Yet, this Fundamental will suggest that a more modest approach to life and goal-setting is the key to happiness. That is why this Fundamental is considered so controversial. Indeed, it was quite a puzzlement to me when I first stumbled onto it…
Like most of us, I was raised on the “American Dream.” I grew to believe that success, ambition, lofty goals, “making it to the top,” etc. was the way to be happy. Second best was not good enough! Only the winners in life were happy (or so I was taught).
The messages were everywhere. Magazines and T.V. were filled with the flashy cars, the beautiful homes, the exquisite people, the high-status careers… The “life-styles of the rich and famous” — that’s what it took to be happy! I bought it hook, line, and sinker.
I bought it so well, that had I written this book based on my own personal views, it would be filled with inspirational “pep-talks” stressing high-achievement themes. I would have written things like “be a winner,” “go for the gold,” “don’t stop, ’till you’re on top,” and the like. The message was so deeply ingrained, I never questioned it.
Imagine, then, my shock, as I originally began to amass the past research on happiness, to find indications that the happiest people weren’t highly ambitious. In fact, the data showed quite the opposite:
those individuals who had the highest need to achieve — the ones who placed the greatest stress on high ambitions and goals — the ones most driven to succeed — we’re rather unhappy people!
In fact, the data indicated that happy people actually had a slightly lower desire for success than unhappy people, and their “need for achievement” tended to be a bit lower, as well (95, 133, 175). High ambition appeared to be much more characteristic of the unhappy (133, 135, 390). In studies of values, for instance, those people strongly stressing values on achievement, ambition, and great accomplishment were usually unhappy (201, 202). Unhappy people were especially likely to set rigid and over-idealized goals for themselves (202, 132). Even the typical emotional demeanor we associate with success and achievement (the picture of drive, self-denial, and ambition) appeared to be more typical of unhappy, rather than happy, people. The happy person was found to be far less driven, more relaxed, and basically contented (202).