[guest post] The Tradeoff Between Ambition and Happiness

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
lives.

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
notch?

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
happiness.

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.

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[storytime] An Abridged List of Lies I Was Taught as a Child

  • Money and success will make you happy.
  • Being beautiful is an obligation.
  • Being fat is the worst thing that could happen to you.
  • College will be a magical la-la land where you will finally be happy.
  • Men don’t like strong, opinionated women.
  • Being gay is wrong.
  • Never ask a guy out.
  • Never have sex with someone you’re not dating seriously.
  • Casual sex will make you depressed, and a slut.
  • Intelligent people are better than nonintelligent people.
  • Your parents know best.
  • Family comes before friends.
  • You should be willing to sacrifice anything for your family.
  • Fitting in is important.
  • If you’re upset, you’re probably being too sensitive.
  • Your friends should come from your cultural/ethnic/religious group.
  • If a guy likes you, he will let you know. And if he doesn’t, he’s a wimp anyway.
  • Your career should be as high-powered as possible.
  • Your husband should make as much or more money than you.
  • It’s okay to let men do things for you rather than learning how to do them yourself.
  • Never, ever trust another woman. She will stab you in the back at the first opportunity.
  • If someone doesn’t like you, you should probably ask yourself what you’re doing wrong.
  • If your boyfriend is unhappy, you should try to make him happy.
  • Politics doesn’t matter anyway.
  • Everyone can tell how many men a woman has slept with just by looking at her.
  • Your clothing should always “flatter” your figure.
  • Sex can only be one of two things: Dangerous, or Special and to be saved for The Right Person.
  • Getting ahead is more important than sticking to your principles.
  • You can always just choose to be happy.

I learned these things as a child and a teenager. Now I’m an adult and I finally get to reeducate myself. A decolonization of the mind, so to speak.

Most of these lessons have been proven false by experience and common sense.

What lies were you taught as a child?

More Than Just a Body With a Broken Brain: Why I’m Choosing Social Work

It would be nice to be called “Doctor.”

It would be nice to be paid a very high salary and have a stable job, and to be able to produce an official piece of paper proving that I am Smart.

It would be nice to be published in prestigious journals, to receive emails from others curious about my work. It would be nice to be quoted in newspapers and magazines as an Expert.

It would be nice to be part of the elite–the less than 1% of Americans who have a doctorate.

It would be nice, but it won’t be me. At least, not for a while.

Until recently, I left unquestioned the notion that I want a PhD in clinical psychology. I just wanted it. Why? Well, it would allow me to be a therapist, which is what I want. I would get paid a lot. It would carry prestige.

But gradually my resolve started to break down and I started to wonder, Why?

I discovered that I disliked research. When I told people this, they were often shocked. But aren’t you curious? Don’t you care why people think and feel the way they do? Don’t you want to understand?

Yes, I am, and I do. I’m deeply curious. That’s why I read voraciously. And I am more than happy to read all the answers to my questions when they’re published rather than to work long days in a basement lab somewhere.

I can do research, I’m sure. But it’s not what I love, and there are others who want this much more.

The turning point came when I attended a panel of graduate students in psychology, along with an admissions person for a doctoral program in clinical psych. They all told us that when we apply for grad school, our entire resume and personal statement should discuss nothing but our research experience. Everything else I’ve done wouldn’t even matter–not the year I spent as an RA, not the three years I’ve spent as a member (and, then, a leader) in a sexual health and assault peer education group, not the summer I volunteered at a camp for at-risk kids in New York, not the initiative I started to implement a peer listening program at Northwestern, not my internship at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

I shouldn’t even include it, they told me, because it would annoy the admissions people.

The work that I love, the lives that I hope I’ve changed–it would be an annoyance.

At first, I thought it wasn’t a big deal. Who cares what I put on my application as long as I get in?

But then I learned more. I learned that I probably wouldn’t be accepted if I admitted that my goal is to be a therapist, because they want to spend their money on someone who would bring prestige to their institution by publishing research. I realized that I would have nobody to turn to for support–no mentors–because I’d have to hide my dreams from them. I learned that clinical training in clinical psych programs is mostly lacking (ironically), so I wouldn’t be learning the practical skills that I need to help people.

And, most of all, I understood that my time in graduate school would be miserable beyond belief, because I would be living a lie, facing extreme pressure to publish or perish, and wasting at least five or six years of my life. During that time, my life would be completely on hold–I wouldn’t be able to move, work, or start a family, if the opportunity presented itself.

The future that I had once dreamed about turned into a nightmare.

It was then that I finally stopped listening to my professors–who, of course, all have PhDs–and listened instead to the friends and family I have who actually are therapists, or hoping to get there. And increasingly I understood that a masters in social work would be a better option.

MSW programs emphasize learning practical skills, and many of them have you start a clinical internship as soon as you start the program, because the best way to learn is by experience. They understand that people aren’t just isolated brains inside bodies, that circumstances affect individuals and that psychological problems aren’t always caused by faulty brain chemistry. They emphasize understanding societal inequality, working with marginalized groups, and picking up where clinical psychology leaves off.

I’ve been told that I’m “too smart” for a masters in social work, that I will be “offended” when I see how little they pay me. People who say these things must not know me very well. Although I wanted a PhD before, I’ve never really needed my career to make me feel important. I don’t need to be important. I just need to be helpful.

As for “too smart,” that’s ridiculous. The helping professions need more smart people.

The truth is that, in my hour of need, it wasn’t a man with a white lab coat and a doctorate who saved me. It was–as corny as this is going to sound–the social justice movement. That was what finally taught me that my feelings are justified, that my thoughts have merit, that my words matter.

I finally learned to see myself as more than just a body with a broken brain. I’m a whole person enmeshed in particular circumstances, and the interaction between the two has made me who I am now.

I still agree with what I’ve written before. Medication can be useful. Therapy works. Psychiatric labels are important.

But my strengths and goals require a different sort of education than what I could receive in a doctoral program, and they point me to a different sort of career than a PhD would prepare me for.

True, I’ll earn less money. There will be hard times. There will, I’m sure, be bureaucracy, budget cuts, and crappy bosses.  There will be days when I don’t love it.

But there will not be days when I’m living a lie. There will not be days when I’m sitting in an expensive lab at a prestigious university, doing work that may be meaningful, that may get published, that may be improved upon, that may someday, maybe, help someone. Maybe.

And I have nothing but respect for people who want to do that. I admire that, and maybe someday I’ll return to school for a PhD. But at this stage in my life, it’s just not for me. After all, I can always get a PhD; what I can’t do is unget one and unwaste all that time.

I don’t expect every single day to be productive, every session to help every client. But I do expect that at the end of my life I will be able to look back and know beyond a doubt that, in my own way, I changed things for the better.

That’s why I’m choosing social work.

P.S. A little disclaimer–I’m not looking for any comments on how I’m wrong about the doctoral route or why I should reconsider my decision. There’s a lot more than went into it than I could even discuss here, and there are enough Older and Wiser People trying to tell me how to live as is. Thanks. 🙂

My opinion is not a personal insult to you.

[Snark Warning]

It never ceases to amaze me how the act of expressing an opinion opens you up to the most outlandish assumptions about your personality.

Good girls, I know, don’t blog. Or at least, they don’t blog about anything substantial, and they definitely don’t do it using their real names.

Blogging about your personal life is okay, although then you’ll get derided for making your diary public. Posting photos of your friends, family, pets, and outfits, posting recipes and craft projects, posting favorite song lyrics–all of that is okay, if irrelevant.

But when you start blogging about Issues–those things you aren’t supposed to discuss at a dinner party or with your boss–that’s when things get dicey.

A few weeks ago I interviewed for a position on the executive board of the sexual health peer education group I’m involved with on campus. I’ve been involved with it since my freshman year, and now I was interviewing for a position that would put me in charge of, among other things, doing outreach to sororities on campus.

At the interview, they asked me about my blog. Specifically, they mentioned that I’ve expressed the fact that I dislike the Greek system, and wanted to know, wouldn’t that affect my ability to do this job?

Honestly, I was completely flummoxed by this question. Because I disagree with the Greek system, I’m incapable of interacting with sorority women? Because I disagree with the Greek system, I’m unwilling to present educational programs at sorority houses? Because I disagree with the Greek system, I don’t care about sexual assault in the Greek community and don’t want to start an initiative to help prevent it?

I must’ve produced an acceptable response because I got the position. But the experience made me realize how naive I’d been, in a way. I thought that people would take my writing for what it is–ideological positions for which I (usually) provide sound reasoning. I didn’t realize that they would take it and extrapolate from it beliefs and character traits that I do not have.

Disliking the Greek system doesn’t affect my ability to create an outreach program for sororities. It doesn’t affect my ability to empathize with individual women who happen to be sorority members. It doesn’t affect my ability to do anything. It’s just an opinion. Not a personal attack on anyone. An opinion.

