Self-control is good right? Especially if it helps you stop yourself from eating that last cupcake. Or on a more serious matter, if it helps you shake off the shackles of poverty and deprivation through sheer determination and discipline.
But new research suggests character traits such as self-control and discipline that help you rise up in the world may also take a heavy toll by making you age faster.
Scientists in the US studied a group of 300 rural African-American teenagers as they made the transition to adulthood, looking at markers of low socio-economic status and self-control.
They found that poor participants with high levels of self-control and the ability to focus on long-term goals were less likely to be depressed, take drugs, or show aggression. The downside was that their cells showed signs of accelerated ageing.
Lead researcher Professor Gregory Miller, from Northwestern University, Illinois, said: “Emerging data suggest that for low-income youth, self-control may act as a double-edged sword, facilitating academic success and psychosocial adjustment, while at the same time undermining physical health.
“We find that the psychologically successful adolescents – those with high self-control – have cells that are biologically old, relative to their chronological age. In other words, there seems to be an underlying biological cost to the self-control and the success it enables. This is most evident in the youth from the lowest-income families.”
Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists pointed out that disadvantaged young people had “substantial barriers to overcome” which were especially challenging for African-Americans.
Overcoming these difficulties required a degree of persistence that was “metabolically and behaviourally demanding”.
Exercising a lot of self-control also triggered the release of stress hormones.
“Our findings have conceptual implications for models of resilience and practical implications for interventions aimed at ameliorating social and racial disparities,” Professor Miller added.