AAmbition may sound like a dirty word in the age of silent surrender and the Great Resignation. Many Americans have realized that an always-striving mindset can come at a cost to mental well-being; in an October report, the US Surgeon General even named workplace mental health a new public health priority in the wake of the pandemic. Research has also linked the pursuit of extrinsic goals, such as power, to anxiety and depression.
But is giving up on ambition altogether the secret to inner peace? Not necessarily. Instead, research suggests the key is harnessing your ambition for a goal that serves your well-being.
“We want to make sure our ambition is directed in a way that interests us,” says Richard Ryan, a clinical psychologist and pioneer of self-determination theory, a school of thought focused on human motivation. Effort is only healthy if “we do it in a way that doesn’t ruin the rest of our lives.”
Ambition is not inherently good or bad for mental health. A famous 2012 study, based on data from hundreds of people tracked for seven decades, found that ambition strongly predicted career success, but was only weakly related to life satisfaction. Ambitious people weren’t significantly happier or unhappier than people who weren’t as driven, says co-author Tim Judge, who is now a professor at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
The target of your ambition may have a stronger impact on mental health. Studies have consistently shown that people who are motivated by “extrinsic” markers of success, such as wealth, status, or popularity, are not as psychologically fulfilled as people who are powered by “intrinsic” motivators, such as personal growth, deep relationships or acquaintances. Achieving an extrinsic goal may satisfy you briefly, “but it’s not lasting,” says Tim Kasser, professor emeritus of psychology at Knox College.
With a little practice and introspection, you can retrain your ambition to nurture, rather than harm, your sanity. Here are five research-based ways to do that.
Prioritize your relationships
Ambition can become harmful when it “crowds out” other important aspects of life, Ryan says. “Ambition takes effort,” he says. “If you want to be successful and ambitious, you have to put a lot into it.” If that motivation comes at the expense of psychologically fulfilling things like strong relationships or autonomy over your time, it can be detrimental to mental health.
Focus on the task, not the rewards
Research suggests that you’ll feel more fulfilled if you focus on achieving success for the sake of success (mastering a task, learning something, or creating positive change for your customers or community) rather than just striving to get the next one. promotion or salary increase. (Some research even suggests that people who follow these internal motivations end up achieving more.) “You can be ambitious and intrinsically motivated at the same time,” says Ryan. “You may love your job…but it’s in tune with the rest of who you are.”
Aim for growth
Instead of letting ambition rule your life, you can adopt a “growth mindset,” which refers to the belief that intelligence is not fixed and can be nurtured. Judge says it may be healthier to strive for growth — learning or honing a skill, or cultivating a trait you admire in others — rather than concrete goals like getting a certain job title or salary.
People naturally have materialistic tendencies, especially in capitalist societies. But Kasser’s research suggests suppressing those desires can lead to mental health gains. Mindfulness and gratitude can help. In one study, people who meditated daily were more satisfied with their financial situation and had greater well-being. Regular reflections on gratitude, relationships, or mortality have also been shown to reduce materialism, which in turn can improve mental well-being.
Don’t try to monetize everything
Have you ever lost interest in a beloved hobby after turning it into a side hustle? There is a scientific explanation. Decades ago, researchers found that attaching extrinsic motivations (such as cash rewards) to activities people enjoyed decreased their internal motivation to keep doing them. If psychological satisfaction is your goal, you may be better off without the extra money.
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