Despite several social psychological theories that suggest otherwise, failing to meet educational goals does not result in depression, say sociologists from Floria and Kansas State Universities.

Their study in American Sociological review indicates that making no attempt to achieve extravagant educational goals is, in fact, the way to encourage depression.

The authors used two national studies of youth, the National Longitudinal Study and the Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (ADD Health), both of which track respondents over a period of time, to test whether unrealized expectations are associated with depression in adulthood.

Using data from more than 4,300 respondents, they compared the count of symptoms of depression for those who did and did not achieve their earlier educational plans and found little difference.

Those with lower levels of education did have more depression, but the depression was associated with the lower attainment, not any gap between plans and attainment. Previous research has established that more educated individuals report better mental and physical health.

The researchers theorize that many young adults who did not reach their educational goals develop a sort of "adaptive resilience" that buffers them from the kind of depression that could result from feelings of failure. A dramatic increase in older undergraduates in recent years also suggests that young people do not necessarily believe they must meet their educational goals while still in their 20s.

"It may be that young adults can successfully adapt to the unexpected, focusing on the positive aspects of their transition to adulthood rather than dwelling on plans that have fallen through or have been put on hold indefinitely," said Florida State University Sociology Professor John R. Reynolds. "They might also deal with failed plans by extending the plans forward in time as achievements still to come. Young adults with college expectations may visualize having their entire lives to realize their educational plans."

Most young people in the United States expect to attend college, earn a four-year degree and work in a professional occupation. Yet the extent to which teenagers' achievement expectations are out of line with what they actually attain is also on the rise.

In a 2006 study, Reynolds and colleagues found that the gap between the percentage of high school seniors expecting to obtain bachelor's degrees and the percentage of young adults with a degree had doubled in the 25-year period between 1976 and 2000. In other words, increases in high school students' college expectations outpaced increases in young adults' achievements, a result they interpret as "ambition inflation."

Several social psychological theories suggest that's a problem, albeit for different reasons. Self-discrepancy theory says that a gap between a person's ideal self and his or her actual self is detrimental to mental health. Another, relative deprivation theory, claims that individuals experience mental distress when they are deprived of a reward or status to which they feel entitled. Social stress theory asserts that "non-events," such as not being married by a certain age or a promotion that never happens, are distressing.

Despite these claims, "We should not be in a hurry to dissuade these students from planning to go to college," Reynolds said. "In fact, the only way to guarantee negative mental health outcomes is not trying. Aiming high and failing is not consequential for mental health, while trying may lead to higher achievements and the mental and material benefits that go along with those achievements."

Citation: John R Reynolds, Chardie L Baird, 'Is There a Downside to Shooting for the Stars?: Unrealized Educational Expectations', American Sociological Review, March 2010, 75, 151-172