The only thing it could possibly affect is other people’s opinions of me. Other people may read about my opinions and take them personally. They may assume that I don’t like them–personally. They may assume that I’m a callous person.

But these are their problems, not mine. If they’ve never learned not to make assumptions about others, I’m not taking responsibility for that. And I’m not going to stop writing, or “tone it down,” for the sake of someone else’s comfort.

I love writing, and I specifically love writing about Issues. It’s my way of leaving my mark on the world, and, hopefully, of leaving the world a better place than I found it.

Other people find other ways of doing this. They volunteer, play music, do scientific research, start businesses, make art, get into politics, whatever. I write.

My greatest fear right now–aside from perhaps that I won’t get into graduate school and will end up living in a cardboard box, or that I’ll never get married and will end up living in that cardboard box alone–is that I’ll have to stop writing when I start my Career.

Why would I have to stop writing?

Because of other people’s unfounded assumptions about what my writing says about my character.

Because in the culture we’ve created, you can get fired from your day job for what you write on your blog, using your internet connection, in your home, on your time.

Because good girls are sweet and sensitive, and never express opinions that might offend someone.

Because people haven’t learned that others’ opinions are not personal attacks on them.

Got a Job? No Fun For You

[Snark Warning]

I read one of the advice columns in this month’s Cosmo. A woman was writing in and asking if it would be okay to wear a top that reveals her tan lines to work, provided the top was modest and work-appropriate. The response was, no, it wouldn’t. Why? Because you wouldn’t want your boss to think that you spend your free time lying around at the beach:

Even though the best of us can fall victim to zebra skin by accident, exposing your sun stripes at work would be flaunting your bad judgement (baking does lead to skin cancer, after all). Perhaps worse, as far as your boss is concerned, it suggests you spend lots of your free time being at one with your beach towel–not exactly impressive.

“Not exactly impressive?” What does that even mean? Apparently, you shouldn’t let your boss know that you actually have fun on your days off. Oh, heavens no! You ought to be at home, catching up on emails.

(As for the skin cancer thing, I’d just like to point out that even if you wear sunscreen, you’re eventually going to get a tan if you spent a lot of time outside. Trust me, my mom slathers my little brother and sister with sunscreen obsessively, yet at the end of the summer they still have those cute little freckles and tan lines.)

Naturally, I immediately thought back to an earlier post I wrote about why adults are always so miserable and try to make me as miserable as they are. Now I’m not surprised. Apparently, once you’re all grown up and have a job, you’re not even allowed to have a good time when you’re off work. No wonder adults are always in such a crappy mood, and no wonder they want to warn me that in a few years I’ll be in a crappy mood too.

What shocks me is that Cosmo isn’t exactly a serious, business-y magazine. It’s mostly read by people who like to enjoy themselves every now and then (or every day/night, as the case may be). If even Cosmo is saying that you can’t have fun once you’re a grown-up (or, at the very least, that you have to do it in secret), what’s the world coming to?

This doesn’t even make sense to me, because I would hope that my boss would want me to come to work refreshed and in a good mood. I would want him/her to know that I’m not going to be asking for time off to go see a therapist about how miserable I am because I never have fun.

(I’m hoping, perhaps in vain, that since I’m going into the mental healthcare field, things will be different for me. After all, if there’s anyone who knows that relaxing and having fun is absolutely necessary, it’s a therapist. In my opinion, therapists should be able to model healthy behavior for their clients. If a client casually asks me what I did over the weekend and I’m forced to either lie or confess that I spent the entire time huddling over my laptop in a corner, crying, and biting my nails off while my husband played with the kids, that’s not good.)

Where did we go wrong? Why is it that in other countries and cultures, it’s perfectly normal to take a nap after lunch before coming back to work? Why is it that the United States is the only country I could find that does not mandate a minimum amount of paid vacation time for all employees? Why is the United States one of the only developed countries that does not offer paid maternity leave (to say nothing of paternity leave)?

One thing that never fails to surprise me about American culture is how fixated it is on work.  Russians, for instance, seem to view work mostly as a means to an end (money, security, providing for one’s family), whereas for Americans, it’s an end in itself. I rarely hear my parents talking about work when they’re home, and the only time I’ve seen them doing work-related things at home is when my dad starts maniacally writing some sort of equations on a napkin. My parents don’t have smartphones or tablets. If you send an email to their work address on Friday evening, you won’t receive a response till Monday. And yes, they go to the pool on weekends, and evenings, and any other time they fucking feel like it. That, in my opinion, is how it should be.