[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?

The Happiest Day of My Life

My sister-in-law and me, on the happiest day of my life. And maybe of hers, too.

[TMI Warning]

On April 3 of this past year, my older brother got married. I’d known his wife-to-be almost as long as he had–nearly two years–and she was basically part of our family by then. So to me, that day wasn’t just about the joy of one of my family members, but two. Though, actually, it was about the joy of all of us.

I woke up early on the day of my brother’s wedding after spending the night at the hotel with my whole family. My sister-in-law, her sister, their mother, and I all had our hair and makeup done professionally. The photographer posed us with our bouquets and snapped hundreds of shots.

The wedding itself was beautiful. It was an Orthodox Jewish wedding, and everyone received a little booklet explaining the traditions and why things were done the way they were. I found it all fascinating and unforgettable.

During the ceremony, I walked my little sister, the flower girl, down the aisle. I shed some stereotypical tears. I’m pretty sure my mom did too, and we probably weren’t the only ones. A Jewish wedding ceremony isn’t something I can easily describe or explain, so all I can say is that I hope you witness one someday.

The reception was fantastic. I got to see friends and family I hadn’t seen for years, and we danced for hours. I’d worn four-inch heels and my feet were killing me, but I didn’t care, for the most part.

And then it was over, I went home and went to bed, and woke up the next morning to the same life I’d lived before.

I’ve been thinking about that day a lot ever since. Not just because it was a major event in the story of my family, but because it holds a very special significance for me. It was, so far, the happiest day of my life.

On its own, that might not seem so strange. After all, since I’ve never gotten engaged or married myself, I don’t really have a choice but to live vicariously through those who have. Since I love and care about my brother and sister-in-law, it would make sense that their marriage would make me very happy.

But at the same time, it’s not the sort of thing you’d really expect as the happiest day of a young adult’s life. Most would probably say something like their high school graduation day, the day they were accepted to their dream college, the day they won a major competition or award, and so on. Self-directed things.

It was also kind of a weird time for the happiest day of my life to occur. Last winter and spring, I was going through a major depressive episode–I’ve lost count of the number by now, but it was probably my fourth or fifth one. In fact, I spent the night before the wedding and the night after it doing the exact same thing–sobbing on my bed for no immediately discernible reason. I remember it very clearly.

But in between those two nights, something was different. I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I wasn’t thinking about what a failure I am or how I have no friends or how I’m terrible at everything I ever try to do, or any of that other stuff that seemed so obvious to me.

And it wasn’t because I was “thinking happy thoughts” or “just ignoring it” or any of the other things depressives are constantly extolled to do.

It was because all of my attention was focused on someone else and on their happiness. Rather than trying to avoid my own thoughts, I actively directed them somewhere else.

In other words, the happiest day of my life was the day I almost didn’t think about myself at all.

I knew almost the instant the night was over that it had been a very special day for me. For months afterwards I kept replaying it in my mind, desperately trying to figure out how to get that feeling back. My parents told me later that their friends couldn’t stop telling them how amazing I looked–not just because I was dressed and coiffed and made up so well, but because I seemed to glow. I seemed alive, and it might’ve been the only time these people had ever seen me that way. It might’ve been the only time I ever have looked that way. I looked like a young person ought to look.

It was only tonight that I finally figured it out. And it made perfect sense. Because the truth is, I’m never going to love myself. I might not ever even like myself. I’ll probably always wish I were born another person. So for me, happiness will never come by focusing on myself and my own life. It will only ever come during those times when I can forget my own existence, my own self.

To be honest, I’m not sure that I’ll ever have a day as happy as that one again, except perhaps when my other siblings or close friends get married. I’m not sure that I’ll ever find someone who tolerates me enough to marry me, and even if I do, I doubt my own wedding day could make me as happy as someone else’s.

On a normal day, it’s just not possible to pretend that the world doesn’t exist. It exists, and it sucks a lot of the time. On normal days my family isn’t going through one of the happiest things that can happen to a person. On normal days, I don’t have anything this momentously joyous to think about.

