Human beings are strivers. This has been a common theme of different theories of psychology over the years: we thrive on accomplishment. You could argue that this human need for mastery goes all the way back to the first amoeba struggling to crawl its way out of the primordial slime. We have a deeply rooted need to better our lot in life, either through self-improvement or through mastery over our environment.
“Accomplishment” or “Achievement” represents the “A” or the fifth pillar in “PERMA,” Marty Seligman’s classification of human flourishing (the first four pillars being Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, and Meaning.) For him, accomplishment is a recent addition to his theory of what drives human wellbeing.
But it’s not new to the science of psychology. Self-Determination Theory defined a “need for competence” as one of three essential “nutriments” humans require for growth. And Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced us to the concept of “Flow,” showing that humans are at their best when they are learning new things and overcoming challenges.
But accomplishment has a dark side too. A recent research study found that people who are ambitious, while they do create greater wealth and success for themselves, they do not convert much of that success into increased satisfaction with life, and ultimately, they do not live as long as their less ambitious counterparts. Striving for success comes at a cost.
And Douglas LaBier, a “business psychologist” and Huffington Post blogger, recently wrote another article on “the dark side of success.” He cites the “enormous toll” that success takes “on people’s emotions and overall lives.” Successful career advancement can lead to anxiety, depression, and a variety of other emotional conflicts.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that ambition and success might be linked to a feeling of dissatisfaction. A key part of my success in the world of luxury hospitality is to be dissatisfied with the status quo. To always wonder how we could do better. To notice details that are wrong (like a pillow out of place or a smudge on a glass) or to confront the greatest challenges affecting my business. I could even argue that being dissatisfied is a great motivator and a key to success.
For those who do strive for ever greater and greater outcomes, this becomes a habit–to always notice what is wrong or what needs to be fixed. In a customer service industry, a healthy negativity bias can help you to anticipate problems before they arise, or exceed customer expectations by noticing potential problems before your customers do.
We tend to think that success, health and happiness go hand in hand (in hand) but research shows that it is far more complex than that. We thrive on accomplishment, but with accomplishment comes stress, which is linked to negative emotions and negative health consequences? So how much success should we strive for?
Todd Kashdan, Associate Professor of Psychology at George Mason University, talks about these kinds of “psychological tradeoffs” with his students. We like to believe we can have it all, but life is complex and we are regularly trading one wellbeing benefit for another one. So what is the best way to navigate these complexities?
According to Kashdan, it comes down to values:
If you value longevity and peace more than accomplishment, for example, then an austere life of tranquil meditation and a vegetarian diet may be the best for you. Striving is almost the opposite of mindfulness, and accomplishment means taking on risks and stress that could take years off your life.
But maybe longevity and happiness are not the most important things in the world. Perhaps there are things that you value more. Some people will strap a bomb to their body or fly a plane into a building in order to accomplish what they feel is important. Others will rush into a burning building in an effort to save complete strangers. Do you think they care if a research study finds that striving to do great things shaves a few years off of your life?
When you read research studies talking about the dark side of success, ask yourself the question that Kashdan asks his students: “Would you be willing to have an ambitious life devoted to passionate pursuits if it cut a few years off your life?”
I know my answer.
by Jeremy McCarthy