When Ambition Becomes a Problem
November 16, 2016
Benjamin Shalva is the author of Ambition Addiction: How to Go Slow, Give Thanks, and Discover Joy Within (November 15, 2016) and Spiritual Cross-Training.
I am an ambition addict.
For overachievers like myself, growth is not enough. Accomplishment will not suffice. We ambition addicts need to distinguish ourselves from the herd. We ache for adoration. We want to win.
But this unfettered appetite for success comes at a cost.
The perpetual stress of ambition addiction frays our nerves and dramatically increases our risk of a heart attack or stroke. The more relentless our drive to succeed, the more willing we are to abandon those who dare disturb our dreams. Colleagues become competitors. Family and friends—dead weight. For the sake of success, we, the compulsive conquerers, deafen our ears and burn our bridges.
When we reach for our dreams at the expense of physical, emotional and relational wellbeing, this is a huge red flag.
For many of us, the drive to succeed is neurological.
Anticipated success, fame, or gain, however small, triggers neurons in the brain to release a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is one of a number of neurotransmitters that provides us with the sensation of pleasure. Dopamine-derived pleasure, though, is frequently linked to anticipated reward—reward not in the present moment, but in a moment to come.
As dopamine floods synapses, another part of the brain, called the cingulate cortex, monitors whether the anticipated reward lives up to expectations. If, over time, the cingulate cortex detects satisfaction, dopamine levels stay elevated. If the cingulate cortex detects disappointment, however, dopamine levels drop. We experience this decline in dopamine as the sensation of unhappiness, malaise, even downright despair.
Unfettered, high-stakes ambition, as we ambition addicts know only too well, rarely delivers us to our hoped for happy endings. Most of our lives, we psyche ourselves up only to have our hopes dashed. Whenever we rise high on hope and come up empty-handed, we experience a short burst of dopamine followed by a prolonged dopamine decline. Ambition addiction initially puts a spring in our step; ultimately, though, it acts as a depressant.
Rather than turning away from our obsessive pursuits, we interminable achievers will often double down on our efforts, forcing ourselves to run faster, try harder, ignore growing despondency and claw all the more fervently towards our goals.
In lamentable irony, we may even blame current circumstance for our foul mood, growing all the more convinced that the present is prelude and the future is salvation.
So what do the naturally ambitious do?
When we encounter ambition-induced lows, we can respond not with another hit of hope, but with a practice of mindful enjoyment. Face frozen in a scowl? Take a break and eat some ice cream. Hands and jaw clenched? Walk outside and shoot some hoops.
Bathing ourselves in enjoyable sensation transforms the mind, down to our very neurons. Mindful enjoyment allows another series of neurotransmitters to flow including oxytocin, norepinephrine, and endorphins. These chemicals flood the brain with the sensation of pleasure—not pleasure linked to anticipated reward, but pleasure experienced within the present moment. Every time we take a break to enjoy the here and now, these neurons grow stronger, more active, and more likely to fire in the future.
In other words, when we allow ourselves to delight in our present circumstance, whether or not this circumstance measures up to our ambitious ideal, we prime our brains to more easily delight in the future. By practicing enjoyment each time we drift toward despair, we continue to heal the complex of physical and emotional wounds wrought by our ceaseless striving.
Enjoying life’s simple pleasures can elevate our depression, inviting our bodies to relax and our relationships to flourish. Simple delights transform our perspective; we see the here and now not as a waiting room to be endured, but as a playground to be discovered. The practice of mindful enjoyment returns us to a place where, free from the yoke of pressure and productivity, we can imagine and dream.
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