But I think I can apply what I’ve learned to these normal days, too. That’s why the best advice I can offer to other people struggling with mood disorders is to “get out of your head.” The hard part is figuring out how to do that–it’s different for everyone–and summoning the strength to actually do it. For me, getting out of my head means getting into someone else’s and living through their eyes instead.

That day changed my life in many ways. It inspired me to learn more about the religious traditions I’ve thus far ignored, it obviously changed my family life pretty drastically, and, for about fourteen hours, it let me live without depression.

For those fourteen hours, I was alive. The black cloud over me was gone. The haze before  my eyes was gone.

I’ll never forget how that felt.

Learning How to be Happy

I’m going to go out on a limb and criticize something even more popular than the things I usually criticize–my school’s Happiness Club.

The Happiness Club is a prominent student organization at Northwestern that aims to increase happiness by planning all sorts of activities for the campus, such as kite-flying, free hot chocolate, water balloon fights, “silent” dance parties, and so on. In other words, all fun and exciting activities.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that it’s not “happiness” that these activities are promoting; it’s momentary joy. Momentary joy is an important component of a happy life, but it’s not even close to all you need.

Let me explain. Most Northwestern students have been fed on a steady diet of stress, sleep deprivation, and SAT prep classes since before we hit puberty. The kinds of effects that such a diet inevitably has–for instance, perfectionism, fatigue, anxiety, and depression–are things that no amount of kite-flying will cure.

To put it bluntly, most people I know here (myself included) are simply not capable of living our lives in a way that’s conducive to long-term happiness and well-being. We suck at prioritizing–academics and extracurriculars come before friends and family, every time. We demand perfect grades from ourselves. We apply to only the most prestigious internships and burst into tears when we inevitably fail to get those positions. We fill our schedules to the point that we have to schedule in shower time. We don’t pause to relax, think, or meditate.

In other words, the skills that we lack–balance, mindfulness, perspective, and a healthy amount of compassion for ourselves–are exactly the things that are not being taught to us here. These are the skills that lay the foundation for a happy and meaningful life.

Of course, there are resources. CAPS (our psychological service) offers workshops, and RAs are encouraged to emphasize the need for balance and stress relief to their residents. But the people we look to and trust the  most–our peers–are often more of a negative influence than a positive one. (For instance, how do you think I feel about my own study  habits when my friend tells me she stayed up till 4 AM studying, slept for two hours, and got up at 6 to keep going?)

That’s where a group like the Happiness Club should, theoretically, come in. In addition to the undoubtedly fun activities that they already plan, why don’t they offer workshops on stress relief, meditation, or yoga? Why don’t they bring in speakers who talk about how one can be both productive and happy in college? Why don’t they encourage greater awareness of things like perfectionism, anxiety, and depression?

We need to start up a campus dialogue about these things, because there isn’t one right now. Occasionally, late at night, one of us will admit to a friend that we’re just not living the right way. But this conversation needs to happen on a larger scale. There is too much misery here. I don’t doubt that many Northwestern students are happy in some sense of the word, but they’re not as happy as they could be, because while all the adults in our lives have taught us how to live a successful life, nobody’s taught us how to live a happy one. Maybe it’s time to teach ourselves.

“Don’t Be Afraid to Give Up the Good for the Great”

[Sometimes I like to send myself emails using FutureMe. I get them a year later and instantly remember what it was like to be me a year ago.]

Dear FutureMe,

Yesterday it happened just like in the dream I kept having over the summer.

I was motionless on the sideline, in front of a wall of music that was staring me in the face. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t run out there and be with them, and I couldn’t turn back time and change my decision, and I couldn’t cry and risk everyone seeing.

Three small miracles changed it from the dream version, though. It was daytime and not night, I wasn’t alone, and I didn’t feel the overwhelming sadness.

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