Are Ambitious People Happier?

If you go and get yours, you may get more in the end–but contentment or longer life span may not be among the spoils, new research shows.

Are Ambitious People Happier?

Atlantic writer Emily Esfahani Smith can wield a semicolon: “Ambition drives people forward; relationships and community, by imposing limits, hold people back.”


To Smith, the tension between ambition, relationships, and happiness is at the center of our conversations about leaning in, having it all, and why we’re always so busy.

It’s often a problem of latency: As Clay Christensen once told us, the extra hour you spend at work might yield positive feedback the next morning, but you won’t get that same immediacy when you leave that work to have dinner with your family.

A defining inattention

Though it’s central to American life, Smith says that the ambition-happiness tension receives surprisingly little academic attention, though new research drawing from a 90-year longitudinal study of gifted children sheds new light.

From what the researchers found, ambition had clear causes and effects on lives as they grew into maturity. The most ambitious had common traits: They had parents with occupational prestige, and their personalities were organized, disciplined, and goal-seeking. As you’d expect, the more ambitious were better educated, made more money, and landed more prestigious jobs.

But ambition did not predict for well-being in the same way: It was only weakly connected with well-being and in fact negatively associated with longevity. Meaning that ambitious people died earlier.

One of the researchers, John D. Kammeyer-Mueller, tells Smith that ambition didn’t impact how satisfied people felt with their lives–they felt they had accomplished more with them–but that project-based happiness got in the way of personal relationships. As the researchers write, this “darker side” needs to be further explored:


“…It may be that ambitious individuals have both virtuous characteristics for the self (like goal striving and higher levels of work activity) and negative characteristics for others around the ambitious individual (like a desire to “win at all costs,” or a willingness to undermine others to achieve their own ends). Future research should investigate whether individuals who are more ambitious enact these more “cut-throat” strategies as part of their journey toward success, or if they get ahead by working harder and longer to obtain their desired success in life.”

But it’s probably both. People are complex: In the course of a life–or a morning commute–you could be both pro-social and anti-social, kind and cruel. And while Machiavelli resonates with us, so does a giver like Adam Grant.

But do relationships always curb goals?

The New York Times recently asked if giving is the secret to getting ahead–with the answer being “it depends on the field.” However, if we are indeed in the social era, and if indeed ideas arrive to us from our networks, and if indeed bonds form out of mutual investment, then it follows that relationships, too, are part of innovation, value creation, and personal advancement.

Relationships Are More Important Than Ambition

[Image: Flickr user Andy Tyler]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.