This month, many of the nation's best and brightest high school seniors will receive thick envelopes in the mail announcing their admission to the college of their dreams. According to a 2011 survey, about 60 percent of them will go to their first-choice schools. For many of them, going away to college will be like crossing the Rubicon. They will leave their families—their homes—and probably not return for many years, if at all.
That was journalist Rod Dreher's path. Dreher grew up in the small southern community of Starhill, Louisiana, 35 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. His family goes back five generations there. His father was a part-time farmer and sanitarian; his mother drove a school bus. His younger sister Ruthie loved hunting and fishing, even as a little girl.
But Dreher was different. As a bookish teenager, he was desperate to flee what he considered his intolerant and small-minded town, a place where he was bullied and misunderstood by his own father and sister. He felt more at home in the company of his two eccentric and worldly aunts—great-great aunts, actually—who lived nearby. One was a self-taught palm reader. She looked into his hand one day when he was a boy and told him, "See this line? You'll travel far in life." Dreher hoped she was right. When he was 16, he decided to leave home for a Louisiana boarding school with the intention of never looking back.
That decision created a divide between him and his sister Ruthie, who was firmly attached to Starhill. Leaving for boarding school was "the fork in the road for us, the moment in our lives in which we diverged," he writes in his new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life.
In the book, he describes leaving his Starhill home to pursue a career in journalism—a career that took him to cities like Baton Rouge, Washington DC, Fort Lauderdale, Dallas, New York, and Philadelphia. He was chasing after a bigger and better career with each move. "I was caught up in a culture of ambition," Dreher told me me in an interview.
While Dreher was a dreamer, Ruthie was satisfied with what she had. When Dreher was living in big cities, going to fancy restaurants, carousing with media types, writing film reviews for a living, and traveling to Europe, Ruthie was back home in Louisiana, living down the road from her parents, starting a family of her own, and devoting herself to her elementary school students as a teacher. Ruthie could not understand Dreher's lifestyle. Why would he want to leave home for a journalism career? Wasn't Starhill good enough? Did Rod think he was better than all of them?
These "invisible walls" stood between Ruthie and Dreher when, on Mardi Gras of 2010, Ruthie was unexpectedly diagnosed with terminal lung cancer— devastating news that ripped through her community "like a cyclone" says Dreher, who was living in Philadelphia at the time. She was a healthy non-smoking 40-year-old, beloved by her students, her neighbors, her three daughters, and her husband. Now, she had about three months to live. She actually lived for nineteen. On September 15, 2011, Ruthie passed away.
Watching her struggle with terminal cancer for 19 months, and seeing her small-town community pour its love into supporting her, was a transformational experience for Dreher. "There are some things that we really cannot do by ourselves," Dreher said. "When Ruthie got sick, there were things that her family could not do—they couldn't get the kids to school without help, they couldn't get meals on the table without help, they couldn't pay the bill without help. It really took a village to care for my sick sister. The idea that we are self-reliant is a core American myth."
When news spread of Ruthie's cancer, some friends planned an aid concert to raise money for her medical bills. Hundreds of people came together, raising $43,000 for their friend. "This is how it's supposed to be," someone told Dreher that night. "This is what folks are supposed to do for each other."
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? Just the other week, Slate ran a symposium that addressed this question, asking, "Does an Early Marriage Kill Your Potential To Achieve More in Life?" Ambition is deeply entrenched into the American personae, as Yale's William Casey King argues in Ambition, A History: From Vice to Virtue—but what are its costs?
In psychology, there is surprisingly little research on ambition, let alone the effect it has on human happiness. But a new study, forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology, sheds some light on the connection between ambition and the good life. Using longitudinal data from the nine-decade-long Terman life-cycle study, which has followed the lives and career outcomes of a group of gifted children since 1922, researchers Timothy A. Judge of Notre Dame and John D. Kammeyer-Mueller of the University of Florida analyzed the characteristics of the most ambitious among them. How did their lives turn out?
The causes of ambition were clear, as were its career consequences. The researchers found that the children who were the most conscientious (organized, disciplined, and goal-seeking), extroverted, and from a strong socioeconomic background were also the most ambitious. The ambitious members of the sample went on to become more educated and at more prestigious institutions than the less ambitious. They also made more money in the long run and secured more high-status jobs.
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.
"There really wasn't a big impact from ambition to how satisfied people were with their lives," Kammeyer-Mueller, a business school professor, told me. At the same time, ambitious people were not miserable either. "People who are ambitious are happy that they have accomplished more in their lives," he says.
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."
