by My Neurons – is a wondrous hodgepodge of posts that all somehow relate to social science and social policy.