“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.