Bad news for people whose main goal in life is to get ahead: A new study found while ‘go-getters’ are more likely to attend prestigious universities and hold high-paying jobs, they are only slightly happier than their less-ambitious counterparts—and actually live shorter lives.
“Ambitious kids had higher educational attainment, attended highly esteemed universities, worked in more prestigious occupations, and earned more; so, it would seem that they are poised to ‘have it all,’” said lead researcher Timothy Judge, a management professor at the University of Notre Dame.
“However, ambition has a much weaker effect on life satisfaction and actually a negative impact on longevity,” he added.
For the study, Notre Dame researchers followed 717 ‘high-ability’ people over a period of decades – from college until retirement age. Late researcher Logan Terman identified these people after they tested high on measures of intelligence, and after Terman died, Judge continued his work.
Because the participants were smarter than average, a significant number earned degrees from colleges and universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Oxford, and held careers as physicians, college professors and stonemasons.
Conversely, some only earned a high school education, and others attended community colleges or less prestigious universities and held less-prestigious careers.
Judge and his colleagues surveyed the participants at certain points in their lives to measure how satisfied they were in five domains of life—occupation, family life, leisure activities, health and ‘joy in living.’ The majority were surveyed in their mid-50s, at the ‘peak’ of their careers.
The participants’ self-reports indicated that ambition was weakly related to happiness, and furthermore, the study found those who were identified as the most ambitious had a 15.5 percent higher mortality rate (45.5 percent mortality compared to 30 percent mortality) by the end of the study than the people who were the least ambitious.
The effect was worse among ambitious people who did not achieve the success they were striving for. While attending a prestigious university or holding a high-paying job could offset the negative effects of ambition on longevity, ambitious people who did not realize their goals lived even shorter lives and were “significantly less happy” than others.
“Ambitious people who were successful in school and at work lived longer,” Judge explained. “Ambitious people who did not find success in these areas lived shorter lives. So, if one is to be ambitious, one had better insure that they translate it into success. Otherwise, they may experience the negative effects without any of the positive.”
Fortunately for those involved in the study—and others who consider themselves to be highly ambitious—ambition was strongly correlated with educational and occupational success. However, Judge added even when people did experience success, in some cases their own ambition could hinder their enjoyment.
“We think that ambitious people set very high standards for themselves and when they achieve success, they raise those standards further,” Judge said. “If this is true, ironically, the very thing that makes people successful is also what tends to negate the ability of those things to make them happy. If an ambitious person keeps raising his or her goals after every success, then it’s a bit like Sisyphus in Greek mythology: He rolls the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll down the hill so as to push it back up again.”
While Judge believes it is important to have goals and to strive for them, he said it’s important not to let the thirst for success take over one’s life.
“I think the main takeaway is to appreciate what ambition gets you—and what it doesn’t,” Judge said. “It certainly does make people more successful in the obvious ways we define success. That’s important…However, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that success in this realm holds the key to living a happy and healthy life. Ambition is important, but so are other things – stable family relationships, enduring friendships, and so on.”