AAmbition can feel like a dirty word in the era of quiet surrender and Great Resignation. Many Americans have realized that an always-aspiring mindset can impair mental well-being; In an October report, the US surgeon general even declared 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 the secret of inner peace to give up your ambition completely? Not necessarily. Instead, research suggests that the key is to channel your ambition toward a goal that serves your well-being.
“We want to make sure that our ambition is channeled in the direction that’s important to us,” says Richard Ryan, clinical psychologist and pioneer of self-determination theory, a school of thought that focuses on human motivation. Striving is healthy only when “we do it in a way that doesn’t spoil 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 was a strong predictor of career success but was only weakly associated with life satisfaction. Ambitious people weren’t significantly happier or unhappier than people who weren’t as motivated, explains co-author Tim Judge, who is now a professor at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
The goal of your ambition can have a greater impact on mental health. Studies have consistently shown that people who are motivated by “external” traits of success, such as wealth, status, or popularity, are not as psychologically fulfilled as people who are driven by “internal” motivators, such as personal growth, deep relationships, etc. Knowledge. Achieving an extrinsic goal may give you brief satisfaction, “but it doesn’t last long,” says Tim Kasser, professor emeritus of psychology at Knox College.
With practice and introspection, you can retrain your ambition to benefit, rather than harm, your sanity. Here are five research-backed ways to do just that.
Prioritize your relationships
Ambition can become harmful when it “crowds out” other important areas of life, says Ryan. “Ambition is exhausting,” he says. “If you want to be successful and ambitious, you have to invest a lot.” When that drive comes at the expense of psychologically fulfilling things like strong relationships or autonomy over time, it can affect mental health.
Focus on the task, not the rewards
Research suggests that you feel more fulfilled when you focus on achievement for achievement’s sake — completing a task, learning something, or creating positive change for your customers or community — rather than just striving for the next promotion or raise. (In fact, some research suggests that people who follow these internal motivators end up achieving more.) “You can have ambition and be intrinsically motivated at the same time,” says Ryan. “You can love your work… but it aligns with the rest of you.”
strive for growth
Instead of letting ambition rule your life, you can adopt a “growth mentality,” which refers to the belief that intelligence is not fixed and can be nurtured. The judge says it may be healthier to strive for growth — to learn or improve a skill, or to cultivate a trait you admire in others — than specific goals like achieving a specific job title or salary.
Humans naturally have some materialistic tendencies, especially in capitalistic societies. But Kasser’s research suggests that suppressing these desires can lead to mental health gains. Mindfulness and gratitude can help. In one study, people who meditated daily were happier with their financial situation and felt better about themselves. Regular reflections on gratitude, relationships, or mortality have also been shown to reduce materialism, which in turn can improve spiritual well-being.
Don’t try to monetize everything
Have you ever lost interest in a beloved hobby after turning it into a side job? There is a scientifically based explanation. Decades ago, researchers found that attaching extrinsic motivators (such as monetary rewards) to activities people enjoyed reduced their intrinsic motivation to continue them. If psychological gratification is your goal, you might be better off without the extra money.
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