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There's a price to pay for persistence

Although everyone would have us believe that persistence is a good characteristic, psychologists at the Ruppin Academic Center in Israel are of a different opinion. They say that persistence is neither good nor bad. Persistent people may well achieve things where others give up, but they pay a high price for this character trait.

There's a price to pay for persistence

Athletes share a quality - if that is indeed what it is - with successful artists, doctors, professionals and business people: an above average amount of persistence [P]. They pursue their goals with determination: they are enthusiastic about what they do, place heavy demands on themselves and as a result are often successful.

The big difference between persistent and non-persistent people becomes apparent when there is no reward. Persistent people go on; the non-persistent give up.

Neurologists can see the difference in the brain on MRI scans. If you show people pictures with a positive image, then the activity in the brain's reward centres increases in all personality types. If you then show them neutral pictures, the activity in the reward centres of those with low-persistence decreases fast. In persistent people the activity level remains high in these centres.

Persistent people are also perfectionists. They want to get the best out of themselves and are not easily satisfied. This chronic dissatisfaction also increases the likelihood of anxiety, compulsive disorders and depression, say psychologists.

This theory inspired the psychologists at the Ruppin Academic Center in Israel to perform the study that has been published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2012. 142 women and 143 men aged between 40 and 89 took part in the study.

There's a price to pay for persistence
The researchers discovered that persistence had a positive effect on how people feel. Persistent people were more often happy, enthusiastic, driven and active, all positive emotions. At the same time, however, these persistent people reported feelings of being pressurised, scared, uneasy, guilty or nervous. These negative emotions stemmed from not achieving goals that they had set themselves.

The researchers discovered that other psychological attributes gave persistent people protection from their negative emotions.

Those who were calm and did not get frustrated were less troubled by negative emotions. These individuals had a low score for the characteristic that psychologists call Harm Avoidance [HA or H]. People who score low for this rely on their luck and still feel fine even when under threat or danger. They take risks without feeling stressed about doing so.

Another protective quality is 'self directedness' [SD or S]. People with this quality learn to accept that it's not possible to achieve everything you set out to do. They are usually blessed with a dose of relativism, although some psychologists prefer to refer to it as 'self-transcendence'.

There's a price to pay for persistence

"Persistence is neither good nor bad", the researchers conclude. "Trying to be perfect is a self-defeating goal, and leads inevitably to harsh judgements of guilt and shame."

"Fortunately, persistence also can help a person to let go of self-defeating drives and intentions by becoming self-aware of them and then learning how to let go of fighting with one's self by using the science of well-being."

J Affect Disord. 2012 Feb;136(3):758-66.

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