Recently, psychologists Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch set out to investigate the mental and physical health of people who resist quitting, and of those who throw in the towel when facing unattainable goals. The second group—the quitters—were healthier than their persistent peers on almost every variable. They suffered fewer health problems, from digestive trouble to rashes, and showed fewer signs of psychological stress.
In another study, which followed a group of teenagers for a year, subjects who quit easily had much lower levels of a protein linked to inflammation than did their more tenacious peers. This made them less likely to develop many debilitating illnesses later in life.
The mechanism that helps people quit appropriately, Miller and Wrosch discovered, was not wisdom but dejection. People who are trying in vain eventually get depressed about their ongoing failure, and those who respond to this depression by quitting when it first appears enjoy all kinds of benefits.
I didn't think about this scientifically during that yoga class—though I experienced it subjectively when the teacher guided us into a shoulder stand. The pose caused my body to quake violently with exhaustion as my workout shorts fell back around my pelvis and my gaze was forced upward. Gentle reader, you cannot imagine a ghastlier view: The depression evoked by the gelatinous consistency of my thighs beggars description.
I should've quit right then. I would have, if Besty weren't so competitive.
The Quitting Bonus
The fact that I continued with the class exemplifies my approach to life and no doubt explains my digestive troubles, rashes, and inflammatory illnesses. But the implications don't stop there: Not quitting may be at the root of fiscal problems as well as physical ones. That's right—quitters prosper not only physically but financially.
Every first-year economics student learns about the "sunk-cost fallacy," though virtually no one remembers it when making spending choices. The sunk-cost fallacy is a universal human error. It refers to our tendency to throw good money after bad, trying to justify our mistakes by devoting more resources to them. For example, a gambler who's lost a small fortune is likely to stay and keep hemorrhaging cash precisely because he's losing. "I'm down $10,000," the thinking goes. "I have to keep playing until I get it back—this rotten luck can't go on forever." This is how human psychology works.
It is not how reality works.
A gambler is no more likely to win on the 500th roulette spin than on any of the previous 499. But a huge amount of effort goes into attempts at redeeming things—lemon cars, money–pit houses, horrible relationships, wars—that just aren't working. Learning to quit while you're not ahead, when the dull ooze of depression tells you things are not going to get any better, is one of the best financial and life skills you can master.
This should have occurred to me well before Besty and I hit that yoga studio. It should have occurred to me several years earlier, when I first realized that she was simply better than I was at everything. But even after a thousand failed attempts—and even though I once actually taught at a business school—I forged on.
How to Quit
Moving from shoulder stand to triangle pose, I was hit by two things: a back spasm and the realization that though I was ready to quit, I didn't know how. I'd never practiced quitting. I didn't know the right path out of the room, the right facial expression, the right way to give up.
So there I stood, befuddled, trying to touch my right foot with my right hand while bending sideways, when I heard a complicated thumping from the other side of the studio. By rolling my eyes far back into my skull, I saw what had made the sound. Besty had toppled from triangle pose directly into corpse pose.
She seemed too tired to speak, but from her feeble movements, she might have been trying to signal something—perhaps that she wished to be rinsed. But I took my own message from her example. In that moment, I saw with great clarity that (to paraphrase poet Elizabeth Bishop) the art of quitting isn't hard to master. We can always just go limp.
We Hear You!