On the other side of control

To be in control is comforting. We feel safer about driving at a higher speed when we are at the wheel.

We seek out control to such a large extent that an illusion of control persists even when there is actually none. People bet on slot machines, pick their lottery numbers and roll the dice with a mistaken belief that they can influence these outcomes.

In an experiment in a nursing home, seniors were divided into the high control and the low control group. Researchers arranged for student volunteers to visit them. In the high control group, the seniors could control the timing and the duration of the visit, unlike the low control group, who were given fixed hours. In just two months, the members of the high control group were happier, healthier, more active and taking fewer medications than their low control group counterparts. Control seems to lift our moods and improve our well-being.

At the same time, control is fragile. It gives us an illusion that the universe would go in perfect accordance with our plans. We do not control several factors that can impact our plans – flights get delayed, teammates fall sick and rainy weather that can ruin our picnics. Also, the control that is granted to us maybe taken away anytime. 

The study in the nursing home had ended after two months. Several months later, the researchers had found that a disproportionate number of people in the high-control group had died. The end of the experiment had inadvertently robbed these residents of the control it had granted them. If control has a positive impact on us, having it taken away is worse than not having any in the first place. 

While control feels empowering, being in its debt makes us brittle. There is greater power in being able to relinquish control at will.

Source and Inspiration: Stumbling on Happiness – Dan Gilbert

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