Too Much Ambition Can Kill You, Study Shows

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March 7, 2012 ‐ By

Attending the best school so you can snag the best job, so you can bring home tons of bacon is what most of us dream about before we set off for college, and it’s what we keep pressing for as we graduate, land our first job, and strive to make increasingly more money throughout our careers. But then what? Once we achieve all that will we be truly happy? Science says no.

Timothy Judge, professor of management at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, just completed research on 717 high-ability individuals who have been followed over seven decades. Using multiple criteria, Judge measured participants’ ambition during several periods of their lives from childhood to young adults just beginning their careers. The participants’ education ranged from Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Cornell, Northwestern, Berkeley, Oxford, and Notre Dame, to more modest educations, including high school diplomas and community college degrees. What Judge found was this:

“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.’ However, we determined that ambition has a much weaker effect on life satisfaction and actually a slightly negative impact on longevity. So, yes, ambitious people do achieve more successful careers, but that doesn’t seem to translate into leading happier or healthier lives.”

For all the positive perks that come with being overly ambitious, Judge emphasizes that a high level of professional success is not without cost to not only ones personal relationships but also their own mental and physical health. “Ambitious people are only slightly happier than their less- ambitious counterparts, and they actually live somewhat shorter lives,” he said.

Right now, Judge doesn’t know the underlying causes of the shorter lifespan for these individuals, but he does have a theory:

“Perhaps the investments they make in their careers come at the expense of the things we know affect longevity: healthy behaviors, stable relationships, and deep social networks.”

While this study obviously isn’t encouraging people to give up on pursuing their goals, the takeaway message is that balance is necessary in order to be successful professionally, personally, and physically.

Do you notice other areas of your life lacking while you try to climb the professional ladder?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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