Study of the Day: Ambition May Bring Success, but Not Happiness

New research from Notre Dame suggests that the enviable careers of go-getters may be incompatible with life satisfaction and longevity.

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PROBLEM: People who are ambitious tend to attend the best universities and go on to have prestigious careers with high salaries. But do they necessarily lead happier and healthier lives as well?

METHODOLOGY: University of Notre Dame management professor Timothy Judge used data from the Terman life-cycle study to track 717 high-ability individuals over seven decades. He measured the participants' ambition from childhood to the beginning of their careers. The educational backgrounds of the subjects ranged from finishing with high school diplomas to attending some of the world's best universities -- Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Cornell, Northwestern, Berkeley, and Oxford.

RESULTS: Ambition was predicted by individual differences -- conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and general mental ability -- and a socioeconomic background variable: parents' occupational prestige. Despite their many accomplishments in school and at work, go-getters tend to live somewhat shorter lives and are only slightly happier than their less-motivated peers.

CONCLUSION: High achievers may be sacrificing the quality of their lives for success.

IMPLICATION: Parents should know that ambition has its limits. Judge said in a statement, "If your biggest wish for your children is that they lead happy and healthy lives, you might not want to overemphasize professional success."

SOURCE: The full study, "On the Value of Aiming High: The Causes and Consequences of Ambition," is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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