Healthy ambition

As the final days of the Wimbledon Championships approach, representing the culmination of hundreds of players’ decades of ambition, Oliver James, clinical psychologist, journalist and published author, discusses what it is to have emotionally healthy ambition.

Oliver James, external contributor
Player holding tennis racket and ball

A fundamental issue of ambition is the extent to which its goal is social or career achievement, or internal wellbeing. 

In recent years, there has been a high emphasis placed on happiness as an internal goal, but I profoundly disagree with this. Happiness is a temporary state, mostly derived from material pleasures like eating delicious food or sexual satisfaction. It is a fool’s game to chase happiness, a chimera that we can never even approximate to.

More meaningful and realistic is the concept of emotional health. This has six components:

  1. Living in the present
  2. Authenticity       
  3. Insightfulness
  4. Fluid, open relationships with others
  5. Playfulness
  6. Vivacity

Emotional health is the sense that what is happening, is happening now. 

It is firsthand, immediate, rather than only knowing what was experienced when you reflect about it later. You are, as the sports commentators put it, ‘in the zone’.

You feel real rather than false. You are comfortable in your skin: you do not wish you could be someone else, nor do you look down on others for not being like you. You know what you are thinking and feeling, even if sometimes that is only that you know that you don’t know.

You have your own consistent ethical code which enables you to distinguish right from wrong. You are stoical in the face of adversity, realistic in your ideas and often seem to be wise in your judgements. You have the capacity for insight into your own actions. You can sometimes spot in advance when you are about to make a mistake and avoid it or can see when you are reacting irrationally to a situation and correct yourself. This gives you that nectar of the soul, the capacity for choice, and therefore, for change. Such self-awareness is what sets us apart from other animals.

In your moment-to-moment dealings with other people, you are a good judge of what they are feeling and thinking. You are able to live in the place where self and others meet without tyranny. You do not get ‘jammed on transmit’, nor ‘jammed on receive’ either. You live without flooding or dominating others, nor are flooded or dominated.

You are adaptable, but without losing yourself. 

When in social or professional situations which demand a measure of falsehood, you can put on a face to meet the faces that you meet without losing your sense of authenticity. Your real self is as close as possible to the one you are presenting to others, depending on what is feasible. If a lie is necessary, you lie.

Your vivacity is striking, the liveliness you bring to any situation, but it is not frenetic and does not smack of ‘keeping busy’ to distract from bad feelings. You are spontaneous and always searching for the playful way to handle things, retaining a childlike sparkle, a conviction that life is to be enjoyed, not endured. You are not bogged down in needy, childish, greedy, game-playing manipulation.

You may suffer depressions, rages, phobias, all manner of problems from time to time. You make mistakes. But because of your emotional health, you are far better at living in the present and finding the value in your existence, whatever is going on, making you resilient.

When people leave your company, they often feel better able to function, more vivacious and playful. Your emotional wellness rubs off on them. You are no martyr but you are widely regarded as a valuable contributor to your social and professional circles.

Have you ever met anyone like this? No, nor have I. None of us are emotionally healthy at all times, in all these ways. For most, it is only in some respects, some of the time. A very few are, in many respects, much of the time – perhaps 5 or 10 per cent of us. That is what I mean by emotional health: a state that we can approximate to, more or less, rather than absolute, like happiness.

There is, of course, a constant tension between the pursuit of emotional health and of the glittering prizes of social and career success. In the kind of society that we live, it tends to be assumed that acquisition of wealth or the possession of beauty will bring emotional health. This is far from what I believe to be the case.

Although there are no studies testing the matter, I suspect that the emotionally healthy are more often to be found among people with what might be considered relatively low aspirations, as measured in conventional terms.

The challenge in our own lives, and in the motives and goals we nurture in our children, is to balance out the pursuit of emotional health against the pursuit of conventional achievement.

The best solution to that enigma is self-determination. If we feel that we are doing things because they matter to us, rather than to people-please, we are most likely to achieve both goals.

This excerpt was created in a partnership with LGT Wealth Management and The School of Life. 

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