Ambition vs. Happiness

Ambition can be a strong driver to achieve personal goals. It implies initiative and the willingness to put in the required work:

"You can't climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets"

But what if you find out at the end of your life that you climbed the wrong ladder?

Ambition vs. Happiness

Ambition drives Behaviour

Ambition drives us to obtain more in practically every aspect of our life. With ambition, we set goals for things we deem important and put in the effort to get results.

But after we achieve something we might be disappointed with how happy we are.

It's a familiar loop in which we are all in; we think fulfilling our ambitions is the same as obtaining happiness. But in fact, we fail to see what is truly important to us in the future - or what will make us happy.

This article therefore dives into a general part about our foresight, following with 3 limitations of our imagination and ambition. At the end, a practical tip is made to prevent falling in any of these traps.

Our foresight is limited

Truth be told, we have limited foresight into what actually makes us happy in the future. The path of ambition can take you to a lot places places, but happiness isn't one of them. More isn't always better.

For example, our definition of happiness may change over time because an the experience. We finally have that new car or partner and thought this was supposed to give our life a real boost. But after we obtain it, there is still something that doesn't ' feel' right. After the change, we realize that the experience itself has stretched our concept of happiness and that we still don't 'have it'.

This a phenomenon called the Experience-Stretching Hypothesis, which implies that after we obtain something, we set new goals because we still don't feel that internal happiness we thought we would have. And this goes on until we realize we are chasing ghosts we will never catch.

The Quest for Happiness

The quest for happiness never stops. Like an optical illusion, our imagination creates a future image that we want to reach but it is deluded by emotional bias and subliminal tricks of the mind. To counter this effect, we have to become aware of the mistakes we make with our foresight and imagination.

The shortcomings of imagination

"To see is to experience the world as it is. To remember is to experience the world as it was. To imagine is to experience how the world never has been, but can be. "

- Daniel Gilbert

Imagination is the doorway to our future, but it has its limitations. Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness mentions that there are three main shortcomings to our imagination. These shortcomings sometimes prevent us from achieving happiness because it skews the view of our future.

Limitation 1. Imagination distorts

The first shortcoming of imagination can distort our future image. We can romanticize or deglamourize the anticipation of the experience. Key elements can be removed or added, but without the imaginer realizing it. We are not aware of this process, and it makes us believe our self when it maybe would be better if we wouldn't.

Examples how our imagination distorts

In prospection, a higher paying job, marriage and children are generally all things that we look forward to receiving. But as soon as we get them it is not all rainbows and sunshine. After the experience, we realize that having a higher paying job comes with elevated levels of stress and distraction. Getting married can lead to a static life. And having children you find is actually dull service provision to ungrateful people that need a lot of time to grow up.

Put differently, being a bit more sceptical of your imagination might sometimes even be a good thing.

Limitation 2. Imagination is based on the now

The second shortcoming of imagination is presentism, which means that we use the present as a base to extrapolate the future. For example, we cannot think about being competent in something when we doubt our skills in the present. We cannot think what to eat when we are full with food. We cannot imagine how to feel happy when we feel depressed.

Attachment to the status quo and familiar feelings cause presentism to shape your future. Because the present is mainly defined by what you thought about yesterday. Today we mostly re-live the thoughts of yesterday. Then why should tomorrow be any different? We will be thinking mainly about the thoughts we had today. In this sense, creating the future in an entirely new light is impossible if you base it on the past or the present moment, with your standard routine of thought patterns and imaginations. If you thing you cannot do something, it most often is because you are basing too much of your future on your past. Start letting go instead and be open to what might be possible.

Limitation 3. Imagination can be wrong

The third shortcoming of imagination is failing to realize that things might feel different after they have happened.

For example in retrospection, an accident can become the best change of your life. It gave you the insight and gratitude for the life you have and you made a big change because of it.

A relationship that ends can become the start of a new chapter without emotional baggage of the past. You realize what didn't work and it gave you a new sense of understanding about yourself.

An addiction that you quit has given you a renewed feeling of self-recognition and personal power.

All these things were not expected beforehand but we only realize them after the fact. In other words, prospection and retrospection of the same event can differ and contradict each other.

The lens of imagination

In short, imagination is a lens that can be affected by our cognitive psychology. During imagination it is impossible to ignore what we are feeling now and impossible to recognize how we will think about the things that happen later:

“When we imagine the future we often do so in the blind spot of our minds eye.”

If we cannot trust our imagination, we need to find another way to experience the experience, before actually experiencing it! Instead of thinking how you would feel, why not ask someone else who has felt it before?

First- and second-hand knowledge

First-hand knowledge means being able to experience something and evaluate if it made you happy. You 'know' this first-hand, because you are the one who has experienced it. But with imagination and its shortcomings we will not always know if something makes us happy. therefore, we can obtain second-hand knowledge from others instead, asking them about their experiences to see if it made them happy and why.

They know what it feels like and know if they are happy because of it. Of course they aren't you, but they can tell you much more about the experience than you think.

Asking for this type of experience is an extraordinary way to explore, visualize and identify with a future that you are interested in pursuing. Even though this person can be somebody different, he or she will always have come to conclusions you won't be able to synthesize on your own. If you want to know how if making a change in your life can make you happy, ask around.

Instead of first-hand knowledge, this type of second-hand knowledge is part of vicarious learning. The word “vicarious” is from the Latin root “vicarius” which mean “substitute.” They experienced the event instead of you, so they can tell you how they think about it. In turn, you can then find out if the experience aligns with your quest for happiness.

But apart from asking for the experience from other individuals, we sometimes also have to make the choice on our own from a place of stillness within, without having all the answers. Meditation; going back to your inner world is where you can find the answer.

Searching for stillness within

Meditation is the practice of staying with yourself over a prolonged period of time. The true benefit of this practice is that you go beyond the analytical mind into the subconscious. Here, we can rather feel if something would make us happy or if it won't. Ambition falls away, since ambition is related to the ego and its rational domain with time. But in the state of meditation time is no thing, past or future do not determine your disposition, so making choices becomes easier and natural.

By using meditation, we can search for the stillness within and base our choices on that feeling. We know we are right when we connect to something greater than our self. Realizing we can connect with that vibrant energy inside of us that can tell us which path to follow. So that when you are facing important decisions in your life, you can contemplate what you like and therefore want to attract in your life.

The law of attraction

The law of attraction states that with heightened emotional intelligence, we can become magnets for the polarized energy we create inside.

magnet law of attraction

Instead of conscious thinking, we have to pay attention to the small nuances in life that tell us which way to go:

"As you learn to master being sensitive to the little things, you will train your subconscious mind to manifest the things you truly desire "

- Ivan Young

As we become aware to these little things, we can get closer to the truth of our hearts that tells us which way to go. Letting ego talk become white noise. Being quiet and being able to listen to inner thoughts instead of following blind ambition and its related desires.

This way, we can use pulling behaviour to let happiness come to us. Like attracts like with the right application of the law of attraction. What you feel is what you attract. So start within and become accepting of what you want. You always follow the law of attraction - what you choose to focus on is what you draw into your reality. Happiness in that case is a state of mind, something we draw into our reality with the right emotional mindset.


Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on Happiness
Ivan Young (2015) TEDx Talk LSCTomball

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