Ambition Addiction: Retraining Our Brains to Discover Joy Within

Guest Post by Benjamin Shalva

I am an ambition addict.

For ambition addicts like myself, growth is not enough. Accomplishment will not suffice. We need to distinguish ourselves from the herd. We desire domination. We ache for adoration. We want to win.

Ambition addiction

We ambition addicts will move mountains to make our dreams come true. And within a society dogmatically devoted to competition and conquest, inspired by the reality-TV maxim “I didn’t come here to make friends,” and obsessed with glitz, glamour, fame, and fortune, we addicts receive, for our efforts, many a medal pinned to our chests.

But ambition addiction’s rewards come at a cost.

We ambition addicts reach for the stars at the expense of physical health and emotional wellbeing. The perpetual stress, the invariable fight-or-flight, thickens our arteries, frays our nerves, and dramatically increases our risk of a heart attack or stroke. The more savage our drive to succeed, the more willingly we also are to abandon those who dare disturb our dreams. Colleagues become competitors. Family and friends—dead weight. For the sake of success, we deafen our ears and burn our bridges.

Injured and isolated, desperate and despondent, we addicts, nonetheless, press on. We do so not simply for external gratification, but because, on a deep tissue, neurological level—we’re hooked.

Every time we picture our fantastical futures, this daydream 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, the fantastical future, actually lives up to expectations. The cingulate cortex wants to know: Does the hoped-for happiness of, say, a Pulitzer Prize actually deliver the goods? 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 addicts know only too well, rarely delivers the goods. We picture our books topping bestseller lists, but the competition is fierce and the market fickle. 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 turn away from addiction’s empty promises, however, we addicts suck it up, bite the bullet, and get right back on the horse. We force ourselves to run faster, to try harder, to ignore our growing despondency and claw all the more fervently for the stars. In a lamentable irony, we even blame current circumstance for our foul mood, growing all the more convinced of the present as prelude and the future as salvation. We deify the drug that dampens our spirits while demonizing the reality that could refresh our souls.

The road to recovery begins by subverting this paradigm, by responding to ambition-induced lows not with another hit of hope, but with the analgesic of 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. With every lick of ice cream and every layup lobbed, specialized groups of neurons release a cocktail of chemicals, including oxytocin, norepinephrine, and endorphins. These chemicals also flood the brain with the sensation of pleasure—not pleasure linked to anticipated reward, but pleasure experienced within the present moment. Every time we enjoy such ephemeral delights, these neurons grow stronger, more active, and more likely to fire in the future. In other words, when we allow ourselves to delight right here, right now, we prime our brains to more easily delight in the future. We create brains that are, bit by bit, basketball by basketball, permeable to pleasure.

The benefits of enjoyment extend far beyond a simple boost to our biochemistry. By practicing enjoyment each time we drift toward despair, we continue to heal the complex of physical and emotional wounds wrought by our ambition addiction. Physiologically, enjoyment provides release from fight or flight. Pleasure reduces the stress placed on our endocrine, respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive, and nervous systems, allowing our bodies to reabsorb stress hormones, regulate respiration, and lower blood pressure. The path of enjoyment nourishes our ambition-battered bodies: neurons to nerves and blood to bones.

Enjoyment can also help to ameliorate damage inflicted upon our relationships. When I forget to practice enjoyment, for example, I find myself viciously pounding on the keyboard, aching for a bestseller, strung out from dopamine decline. In this pleasure-impoverished state, I’m more inclined, when my seven-year-old daughter wanders by to show me her latest artistic creation, to blow her off or, worse, to snap at her for daring to interrupt the Great American Author at work on his craft.

On the other hand, when I practice enjoyment, when I note my desperation and respond as prescribed, I write with a lovely brew of oxytocin, norepinephrine, and endorphins floating through my system. I feel brighter, lighter, and more optimistic. This time, when my daughter stops by with her study of zebra in repose, I’m more likely to look up from my writing and smile. I’m better able, having gifted myself an earlier moment of enjoyment, to bestow upon her some joy, as well.

With every basketball, with every ice cream cone, with every inane delight elevating every depressed mood, we ambition addicts invite our bodies to relax and our hearts to open. We treat the present not as a waiting room to be endured, but as a playground to be enjoyed. We fling our bodies through that playground with abandon, reminding ourselves of what we’ve known but forgotten—once upon a time, we were children, wide-eyed and full of wonder. We walked the earth unencumbered by ambition. We danced and scribbled. We licked batter from the bowl. We let life rush in and thrill us to our core.

Since then, of course, we’ve matured. We’ve watched responsibilities supplant recreation. Our soul, however, our eternal and ageless essence, aches for release. It yearns for another round on the monkey bars. It needs us, every once in a while, to go wide-eyed and full of wonder. So, though we could be chasing our dreams, though we should be good and grown-up, we enjoy a sip of tea. We celebrate. We take another tiny, tremendous step toward spiritual well-being, edging ourselves one sip closer to the happiness we seek.

Guest Author Bio

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Benjamin Shalva is the author of Ambition Addiction: How to Go Slow, Give Thanks, and Discover Joy Within and Spiritual Cross-Training: Searching through Silence, Stretch, and Song. His writings have appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post, Success Magazine, and Spirituality & Health Magazine. As a writer, rabbi, meditation teacher, and yoga instructor, Shalva leads seminars nationally and internationally in meditation, mindfulness, and contemplative practice. He also serves on the faculty of the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he lives in Reston, Virginia, with his wife and their two children. He can be found at www.benjaminshalva.com.

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