Ambition and happiness: do you have everything to be happy?

My wife recently told me “You have everything to be happy. I would expect you to be happier. Why aren’t you?”. The theme of today’s post is balancing ambition with satisfaction.

Ambition is good

It is probably good to have ambitions. Otherwise, we would not do anything worthwhile. A person who has high ambitions is more likely to get a better career, come out with a better deal from a negotiation table, earn the respect of his peers.  Ambition motivates us to work harder, pushes us to be more creative and energizes us into action. The feeling of purpose that often comes with high ambitions makes us more satisfied. So far everything about ambition is good, at least as long as our expectations are not too high.

You cant get what you want

Eventually, every ambition tends to turn into frustration. There are several reasons for it:

  • As we get very good at something, it becomes much harder to get any progress and we feel frustrated.
  • True mastery is very hard to achieve and easy to fake. The master will often feel not appreciated, the faker will feel worthless and the public will feel cheated.
  • Somebody else will always be more successful than we are.  If we are the best in the world in something, we will suddenly want something greater.
  • If for some reason we achieve our long-term goals we might feel emptiness and disorientation.
  • When for some reason all the stars align and we get an incredible achievement, there is this tiny thought “Is this my maximum? Can I ever beat that?”

When I was in my best speedreading shape I could read 10000 words with 50% retention. 50% is the minimum required to qualify for speedreading. The training was tough, and I decided it was ultimately not worth it. I read fast, but I do not read that fast anymore.

I never was truly happy

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “I haven’t known 6 days of happiness in my life. Not sure if the quote is historically correct, but it is famous. The person who had everything was probably deeply unhappy. We understand that some celebrities are unhappy often only after their demise.

Ambitions and achievements do not make you happy. They may generate happy moments, but not long-term happiness. Happiness comes from truly enjoying the small things life has to offer, finding both pleasure and purpose in everyday tasks. Moreover, true happiness usually lies in the journey rather than the destination.

Money or love cannot buy happiness. The more love and money we get, the happier we are, but only up to a point. Above that, the wellbeing still improves, but only barely.

Am I happy?

So I ask myself to what extent I am happy and how I can be happier. Let’s do a checklist of what are some basic elements of happiness:

  • Financial wellbeing. Basically enough to deal with physical needs and provide security. If you can read or write in this blog, probably you qualify.
  • Physical pleasures. Healthy body, reasonable weather, a person we love, food that is more than substantive, sports and who knows what. Probably I could do better in this area, but what I have is more than enough to be happy.
  • Love and belonging. Having a family that loves you and some friends will qualify.
  • Spiritual fulfillment. Between religion, mindfulness, art or music and some other cool stuff, we have at least 10% of the happiness potential.  I can honestly say I am very content in this particular area.
  • Making the world a better place. This is a basic question about one’s purpose in life.  I believe most of us have a positive impact on the world.
  • Personal growth. Another subjective measure of purpose in one’s life. I think my own personal growth has only accelerated since I can remember myself.  Probably this has to do with my learning habits.

I think I check all the checkmarks of what is needed to be happy, yet I do not feel truly happy. The reason must be different.

Early childhood

When we are below two years old, our brain and body work differently. We learn languages and develop musical perfect pitch before the age of 10 months. Some say that the basic feelings of joy and pain develop earlier. When a child is properly fed and healthy he is happy, and the happiness neurons flourish. If the child is in pain, he gets more sensitive to negative sensations, and more likely to develop chronic pains later on.

I was very sick as a small child: I had multiple infections and a severe lack of calcium.  Quite honestly, I think my potential for happiness is lower because of that.

Do a favor to your child and do not allow him to cry himself to sleep when he is several months old…

Love is all you need

Infants need parental love,  and they usually get it. Research shows that mammals tend to die without it.

Love and belonging are more of a question in later childhood and adolescence. I did not have siblings, did not go to kindergarten, was terrorized by bullies till I was 12 years old and could do a horizontal bar 30 times. Then I faced all the uncertainties of immigration. I was loved by ladies, but very insecure. When I just married Anna we used to argue a lot. Probably I was 35 years old and married with two kids when I finally felt sufficiently loved and belonging.

The bad thing in this story is the delayed development of social skills and lack of support through socialization in the most challenging periods of life, e.g. adolescence.

Finding happiness through learning

My spiritual fulfillment came from learning. This is something I always was good at, and after Anna’s training, I am a remarkably good learner. As a child, I was captivated by physics and computers, as a 20 years old man by history and philosophy, and later by psychology and so-called soft skills. I am constantly learning and this fills a religious need in me. The more I know how the world works, the better I feel with my own place in it.

Sharing my understandings and mentoring others fills me with a strong sense of fulfillment, as I understand that I make the world better.

Lifelong learning as a strategy also provides constant personal growth opportunities. The more we know, the better we understand the gaps in our knowledge, so this quest appears to be naturally accelerating and very satisfying.

Most of us have all that is needed for happiness

While we cannot fully remedy the errors of our own upbringing, we can acquire everything needed for a happy life: a reasonable house, a loving family, a meaningful job. Some things will come and go: the weather cannot always be good, and we will occasionally get sick, but overall we should be happy even though our ambitions are not realized.

One of the tricks that work for me is focusing on the things I am grateful for, instead of the things that I miss. I am trying to make this natural and automatic for myself, but it is a slow process due to my ADHD. I am also a little bit worried, as I understand how easy it is to lose the very things that make me happy, and how fragile human beings tend to be.


My best and most successful students often report frustration. It is a very reasonable feeling. The very ambition that makes them tick is causing them deep frustration. The higher the expectations, the harder it is to fulfill them. Working hard we often compromise the things that should make us better: we do not have enough time for our families, the sleep suffers, we eat and drink faster than we should enjoy the process. Hard work only amplifies the frustration.

December 2019 was the first month in the last 10 years that I almost did not read: I was too busy writing and I had to care for my wife with some orthopedic issue. And if this could happen to me, this can definitely happen to everyone.

To deal with frustration I often tell my students to take a short time-out. We should not use our grit to overcome trivial issues, but should instead focus on the very things that motivate us.

Thomas Merton – When ambition ends, happiness begins.

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