Denying instant gratification in deference to long-term goals is virtuous, people tell me. Those people might be right. Psychologists call it self-regulation or self-control. And together with conscientiousness, it’s at least a trait (or a coping mechanism) that’s reasonably good at predicting a young person’s future. People with less self-control are more likely to end up where the world tells them to go.
Even in the worst circumstances, people with the most self-control and resilience have the highest likelihood of defying odds—poverty, bad schools, unsafe communities—and going on to achieve much academically and professionally. Except that even when that is possible, those children seem to age rapidly during the process. That is, their cells visibly age before their time (based on DNA methylation) among other undesirable effects on the body, according to research published this week from Northwestern University and the University of Georgia.
Meanwhile the opposite effect is seen in high-achieving people from highly advantaged backgrounds, where achievement goes hand-in-hand with health. The psychological phenomenon known as “John Henryism” posits that when goal-oriented, success-minded people strive ceaselessly in the absence of adequate support and resources, they can—like the mighty 19th-century folk legend who fell dead of an aneurysm after besting a steam-powered drill in a railroad-spike-driving competition—work themselves to death. Or, at least, toward it. It’s an idea that resonated with health researchers including Gregory Miller, a professor of psychology and medical-social sciences at Northwestern, who led this week’s investigation.