This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Kate Reilly. It was originally published in Psych Your Mind on Aug 2, 2013.
“Never give up” has become one of the most popular pieces of advice in Western culture. It’s not popular with me, though. I do agree that persistence in the face of obstacles is necessary, important, and admirable. Many worthwhile goals require serious commitment and perseverance in order to achieve them. The problem with this advice is that at some point in our lives, we all have goals that are unattainable, and this is where “never give up” falls short. When faced with an unattainable goal, giving up and trying something else might be a better course of action than continuing to try again and again. We have a precious, limited amount of time, energy, and other resources, and there may be times when these are better directed at a new goal.
In psychology, we refer to “giving up” as disengagement and to “trying something else” as reengagement. When a goal is unattainable, some of us have stronger tendencies than others to disengage and then reengage. It’s easy to think of people who have a tendency to give up as being weak or depressed. However, research shows that is not the case! When goals are unattainable, the tendencies to disengage and then reengage are actually associated with higher subjective well-being. Let’s take a look.
In a 2003 study, a sample of undergraduates was asked to report on their unattainable goals. First, the students were asked to report their tendency to disengage from unattainable goals. For example, they were asked to rate how easily they were able to stop thinking about goals they had that were unattainable. They also reported on their tendency to reengage in alternate goals, for example, by saying how much effort they put toward other meaningful goals. Finally, they answered a number of questions about their lives that were used to measure their own sense of well-being.
At this point, you might be wondering what unattainable goals are. For this study, researchers asked students to report on three different kinds of unattainable goals. Sometimes goals are unattainable because we no longer have the opportunity to achieve them. For example, after a certain age, women are no longer able to bear children. Other times we face a negative life event that renders a goal unattainable. People who have the goal to grow old with their spouse cannot do that if their spouse dies young. Finally, some goals are unattainable because we just don’t have the resources to pursue them all at once. I can’t go skiing for eight hours every day of the week and complete all of my responsibilities as a graduate student. One of those goals is unattainable if I’m working toward the other. Unattainable goals are sometimes sad to think about, so let’s move on to the results about giving them up.
Results showed that the tendency to disengage from unattainable goals was associated with lower life stress, fewer intrusive thoughts about one’s problems, and feeling more control over one’s life. The flip side of this is that the tendency to stay engaged with unattainable goals was associated with more stress, more intrusive thoughts, and feeling less control.
When faced with unattainable goals, people not only give up, but they also move on. In this study, the researchers found that the tendency to reengage in new goals was associated with well-being above and beyond the tendency to disengage from unattainable goals. The more students had a tendency to reengage in new goals, the less stressed they were, the fewer intrusive thoughts they had, and the more control and purpose in life they felt. Getting involved with something new is a second, beneficial step that can follow giving up an unattainable goal.
Even if you have trouble disengaging from unattainable goals, reengagement can still be beneficial. Interestingly, the effects of reengagement on perceived stress and control over one’s life were especially strong for the students who reported less disengagement from unattainable goals. The message here is this: if you’re somebody who has trouble giving up unattainable goals (and you feel distressed about this), you may find that reengaging with other goals reduces this distress.
If you need more evidence that “never give up” is not always good advice, research on disengagement from specific goals (not only the tendency to disengage) has also demonstrated that the process of disengagement has benefits. For example, disengagement from the goal to bear a child has been associated with greater well-being in women past child-bearing age.
I’m hopeful that at this point you understand why I’m not the biggest fan of “never give up.” I want people to achieve their goals, and a lot of what I study is how they can. When faced with unattainable goals, though, giving up and trying something new may be better for overall well-being than continuing to pursue something that will not work.
What do you think about the advice to never give up? Have you had times where you felt giving up was better than continuing to pursue your goal? Let us know in the comments!
Heckhausen, J, Wrosch, C, & Fleeson, W (2001). Developmental regulation before and after passing a developmental deadline: The sample case of “biological clock” for child-bearing Psychology and Aging, 400-413
Wrosch C, Scheier MF, Miller GE, Schulz R, & Carver CS (2003). Adaptive self-regulation of unattainable goals: goal disengagement, goal reengagement, and subjective well-being. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 29 (12), 1494-508 PMID: 15018681