By Martha McLaughlin
Ambition is generally defined as having a strong desire to achieve something and the will to work for it.1 It can be the impetus for much positive change. But can you have too much of a good thing when it comes to ambition?
The Downside to Ambition
In reality, too much ambition or wrongly focused ambition can lead to poor mental health. Sometimes goals and expectations may simply be too high. Our culture pushes the notion than anyone can do anything if they want it enough. Unfortunately, life and human beings both have limits. If goals are unreasonable, disappointment and frustration can easily take hold and can contribute to mental health issues like depression.
Another downside to ambition is that undue focus on one goal may lead to neglecting others. It’s not uncommon for people to devote so much time and energy to building a career that family ties erode, leading to divorce or isolation from loved ones. Sometimes the value of something is only seen when it’s lost, and losing it can contribute to depression and grief.
There may also be biological reasons ambition can lead to depression. For some people, the link may be dopamine, the main feel-good chemical in the brain that teaches us to repeat pleasurable activities. Its goal is to ensure the survival of the species by rewarding behaviors like eating, procreation and social bonding. Vanderbilt University researchers found that “go-getters” experienced a dopamine release in areas of the brain associated with reward and motivation.2
When the dopamine system is pushed beyond what the body considers normal, tolerance can develop. The body starts producing less dopamine or adapts its receptor cells in order to keep things in balance. Anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure, is related to depletion of dopamine and may be involved in some instances of workaholism.
Another biological pathway to depression is through the mechanism of stress. When you’re focused on achieving a goal, there’s often a high degree of stress combined with a low amount of self-care. Stress changes the body and brain biologically, which can predispose you to depression and anxiety.
Keeping Ambition Healthy
Knowing when ambition is no longer healthy begins with self-examination. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Is the ambition tinged with perfectionism? Sure, some tasks do need to be done in one, clearly correct way, but it’s easy to spend more energy than necessary on goals of little real significance. If only “perfect” results are viewed as being good enough, then frustration is likely to set in.
- Has ambition become competition? If you see success as a game in which there are winners and losers, it’s hard to celebrate someone else’s achievement because their win feels like your loss. This can make it hard to work with others and achieve goals as a team.
- Do your goals reflect your values? Have you adopted the definition of success promoted by family, friends or the culture at large without stopping to determine if what you’re working toward is truly reflective of your deepest desires? It’s been said that few things are as disheartening as scaling a building only to discover you’re on the wrong roof.
- Are you trying to achieve objectives outside your control? Your actions can make certain outcomes more or less likely, but achieving most big goals often depends on forces you can’t direct. Separating your sense of accomplishment and self-worth from what’s not in your power to manage can help you find peace.
- Are you balancing your drive to achieve with self-care practices? Focusing on deadlines and goals can keep the body’s sympathetic nervous system in high alert, which can lead to both physical and mental health issues over time. Building habits designed to turn off fight-or-flight responses and turn on rest-and-digest responses is a key action for sustaining health. Even small changes can be beneficial. One CEO notes the importance of paying attention to breathing, as it’s the only voluntary action that can regulate our nervous system.3 Breathing deeply and slowly can tell your body you aren’t in danger. Consciously slowing physical movements can also send the subconscious mind a message of safety.
As with so much involving mental health, the key to managing ambition is to maintain balance and to check in with yourself on a regular basis to assess any growing problems. It’s also important to put self-care activities on the to-do list. Depression can significantly lower your quality of life and impede your ability to reach your goals. But making self-care a goal can help you overcome depression so your life becomes balanced and purposeful again.
1 “Ambition.” Vocabulary.com, Accessed January 23, 2018.
1 Salisbury, David. “Dopamine impacts your willingness to work.” Research News @ Vanderbilt, May 1, 2012.
1 Wang, Ann. “This Millennial Founder Explains Why the Future of Ambition Is Mindful.” Forbes, January 3, 2018.