How to Be Ambitious Without Sacrificing Your Mental Health

4 minute read

Ambition can feel like a dirty word in the era of quiet quitting and the Great Resignation. Many Americans have realized that an always-­striving mindset can come at a cost to mental wellness; in an October report, the U.S. Surgeon General even named workplace mental health a new public-­health priority in the wake of the pandemic. Research has also linked chasing extrinsic goals­, such as power, to anxiety and depression.

But is abandoning your ambition outright 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 that our ambition is being directed in ways that we care about,” says Richard Ryan, a clinical psychologist and a pioneer of Self-Determination Theory, a school of thought focused on human motivation. Striving is only healthy if “we do it in ways that don’t spoil the rest of our lives.”

Ambition isn’t inherently good or bad for mental health. One famous 2012 study, based on data from hundreds of people who were tracked for seven decades, found that ambition strongly predicted career success, but was only weakly related to life satisfaction. Ambitious people weren’t drastically happier or unhappier than people who weren’t as driven, explains co-author Tim Judge, who is now a professor at the 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, aren’t as psychologically fulfilled as people fueled by “intrinsic” motivators, such as personal growth, deep relationships, or knowledge. Reaching an extrinsic goal may briefly satisfy you, “but it’s not long-­lasting,” says Tim Kasser, a professor emeritus of psychology at Knox ­College.

With some practice and introspection, you can retrain your ambition to feed, rather than harm, your mental health. Here are five research-backed ways to do just that.

Prioritize your relationships

Ambition can become harmful when it “crowds out” other important parts of life, Ryan says. “Ambition is effortful,” he says. “If you’re going to be successful and ambitious, you have to put a lot into it.” If that drive comes at the expense of psychologically fulfilling things like strong relationships or autonomy over your time, it can take a toll on mental health.

Focus on the task, not the rewards

Research suggests you’ll feel more fulfilled if you focus on achievement for achievement’s sake—mastering a task, learning something, or creating positive change for your clients or community—rather than striving only for the next promotion or pay raise. (Some research even suggests that people who follow these internal motivators end up achieving more in the end.) “You can have ambition and be intrinsically motivated at the same time,” Ryan says. “You can love your work … but it’s in harmony with the rest of who you are.”

Strive 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 fostered. 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.

Practice gratitude

People naturally have some materialistic tendencies, especially in capitalist societies. But Kasser’s research suggests that suppressing those desires can yield mental-health gains. Mindfulness and gratitude can help. In one study, people who meditated daily were more satisfied with their financial status and had greater well-being. Regular reflections on gratitude, relationships, or mortality have also been shown to reduce materialism, which can in turn improve mental wellness.

Don’t try to monetize everything

Have you ever lost interest in a beloved hobby after turning it into a side hustle? There’s a science-backed explanation. Decades ago, researchers found that attaching extrinsic motivators (such as cash rewards) to activities that people enjoyed decreased their internal motivation to keep doing them. If psychological satisfaction is your goal, you may be better off without the extra cash.

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