Existing research by psychologist Tim Kasser can help address this issue. Kasser, the author of The High Price of Materialism, has shown that the pursuit of materialistic values like money, possessions, and social status-the fruits of career successes-leads to lower well-being and more distress in individuals. It is also damaging to relationships: "My colleagues and I have found," Kasser writes, "that when people believe materialistic values are important, they...have poorer interpersonal relationships [and] contribute less to the community." Such people are also more likely to objectify others, using them as means to achieve their own goals.
So if the pursuit of career success comes at the expense of social bonds, then an individual's well-being could suffer. That's because community is strongly connected to well-being. In a 2004 study, social scientists John Helliwell and Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, examined the well-being of a large sample of people in Canada, the United States, and in 49 nations around the world. They found that social connections—in the form of marriage, family, ties to friends and neighbors, civic engagement, workplace ties, and social trust—"all appear independently and robustly related to happiness and life satisfaction, both directly and through their impact on health."
In Canada and the United States, having frequent contact with neighbors was associated with higher levels of well-being, as was the feeling of truly belonging in a group. "If everyone in a community becomes more connected, the average level of subjective well-being would increase," they wrote.
This may explain why Latin Americans, who live in a part of the world fraught with political and economic problems, but strong on social ties, are the happiest people in the world, according to Gallup. It may also explain why Dreher's Louisiana came in as the happiest state in the country in a major study of 1.3 million Americans published in Science in 2009. This surprised many at the time, but makes sense given the social bonds in communities like Starhill. Meanwhile, wealthy states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California were among the least happy, even though their inhabitants have ambition in spades; year after year, they send the greatest number of students to the Ivy League.
In another study, Putnam and a colleague found that people who attend religious services regularly are, thanks to the community element, more satisfied with their lives than those who do not. Their well-being was not linked to their religious beliefs or worshipping practices, but to the number of friends they had at church. People with ten or more friends at their religious services were about twice as satisfied with their lives than people who had no friends there.
These outcomes are interesting given that relationships and community pose some challenges to our assumptions about the good life. After all, relationships and community impose constraints on freedom, binding people to something larger than themselves. The assumption in our culture is that limiting freedom is detrimental to well-being. That is true to a point. Barry Schwartz, a psychological researcher based at Swarthmore College, has done extensive research suggesting that too much freedom—or a lack of constraints—is detrimental to human happiness.
"Relationships are meant to constrain," Schwartz told me, "but if you're always on the lookout for better, such constraints are experienced with bitterness and resentment."
Dreher has come to see the virtue of constraints. Reflecting on what he went through when Ruthie was sick, he told me that the secret to the good life is "setting limits and being grateful for what you have. That was what Ruthie did, which is why I think she was so happy, even to the end."
Meanwhile, many of his East Coast friends, who chased after money and good jobs, certainly achieved success, but felt otherwise empty and alone. As Dreher was writing his book, one told him, "Everything I've done has been for career advancement ... And we have done well. But we are alone in the world." He added: "Almost everybody we know is like that."
For many years, Ruthie and her mother had a Christmas Eve tradition of visiting the Starhill cemetery and lighting candles on each of the hundreds of graves there. On that first Christmas Eve after Ruthie died, her mother could not bring herself to keep the tradition going. And yet, driving past the cemetery after sunset on that Christmas Eve, Dreher saw sparks of light illuminating the graveyard. Someone else had lit the candles on the graves—but who? It turns out that a member of their community named Susan took it upon herself to pay that tribute to the departed, including Ruthie.
In the final paragraph of the novel Middlemarch, George Eliot pays another kind of tribute to the dead. Eliot writes, "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."
In other words, those many millions of people who live in the "unvisited tombs" of the world, though they may not be remembered or known by you and me, are the ones who kept the peace of the world when they were alive. For Dreher, Ruthie is one of those people. She was, he told me, "A completely unfussy, ordinary, neighborly person, who you'd never notice in a crowd, but whose deep goodness and sense of order and compassion saved the day."
Dreher also said of his sister, "What I saw over the course of her 19-month struggle with cancer was the power of a quiet life lived faithfully with love and service to others." While Ruthie, an ordinary person, did not live the kind of life our culture celebrates, she "penetrated deeply into the lives of the people she touched," Dreher told me. "She did not live life on the surface."
What's remarkable, though, is that she was not extraordinary in this regard. Most of the people in the Starhill community were like her in their kindness and compassion, Dreher said.
After Ruthie passed away, Rod decided, with his wife and young children, to put aside their East Coast lives and move back home to Louisiana. They have been there for a year and a half and love it. "Community means more than many of us realize," he says. "It certainly means more than your job."