Ambition is the American way. We are taught from the very beginning that any day that is not filled with eight to ten hours of solid work is a day wasted, other than Sundays and holidays, which these days aren’t even safe themselves. It is a part of our Protestant heritage and what has driven us so far past most other countries in terms of economic wealth. Most Americans feel like nothing was achieved in a day unless they clock some sort of tangible billable hours in order to fatten up their bank accounts. And while it is true that a certain amount of money is needed to provide for your family and put food on plates and warm blankets on beds, evidence is mounting that being overly ambitious can have negative effects on our sense of well-being, happiness, and life span.
In the race to the top of the proverbial economic mountain, we are all too often faced with decisions that pit our bank accounts against our social experiences. The normative response is to choose to pursue the former, thinking that once our coffers are full we can dedicate the time we now have to the relationships sacrificed during the accumulation of that wealth, only to look back and find that that simply isn’t the case. Being overly ambitious in the chase for monetary wealth and status often leaves us lonely and out of touch with people that we used to consider dear. As the saying goes, “it’s lonely at the top.”
But having a life filled with fulfilling social relationships doesn’t just sound nice and warm; there are hardcore scientifically-measurable health benefits to it. It turns out that having friends can prolong your life span. A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a lot of friends were 22% less likely to die during the study period.
Another more recent meta-analysis of 148 studies going back 100 years and including over 300,000 participants found that having lots of friends can increase survival by 50%! It was found to be more beneficial than exercise or diet. A recent study also showed that loneliness can be twice as deadly as obesity.
Many Eastern cultures already know this and have for centuries. In Japan, the idea of ikigai is highly emphasized. Ikigai means “life purpose,” and while you may think that sounds pretty similar to ambition, ikigai is rarely about accumulation of wealth and status. Rather, it is referring to positive social interactions and impacts on your community and the world. Japan has a very high number of centenarians, especially in Okinawa, which is among the top places in the world for long life span.
This is emphasized in the book, I’ve Decided to Live 120 Years by Ilchi Lee. Lee points out that first half of your adult life is spent on your career and securing stability for your family, but once you retire, you no longer have a society-given purpose. He suggests self-development and giving back to family and community as the “ambition” you should pursue in the second half of your life. According to Lee, these are fundamental in lengthening your life span.
Wealth may seem nice on the surface. Who wouldn’t have a big smile on their face as they cruise into St. Tropez with P. Diddy on their newly acquired 76’ Magellano yacht? But a large number of the wealthy are unhappy and suffer from a sense of isolation. A survey undertaken by Boston College researchers entitled “Wealth: Its Joys and Discontents” reports just that. In this study, 165 wealthy households with an average net worth of $78 million voluntarily responded to a questionnaire that revealed some very interesting facts. Not only does great wealth create a sense of social isolation, but it also leads to worry for the well-being of their children who are set to inherit that wealth, and a decreased sense of the right to complain about things, even if they are unrelated to money. They also reported an inability to maintain close ties with long-term friends who didn’t earn as much as they did.
Unfortunately for the majority of us, our careers and the rest of the things that round out our lives are at odds. That doesn’t mean that having career ambition is a bad thing, only that too much can negatively affect us. Balancing our career ambition and our social ties, hobbies, and other activities is the next step for us as a society in trying to live healthier, more fulfilling lives. So the next time you consider staying late at the office to buy that $60 bedazzled t-shirt that popped up on your Facebook ads feed, I hope you think again. Instead, take that time that you would have spent squinting at your screen and spend it with your friends and family. You’ll be wealthier where it counts.