By Louai Rahal

It is well known among psychologists that our perceived control (the extent to which we think we are in control of our lives) has a major impact on our mood: feeling in control puts us in a good mood and feeling helpless puts us in a bad mood. This relationship between control and well-being has a long history which will be briefly introduced in this article.

Epictetus and Rats

Long before the discipline of psychology was established, philosophers examined the question of how to reach happiness. The claims put forth by philosophers have been tested by science and some of these claims have been refuted while others have been confirmed. Among the claims that were confirmed was the following statement made by Epictetus:

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control and some things are not. It is only after you have learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility become possible.” – Epictetus, The Art of Living.

Epictetus argued that we must differentiate between what lies within our control and what lies beyond our control, focus on the first and disregard the second. He promised that this practice will lead us to happiness and freedom.

Centuries after Epictetus, Jay Weiss and his colleagues conducted a seminal experiment where they examined the relationship between control and stress. The experiment was conducted with pairs of rats: each pair was subjected to random electrical shocks (a very stressful situation!) and one of the two rats (rat A) could end the shocks by turning a wheel. Rat A could end the shocks for both rats by turning the wheel, he was in control; rat B could do nothing but wait for rat A, he was helpless. The experimenters found that rat B developed symptoms of depression and rat A did not. These findings suggest that being in control of a stressful situation can make it less harmful; and feeling helpless during a stressful situation can heighten its harmful effects.

Besides affecting how we respond to stress, feeling in control also affects how we respond to pleasure: Having control over rewarding experiences can make them more rewarding and rewarding experiences become less rewarding when we are helpless. The evidence for this comes from another study conducted with rats. Hemby and his colleagues conducted an experiment with the same design as Weiss’ experiment except for one difference: Instead of delivering electrical shocks, Hemby and his colleagues created a pleasurable experience for the rats: They gave them injections of cocaine. Cocaine was given only when rat A pressed a lever. In order to receive Cocaine, rat B had to wait for rat A to press the lever: rat B was helpless, rat A was in control. And as expected, it was found that rat A experienced more pleasure from cocaine than rat B. The experimenters knew this by measuring the amount of dopamine released in the brains of the two rats. Rat A had more dopamine released in the pleasure centers of his brain; and it is known that the more dopamine is released in the brain’s pleasure centers, the more pleasure we feel.

Control could therefore be one of the keys to happiness; it makes the pleasurable more pleasurable, and the stressful less stressful.

Control In Our Lives

When we think more about what we can control and less about what we cannot control, we experience a better mood. In his Ted Talk, Sam Berns, a young man who had to live with progeria (premature aging disease), stated that instead of focusing on what his condition did not allow him to do, he chose to focus on things that he could do: “I’m okay with what I ultimately can’t do because there is so much I can do.”

When we set goals and reach them, we experience a better mood. Neuroscientist Alex Korb argued that “we are often under the impression that we are happy when good things happen to us. But in actuality, we are happiest when we decide to pursue a particular goal and achieve it.” Setting a goal and achieving it reminds us that we are in control, and this reminder instantly creates a pleasurable experience in our brains. In more scientific terms, setting goals increases the activity of dopamine in our brain and increases our perceived control (see Alex Korb, The Upward Spiral, Chapter 6, for a more detailed discussion).

In summary, to experience more control in our lives, all what we need to do is identify what we can change, set achievable goals, and reach them.

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