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Why ambition could make you rich, but not happy

By Tim Hume, for CNN
updated 5:15 AM EST, Fri March 9, 2012
Ambitious people are more likely to be wealthy high achievers -- but aren't necessarily happier than anyone else.
Ambitious people are more likely to be wealthy high achievers -- but aren't necessarily happier than anyone else.
  • New research shows ambitious people are much more successful in their lives
  • But ambitious people are only slightly happier and they don't live longer
  • Ambitious people who don't achieve their goals tend to die younger, says study

(CNN) -- Admired in some people, reviled in others -- there are few character traits as confoundingly double-edged as ambition. Generally accepted as a prerequisite for success, it is nonetheless just as widely viewed as a dirty word. So is it a virtue, or a vice?

According to new research, while ambition can help you achieve a more prestigious education and corporate success, these may not make you any happier in the long run. Less driven "slackers" may be just as happy -- and in fact live longer.

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The study was led by Timothy Judge, professor of management at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business.

He said social scientists tended to make frequent reference to ambition, without ever really attempting to explain the concept. In response, he had studied data tracking the lives of more than 700 individuals over seven decades, in an attempt to create a better understanding of how ambition shapes our lives.

If you have high aspirations, you better make good on them
Timothy Judge, professor of management, University of Notre Dame

The results of "On the value of aiming high: The causes and consequences of ambition" surprised him, he said. There was a stronger than expected correlation between ambition, and educational and career success. But those who led successful lives in this regard were not, despite what you might expect, markedly happier or longer lived. And those whose achievements failed to match their ambitions lived less happily, and died earlier.

The takeaway? For one thing, "if you have high aspirations, you better make good on them," said Judge.

The research, to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, analyzed data from the Terman Life-Cycle study -- research tracing the lives of hundreds of "high-ability" Americans, starting in 1922 when the subjects were children and following them for up to 70 years.

Some of the participants went on to some of the world's best universities and impressive careers, while other had more modest achievements.

Timothy Judge, professor of management, University of Notre Dame
Timothy Judge, professor of management, University of Notre Dame

The "ambitious" participants -- as judged according to descriptions provided during their youth by the subjects themselves, and their parents -- were clearly more materially successful, attending esteemed universities, working in more prestigious occupations and earning higher salaries.

But despite the fact they seemed to "have it all," said Judge, they were not successful in terms of what might be considered the most important variables: happiness and longevity of life.

"Even though ambitious people ought to have the happiest lives in the world because they attain so much," said Judge, they were only slightly happier than the "slackers," and lived for about the same length of time. That was unless their ambition failed to translate to career success -- in which case they were significantly more likely to die before less ambitious people.

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While the study did not look into the reasons for this, Judge believed that, despite their material success, ambitious people were only negligibly happier because they experienced a constant sense of dissatisfaction.

If you have the highest goals in the world you're always going to perceive yourself as falling short
Timothy Judge, professor of management, University of Notre Dame

"Ambition by definition causes people to raise their goals and aspirations," he said. "If you have the highest goals in the world you're always going to perceive yourself as falling short. It's like Sisyphus rolling the ball up the hill, a thirst that can't be quenched."

One limitation that the study noted was that the research sample consisted only of intelligent individuals, initially raised in California, whose working careers peaked a half century ago. The paper added: "It is difficult to know whether the findings observed here generalize to other samples of individuals."

The study says a lot about the consequences of ambition, but as for the causes? The research suggested it had both "nature" and "nurture" underpinnings. "We found ambition present in kids who were really conscientious and intelligent," said Judge. But it was also prevalent among the children of parents with prestigious occupations.

Knowing, then, that ambition has its drawbacks, and can to an extent be "coached" -- should it be encouraged?

"Yes," says Judge -- with certain caveats. "I don't think we should de-emphasize ambition. It's really important both for individuals, and economies. But we also need to realize the limits we have," he said.

"If we want to instill in our kids ambition, that's all to the good, but we need to realize that's not going to complete their life. It's not going to give them all the skills they need and lead to the outcomes we might care about the most -- which is their happiness, wellbeing and longevity."

The counterbalance to ambition was gratitude for what you have -- a quality which often seemed forgotten by society, said Judge. "That would be the lesson for ambitious people -- remember to stop for a moment, take stock of all that you've accomplished and be happy with that."

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