Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Letting Go of Unattainable Goals Has Psychological Perks

Letting go of unattainable goals is a silver lining of depression, study finds.

Source: musicman/Shutterstock

A trailblazing new study from researchers in Germany frames clinical depression in a fresh light. The researchers found that adapting to life circumstances by letting go of unattainable goals may be a psychological perk of depression that has gone under the radar until now.

The February 2017 study, "Let It Go: Depression Facilitates Disengagement from Unattainable Goals,” was published yesterday in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.

During this study, researchers from the Institute of Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany unearthed fresh evidence that clinical depression might serve an adaptive function by facilitating more rapid disengagement from unattainable goals.

The researchers concluded that although clinical depression may be pathological, those with major depressive disorders (MDD) were able to let go of unattainable goals more quickly than their counterparts who weren't depressed and tended to have more trouble letting go of unrealistic expectations.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first study to present a somewhat radical and paradoxical challenge to mainstream notions of perseverance and a "never give up" mindset through the lens of depression.

As we all know from our childhood experiences, the maxim “If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again!” is drummed into our heads from a very young age. These type of pep talks may backfire if the goal is unachievable regardless of how much effort someone pours into his or her futile struggle to succeed.

Yes. Bouncing back from the disappointment of failure is key to maintaining a “growth mindset” and maximizing your potential as Carol Dweck has importantly shown us through her research at Stanford University. (I wrote about this topic in a recent Psychology Today blog post, “Self-Compassion, Growth Mindset, and the Benefits of Failure.”

But, the new German study by Klaus Rothermund and Katharina Koppe challenges the cliché notion that with perseverance and hard work: Anything is possible.

As an Ironman triathlete, I was always irked by the World Triathlon Corporation's motto "Anything Is Possible." I saw this catch phrase as hyperbolic false advertising. The pragmatist in me would mutter, "No. Anything is not possible!!" under my breath, whenever I saw someone wearing this slogan on an Ironman running cap or T-shirt.

"The one, who gives up, wins. Even if that sounds paradoxical at first." — Katharina Koppe

As a coach and parent, I believe it's important for every individual to identify personal goals that are challenging, but doable based on someone's specific talents and passion. For example, when my daughter was younger, she dreamed of becoming an Olympic gymnast. But, after a growth spurt, changes in body type made her better suited for other sports. In a statement, Rothermund elaborates on this point. He said,

“Perseverance is praised and we are told that only with the right motivation will we be able to achieve the aims we have set ourselves. That may hold true in many areas of life, such as work, sport or the family. But an over-ambitious life plan can also prove to be a trap. This is the case when the goals pursued are unattainable.”

Rothermund and Koppe found that people often develop clinical depression as a result of making a Herculean effort to achieve an unattainable goal only to realize that their efforts were pointless. No matter how hard the person tries, his or her goals will always be out of reach. This experience can lead to colossal disappointment along with hopelessness, a loss of feeling in control, and helplessness.

What makes this research a potential game changer is that it presents new evidence that there can be a sense of liberty and freedom that comes along with letting go of an unattainable goal by deciding to quit. Learning to let go of an unrealistic goal can open the door for new opportunities and help to avoid the demoralization of hitting endless roadblocks and dead ends.

Rothermund and Koppe believe that letting go of unattainable goals can create a significant advantage from a psychological point of view. In summing up her research Koppe said, "The one, who gives up, wins. Even if that sounds paradoxical at first. The ability to disengage represents an important adaptive function of depression.”

The researchers found that if the discrepancy between a person’s loftiest goal and his or her current realistic possibilities is too large, he or she will benefit from targeting an achievable goal and abandoning the old one.

Therefore, they believe that a psychological crisis or major depressive episode can present opportunities for personal development that have gone unnoticed until now. Rothermund concluded,

"The general lack of motivation that is typical of many patients with depression apparently gives rise to a greater ability to abandon goals, and one could use this in therapy.”

One strategy they suggest could be to identify the unattainable goals that may have influenced a patient's depression and then specifically support the patient in disengaging and letting go of unattainable goals by creating new goals that are more realistic and doable.

“Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise. Wish for nothing larger than your own small heart. Or greater than a star.” — Alice Walker

Whether or not you are currently experiencing clinical depression, hopefully, reading about this new research on the psychological perks of letting go of unattainable goals provides insights that will help you readjust your expectations and feel a sense of genuine accomplishment when you achieve even the smallest, tangible goal.


Koppe K and Rothermund K. Let it go: Depression facilitates disengagement from unattainable goals. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, February 2017 DOI: 10.1016/j.btep.2016.10.003

More from Christopher Bergland
More from Psychology Today