Ambitious People are a Little Happier and Live a Little Longer

iStock_000017389678XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

In a recent article in The Atlantic, writer Emily Esfahani Smith attempts to argue that ambition and relationships are mutually exclusive. She writes:

“The conflict between career ambition and relationships lies at the heart of many of our current cultural debates, including the ones sparked by high-powered women like Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Marie Slaughter. Ambition drives people forward; relationships and community, by imposing limits, hold people back. Which is more important?”

The notion that people can’t have a rewarding career and meaningful personal relationships is absurd. Certainly, there will always be choices to make when it comes to career advancement and personal commitments – but having those choices is what makes life worth living.

Smith goes on to write that people who really care about their relationships would be wise to give up ambitious dreams, and that people who pursue their ambitions are unhappy, destructive, and live shorter lives. She’s wrong. All in all, she attempts to use an erroneous and misleading argument to shame those who would pursue ambitious goals. In fact, the very study Smith cites to “prove” her argument says quite the opposite – people who are ambitious tend to be a little more satisfied in life and live longer.

Research into Ambition

Smith suggests that relationships naturally hold people back from pursuing their ambitions, and that, ultimately, people would be happier if they gave up any notion of career advancement in order to preserve these ties.

But in the same way that relationships might cause someone to forgo pursuing an ambitious career, can’t they also propel you forward? Relationships, after all, are at the heart of career progression. Your relationship with bosses or superiors is how you get promotions. The support and inspiration of friends, family members, or colleagues can encourage you to dream bigger. A commitment to provide for your loved ones may drive you to go after a higher salary. To many people, ambition and relationships are inextricably linked.

Smith goes on to suggest that that ambitious people are worse off in life – that they are unhappy and die sooner. She cites an analysis by researchers Timothy A. Judge and John D. Kammeyer-Mueller of a seven-decade study on 717 “high ability individuals” to try to prove her point. But she gets the research wrong. She writes, “But when it came to well-being, the findings were mixed. Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller found that ambition is only weakly connected with well-being and negatively associated with longevity.”

A weak connection is still a connection. That means is that there was a slight indication in the data that ambitious people were happier than non-ambitious people, or at the very least, they weren’t less happy. Second, giving the actual study a quick read shows that ambition was not negatively associated with longevity. It was negatively associated with mortality, which means quite the opposite of what Smith has suggested. People who were ambitious were likely to live longer.

Her confusions in terminology aside, Smith’s real offense is that she seems to take Kammeyer-Mueller’s quotes out of context in an effort to demean people who are ambitious, and suggest that they trample relationships with others in order to get what they want. But that’s not what Kammeyer-Mueller seems to be saying at all. She writes:

“When I asked about the connection between ambition and personal relationships, Kammeyer-Mueller said that while the more ambitious appeared to be happier, that their happiness could come at the expense of personal relationships. ‘Do these ambitious people have worse relationships? Are they ethical and nice to the people around them? What would they do to get ahead? These are the questions the future research needs to answer.’”

Kammeyer-Mueller simply seems to be answering that the researchers didn’t study the effect of ambition on relationships, and that more research would be needed to find out the answers to her questions. It is unclear why Smith goes to these lengths to insinuate that ambition is a destructive force. What’s more unclear is why she would reference this particular study. After all, the authors go out of their way throughout their article to talk about how ambition tended to have positive outcomes for the people in the study. They write:

“Our results suggest that despite these negative connotations of ambition, there are positive life outcomes of ambition. Participants who were more ambitious did not appear to be made miserable or insatiable by their ambitions. Instead, we found that individuals who were more ambitious had higher levels of attainment in both educational and work domains. This success, in turn, was associated with higher levels of life satisfaction and longevity (though the links from ambition to life satisfaction and longevity were quite weak.”

All in all, it seemed like ambition was a pretty good thing in the study.

Ambition and Women

It’s just one article – why should we care about this particular piece? Because it’s wrong and because it’s designed to hit women hardest. By invoking earnest discussion around career and sacrifice by Sandberg and Slaughter in the beginning of her article, Smith rests her argument against ambition squarely on women.

Claiming those who dare to choose an ambitious career path are bound to fail in their relationships is not only counterproductive; it’s an offensive fear tactic designed to shame anyone who strives to achieve a high career status. It contributes to the myth of the “good girl” who “knows her place,” one of the many factors keeping women out of leadership roles.

There will always be tales of people who regret not keeping up with a relationship or leaving a community behind. But there will also always be tales of people who didn’t pursue their dreams, and are left to wonder what might have been. Life is a series of risks and sacrifices – and the ability to make those many choices is part of a rich and fulfilling existence that both men and women deserve.

1 Response

  1. Maureen

    Perhaps trying to assign responsibility to just one factor for something as intangible as happiness is a challenge worth discussing. Yes, the reality is that our society places great worth on quantitative proof that things exist. Maybe happiness has too many factors and an infinite number of combinations of those factors to isolate any one factor as being key. Inventions are often born out of someone’s openness to try something new and be open to what is revealed. In fact, if it weren’t for Einstein’s open approach to the observation of life, we wouldn’t have the computers we are using to debate this very issue. Thank you for indulging this brief reflection.