Researchers, meanwhile, are divided on the relationship between high achievement and health. A highly-publicized study from the University of Notre Dame followed 717 high achievers over several decades and found that, on average, they were only slightly happier and died earlier than their less motivated peers. Research also links ambition to bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression.
On the other hand, achievement indisputably pleases our brains temporarily. When we approach and then attain goals, neurotransmitters associated with pleasure such as dopamine and norepinephrine flood target reward centers. Some research suggests that accomplishments have positive long-term effects, too: a longitudinal study published in The International Journal of Behavioral Development found that prior work achievements and educational experiences were the strongest predictors of well-being in old age. Other studies reveal that students who perform better-than-average are happier.
Though the correlation between career success and well-being is inconclusive, researchers agree that attaining certain kinds of goals can be good for both our careers and our psychological health. Below are four steps to target achievement and gain enduring happiness:
1. Stop seeking pleasure
Pursuing happiness won’t make you successful. One study found that students who set goals based on anticipated pleasure performed worse. Another study showed that students who prioritized hedonic enjoyment—the pursuit of proximal goals and immediate pleasure—when setting academic goals did inferior work compared to students who displayed eudaimonia—a long-term commitment to “self-realization."
Pursuing happiness won’t make you happy, either. According to one study, seeking happiness is associated with symptoms and diagnoses of depression. Another study found that the more participants valued happiness, the more likely they were to exhibit disappointment and negative emotions.
2. Set intrinsic goals
Intrinsic goals are “those which are inherently satisfying to pursue because they are likely to satisfy innate psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, competence, and growth.” Extrinsic values, by contrast, include money, possessions and social status.
Setting goals with a sense of engagement and meaning is a significant positive predictor of vocational achievement. In one longitudinal study, active learning goals predicted “sustained motivation and higher achievement in the face of challenge,” while extrinsic goals predicted “withdrawal and poorer performance in the face of challenge.”
Intrinsic goals make us happy, too. In a study of recent college grads, attainment of intrinsic aspirations related to strong psychological health, while attainment of extrinsic aspirations related to ill-being. Another study reported that intrinsic aspirations correlated positively to well-being—including positive affect, vitality and self-actualization—and negatively to depression and anxiety. Yet another study found that ego-based goals were negatively associated with psychological well-being.
3. Aim high
Research shows that “the more difficult the goal, the greater the achievement” (provided an individual is committed to the goal and possesses the ability to achieve it). On the other hand, goals set too high can be demoralizing. Psychologist Edwin Locke, a pioneer in goal-setting theory, explains, “there is a fine line between stretching people and discouraging them.” Thus goals should be difficult enough to motivate and excite you but not so challenging that you have no chance of attaining them. Psychologists call this balance “optimal frustration."
Deciding to dream big also promotes well-being. One study found that people who set ambitious goals have greater levels of satisfaction compared to those who set conservative goals. The study’s author, University of California Riverside marketing professor Cecile Cho, sums, “The moral of the story is don’t sell yourself short. Aim high."
Moreover, when people believe they’re capable of achieving their goals they’re more likely to—even when controlling for past performance. In one study, students’ beliefs in their learning ability prompted them to set higher academic goals, which consequently led to higher academic achievement. On the flip side, research reveals that students told they failed on an assessment later displayed worse reading comprehension.
4. Be specific but broad
One comprehensive review revealed that, in 90% of studies, specific and challenging goals resulted in higher performance than did easy, imprecise goals. Locke explains, “The more specific or explicit the goal, the more precisely performance is regulated.”
An example of a popular, too-vague goal is “do your best.” Locke writes, “People do not actually do their best when trying to do their best because, as a vague goal, it is compatible with many different outcomes, including those lower than one’s best.” High specificity goals include quantification, such as increasing sales by 10%, or enumeration (“This is how I’m going to accomplish my goal, Steps 1-5”). Research indicates that even defining specific “where” and “when” parameters of a task increase one’s likelihood of completing it.
Though it’s important to specifically define each goal, setting only one type of goal can make us unhappy. Instead, specify goals in multiple areas of your life. Howard Stevensoz, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, suggests dividing goals into different life categories. “Unless you regularly hit on all categories, any one win will be unsatisfying. So instead of relentlessly pursuing one goal (be it making partner by 30 or being the world’s best soccer mom), focus on racking up victories in all areas.
On the other hand, setting too many goals can cause burnout. One study, “Goals Gone Wild,” determined that goals are over prescribed and need “careful dosing.” Consider making just one or two goals at a time in each area of your life.
Goals that make us successful as well as happy have another great side effect: happy people accomplish more. One study found that the happier and healthier college students were, the higher their academic performance was. Another study summarizes similar findings: “Children who perform well in school may do so in part because they are happy, and performing well academically may make children happier.” The corollary is also true: Unhappy students exhibit inferior performance, while unhappy employees do worse work.
Many millennials see career success and happiness in opposition. When we set the right kinds of goals, however, they mutually reinforce each other.
How do you know you’re setting goals that will yield both success and well-being? Stevensoz explains, “Real success is emotionally renewing, not anxiety provoking.” If your ambition is making you unhappy, it’s probably not making you successful, either. It may be time to reframe your aspirations.