Why Ambitious People Are More Unhappy

Working as a management consultant, I spend a lot of time with ambitious people.

People that are exchanging a lot of free time for work, and who always strive to become better.

One of my colleagues said the other week that he just “wanted to make it big”.

His salary is already in the top 1% of the Danish population, but still he isn’t even close to being where he wants to be. He wants to be the CEO of a large, international company.

Is it a problem to be ambitious? Not necessarily, but for me it is a problem if it makes you or me more unhappy.

Looking at Danish happiness data

Denmark is one of the happiest countries on the planet.

This also means that we have good data on how happy people are.

Recently, I discovered some data that led me to believe that ambitious people are more unhappy.

In fact, if you look at Statistics Denmark’s data on the quality of life you discover something interesting- and a bit disturbing.

For nearly all age groups (except 70+), most people expect to be more happy in the future than today.

The participants were asked two questions:

  1. Overall, how satisfied are you with life as a whole these days?
  2. Overall, how satisfied do you expect to be with your life in 5 years?

The average score for the first question is 7.6, whereas the average score for the second question is 8.2.

That is a massive gap! Apparently, people believe they will be happier in the future than they are today.

But what does that tell us about ambition and happiness?

Well, if you dive deeper into the data and look at it on a city-level, things get even more interesting.

In all the largest cities in Denmark, especially in the largest city, Copenhagen (the capital), the score for current life satisfaction is the lowest in all of Denmark at roughly 7.4.

However, the expected life satisfaction in 5 years from now in Copenhagen is actually the highest in Denmarkat 8.4 – and it is the same trend for the other large cities in Denmark.

If you look at the gap between current life satisfaction and expected life satisfaction in 5 years from now, the gap for the biggest cities is close to 1.0!

If you look at the similar gap for smaller cities, it is between 0.2 and 0.4.

Now that’s interesting!

It really seems like people living in larger cities are more unhappy and have unrealistic expectations about the future. I like to call this the unhappiness gap.

Why ambitious people are more unhappy: The Hedonic Treadmill

I believe it is fair to assume that there’s generally more ambitious people focusing on busy careers living in larger cities. Also, the fact that they have bigger expectations for future life satisfaction also mirrors a high level of ambition.

At the same time, it seems like people living in larger cities are more unhappy.

The theory of The Hedonic Treadmill (or hedonic adaptation) is a concept from 1971 by Brickman and Campbell.

I believe it fits perfectly here.

It describes that people will always return to a baseline level of happiness after experiencing a positive event (getting married, moving into a new house, getting a promotion etc.), but also after a negative event (losing a job, being in an accident etc.).

If you have a baseline happiness level that you will remain at, then all the things my ambitious colleagues are striving for (more money, more influence, more expensive things etc.) will not give them a permanent happiness increase.

In fact, as they make more money, their expectations and needs rise in tandem. The things that led to the short happiness increase do not work anymore.

Therefore, they will keep on running on the hedonic treadmill to try to achieve the same happiness again, but it will not last for long… and then the cycle repeats itself.

If this is true, it means ambitious people are more prone to being unhappy because they never become satisfied and continuously focus on achieving goals in the future. Remember they expect to be more happy than other people in the future.

However, once they achieve the goals, they don’t become happier, they just set new goals.

This could explain why ambitious people are more unhappy, even though they expect to be more happy than others in the future.

What can we learn about ambition and happiness?

I’m not saying that all ambitious people will be better off by moving out of large cities and quit their jobs. You shouldn’t stop being ambitious either.

I’m just saying that it is important to be aware of the hedonic treadmill and the unhappiness gap.

For me, there’s a few things you can do to decrease the likelihood that you run too fast on the hedonic treadmill and minimize the unhappiness gap:

Watch out for the gap

If you are ambitious, you have to watch out for the gap.

Don’t do things you don’t like today to achieve goals in the future that will only give you short-term happiness.

I have previously written about optimizing both current and future happiness, and I still believe this concept is relevant.

Finding meaning

Many people I know have goals for the future, but they are not always associated with the things that mean the most to them.

You have to find out what is most important to you in life and then spend time on those things rather than arbitrary goals you think will bring you happiness.

I believe that you need to simplify your life and focus on the important things. If you do fewer things and have fewer goals in life, you are likely to end up happier in the present – and in the future.

I’m not saying you should do drastic things in your life that could lead to even more unhappiness (for example, quitting your job and not having an income), but you could slowly simplify your life over time.

Spending time with great people

One of the best predictors of happiness is always the strength of social relationships.

If you are satisfied with your social relationships, you are much more likely to be happy.

If you want to avoid the hedonic treadmill, you should spend as much time on your social relationships as possible.

Strong relationships with your family and friends are the best predictor for happiness, so don’t let other ambitions get in the way of this. You’ll be at risk of ending up with a larger unhappiness gap if you do.

I have always been very ambitious and dedicated a lot of time to my career. Pursuing financial independence, reading about happiness and observing my peers in management consulting, I have become much more aware of this in recent years.

I have not managed to escape the hedonic treadmill yet, and I’m not sure whether it is possible at all, but understanding how ambition can lead to unhappiness is an important first step in the right direction to maximize current life satisfaction and minimize the unhappiness gap.

Your turn: Are you running on a hedonic treadmill? Do you know someone who is? Do you expect to be more happy in the future than today?