How to be content and fulfilled without losing ambition (Part 1)

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A feature of a fast-paced life is it leaves us tired, exhausted and stressed. The high levels of stress force our bodies to react by pumping adrenalin and cortisol into the bloodstream. The long-term impact of these hormones causes complications like blood pressure, anxiety and depression. What is the right work-life balance? Here I present modern research and traditional teachings.

I have lived in Nottingham for 37 years; Nottingham City Council’s motto is “Ambitious and proud”. Yes, it has made me ambitious and determined to see that I prosper and grow. The city is wonderful, a safe and pleasant place for its residents. But the word ambition can sometimes sound like a ‘dirty’ word in the age of ‘quiet quitting’ and the great acquiescence, submission and political correctness. It’s becoming obvious that a mindset of constant striving can be harmful to mental well-being; the surgeon general of the USA said that workplace mental health is the biggest pandemic of our time. Since people are workaholics, overtime work is too common. Research shows that by having difficult and extrinsic goals like climbing the career ladder rapidly, and getting rich quickly you become prone to anxiety and depression.

So, is discarding your ambition the secret to inner peace?

Not necessarily. Instead, research suggests aiming to harness your ambition for a goal that serves your well-being. You should make sure that your ambition is being directed towards things that are morally good, socially enriching relationships and spiritually beneficial. Striving is healthy only if we do it in ways that won’t spoil the rest of our lives.

Abu Huraira reported, the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) asked, “Who will learn my words to act on or teach them? I replied I will, he said, ‘Avoid the forbidden things and you will be the most pious, be satisfied with what Allah gave you and you will be the richest person, be kind to your neighbour and you will be a true believer, and like for others what you like for yourself, and you will be a true Muslim” (Tirmidhi). This is intrinsically related to your purpose in life, what is the meaning of your life and where are you going.

Ambition, and determination to succeed, per se is neither good nor bad for our mental health. We know that ambition is a strong predictor of career success but studies suggest that it was only weakly related to life satisfaction. Ambitious people weren’t drastically happier or unhappy than people who weren’t as different. What matters is the goal of your ambition that has the most impact on mental health. So, when we are motivated by wealth, status and material things we will struggle with being satisfied since the hunger for these things can never be satisfied. However, if we have other motivators like self-improvement, seeking knowledge and personal purification we can be psychologically fulfilled. Achieving an extrinsic goal like money may give you partial satisfaction, but it’s not long-lasting. Through spiritual exercises and serious introspection, you can retrain your ambition to feed, rather than harm your mental health.

Here are five Islamic practices that will harness your ambitions, so you feel fulfilled and successful.

  1. Prioritise your relationships: Allah first and all else is second

Ambition is harmful when it takes over life and banishes other parts of life, ambition is effortful if you’re going to be successful and ambitious you must put a lot into it. If that drive comes at the expense of psychologically fulfilling things like loving your family, spouse and children; or worship of Allah and serving parents and relatives then over time it will take a toll on your mental health. It will leave you broken, anxious and depressed.
So, Islam teaches us to put the Creator, the Provider and the Sustainer first. The Loving God, Caring master, the Generous friend. Stand, bow and prostrate before Him, the powerful, the Kind.

To be continued…