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The Art of Giving Up

The importance of disengaging from goals.

Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.

The world is obsessed with stories of success. There is a well-known concept in the management literature called "the survivor bias," which refers to the erroneous conclusions that researchers draw from focusing excessively on successful organizations and people. Pick up any magazine, and you will see the survivor bias in action: the stories are almost always about the successful; very few stories focus on the failures.

At one level, the focus on the successful is understandable; after all, we all want to be successful, and so, focusing on those who have already "been there and done that" would seem appropriate.

There is, however, a flip side. An obsession with success can have negative side effects on what arguably matters even more in life: being happy.

Kids today face tremendous pressure to persevere to succeed, but is such success worth it?

Are successful people necessarily happier?

At least two streams of research are relevant for addressing this question. First is research on ego depletion, which suggests that willpower is a limited resource, much like muscle strength or mental energy. When a person spends willpower on one activity (to study for an exam), the amount of willpower left for a subsequent activity (to overcome temptation to have a dessert) is diminished. This means that when one is obsessed with a particular goal (getting good grades at school), other goals (going to the gym, maintaining healthy relationships, etc.) whose achievement also depends on the same pool of willpower, naturally flounder. Ego-depletion theory would thus predict that the more one is driven to achieve success, the less one will be able to focus on other important determinants of life-satisfaction.

Findings from research on hyperopia also lead to similar conclusions. Hyperopia is the opposite of myopia, and myopia, as we all know, refers to the tendency to be too shortsighted and impulsive. Most of us are constantly warned against being myopic: "Don't be extravagant, save for the future," or "avoid unhealthy food for the sake of future health," or, "exercise regularly to be healthy," etc. Perhaps as a result of exposure to such messages, many of us are habituated to thinking about the future consequences of our present actions. For instance, rather than choosing to work in an area that is intrinsically motivating, many of us choose to work in an area that we think will be "hot" in the near future. Likewise, when buying a home, we focus too much on whether it is a good investment rather than on whether we will enjoy living in it.

In other words, most of us sacrifice our present-day enjoyment for the sake of a future that may never really arrive, as a set of studies by Kivetz and Keinan showed. These researchers interviewed people in the winter years of their life, and asked them what they would change about their past if they could re-live their lives. Findings from one study revealed that people consistently wished that they had been a little less work-oriented, that is, a little less focused on being successful, and a little more pleasure-orientated, that is, a little more focused on enjoying life. Other studies, both by these authors and by others, yielded similar results.

What this suggests then, from the perspective of maximizing well-being and happiness, is that it may be more important to give up on goals that take too much out of us than to pursue them at all cost. Studies by Wrosch and his colleagues confirmed this thesis. Across three studies, they found that people who are able to disengage from unattainable goals are happier than those who continue to pursue them. Studies from another paper, also by Wrosch and his colleagues, showed that those who disengage from goals that are exceedingly difficult to attain experience health benefits, like lowered levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).

The million-dollar question, of course, is: how does one decide when to give up a particular goal? This is not an easy question to answer, which is why deciding which goals to give up, and when, is an art rather than a science. Perhaps no single answer is appropriate for everyone. However, if you feel that you are highly stressed (e.g., if you need sleeping pills to fall asleep), and if you feel that your stress is mainly due to your obsession with goal-attainment (as opposed to, say, failing health or poor relationships), you could take it as a sign that you are too goal-directed for your own good.

This is not to say, of course, that any goal that produces stress should be abandoned; indeed, in an earlier post, I argued against giving up too fast--before reaching the tipping point of expertise. To figure out which goals to keep at and which ones to jettison, ask the question: What am I trying to prove--and to whom--by achieving the goal? The only goals worth stressing about are those that help you grow as a person, either by helping you enhance your expertise in a domain or by helping those around you. Goals that are pursued for the sake of making even more money than needed, or ones that are pursued for the sake of signaling superiority are simply not worth losing sleep over.

But even more basic than figuring out which goals to pursue and which ones to abandon, is having the clarity to accord the goal of leading a happy and fulfilling life your number 1 priority. Do you have it? If not, be aware that you may grow to be one of those who, like the participants in Kivetz and Keinan's study, regret having sacrificed enjoyment for the sake of success.

Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.