How to be ambitious without sacrificing your mental health

AAmbition can feel like a dirty word in the age of silent resignation and the Great Renunciation. Many Americans have come to realize that a mindset of constant effort can take a toll on mental well-being; in an October report, the US Surgeon General even named workplace mental health a new public health priority in the wake of the pandemic. Research has also linked the pursuit of extrinsic goals, such as power, with anxiety and depression.

But is abandoning your ambition entirely the secret to inner peace? Not necessarily. Instead, research suggests, the key is to harness your ambition to achieve a goal that serves your well-being.

“We want to make sure our ambition is directed in ways that matter to us,” says Richard Ryan, a clinical psychologist and pioneer of self-determination theory, a school of thought focused on human motivation. Pushing yourself is only healthy if “we do it in a way that doesn’t mess up the rest of our lives.”

Ambition is not inherently good or bad for mental health. A famous 2012 study, based on data from hundreds of people who were tracked over seven decades, found that ambition strongly predicted career success but was only weakly related to life satisfaction. Ambitious people weren’t drastically happier or unhappier than people who weren’t as motivated, explains co-author Tim Judge, who is now a professor at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

The goal of your ambition may have a greater impact on mental health. Studies have consistently shown that people who are motivated by “extrinsic” markers of success, such as wealth, status, or popularity, are not as psychologically satisfied as people who are driven by “intrinsic” motivators, such as personal growth, deep relationships or knowledge. Reaching an extrinsic goal may briefly satisfy you, “but it’s not long-lasting,” says Tim Kasser, professor emeritus of psychology at Knox College.

With a little practice and introspection, you can retrain your ambition to fuel, rather than harm, your mental health. Here are five research-backed ways to do just that.

Prioritize your relationships

Ambition can become harmful when it “crowds out” other important parts of life, says Ryan. “Ambition requires effort,” he says. “If you’re going to be successful and ambitious, you have to put a lot into it.” If that drive comes at the expense of psychologically satisfying things like strong relationships or autonomy over your time, it can take a toll on your mental health.

Focus on the task, not the rewards

Research suggests you’ll feel more fulfilled if you focus on achievement for achievement’s sake (mastering a task, learning something, or creating positive change for your clients or community) rather than just striving for the next promotion or pay raise . (Some research even suggests that people who follow these internal motivators end up achieving more in the end.) “You can be ambitious and intrinsically motivated at the same time,” says Ryan. “You can love your work… but it is in harmony with the rest of who you are.”

fight for growth

Instead of letting ambition rule your life, you can adopt a “growth mindset,” which refers to the belief that intelligence is not fixed and can be nurtured. Judge says it can be healthier to strive for growth — learn or hone a skill, or cultivate a trait you admire in others — rather than specific goals like getting a certain job or salary.

practice gratitude

People naturally have some materialistic tendencies, especially in capitalist societies. But Kasser’s research suggests that suppressing those urges may have mental health benefits. Mindfulness and gratitude can help. In one study, people who meditated daily were more satisfied with their financial status and had greater well-being. Regular reflections on gratitude, relationships, or mortality have also been shown to reduce materialism, which in turn can improve mental well-being.

Don’t try to monetize everything

Have you ever lost interest in a beloved hobby after making it a side hustle? There is an explanation backed by science. Decades ago, researchers found that attaching extrinsic motivators (such as cash rewards) to activities that people enjoyed decreased their internal motivation to keep doing them. If psychological satisfaction is your goal, you may be better off without the extra money.

More must-read stories from TIME

write to Jamie Ducharme at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *