A Is For... AgencyRead Now
The Elixir Of Life? How Feeling In Control Impacts Our Work Lives - And Our Longevity
Feeling powerless and helpless is a key factor behind anxiety and depression. There's a cure for that.
We can frequently find ourselves in incredibly demoralizing situations.
Take the average office. For many of us, it provides little more than a delightful daily cocktail of insufficient pay, mindbogglingly repetitive tasks and stifling levels of box-ticking.
Feeling like a cog in a wheel is hard enough when this is a job to pay the bills (rather than a step up the ladder to something greater).
It can become intolerable, however, when we are perpetually undermined, given insufficient freedom to make decisions and are left feeling overworked, undervalued and underpaid.
For many of us, quitting isn’t an option, which just compounds the misery we feel. We can’t take action to rectify the situation and the feeling of helplessness takes root, with no visible remedy in sight.
It‘s’ the perfect recipe for apathy, at best. Really, why bother?
Why Agency Matters
The reason why we get dragged down so much, says Johann Hari in this Big Think video, is that we have a strong psychological need for “agency” — the sense of being in control of the direction of our lives.
Having a lack of agency is a key factor behind work-related depression and anxiety, he says.
So what’s the answer when we feel beaten down and we lack this sense of control over our lives?
Not surprisingly, it is to take back control.
The Need To Take Back Control
There are many ways we can do this.
The example Hari cites might seem to be a bit too much of a jump for some right now but is instructive all the same.
In the case he highlights, a husband and wife quit their jobs to run a bike shop together. The act of being responsible for it had the inadvertent effect of combating their prior feelings of depression and anxiety.
This is great, but...
While we might aspire to do that (run our own show), we can’t always change our external environment at the click of our fingers.
The key, then, is to understand how we get that feeling of being in control in our everyday life.
A 1970's psychology study in a U.S. care home might give us some clues about how to achieve that.
In the late 1970's, esteemed Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer and her colleague Judith Rodin, conducted what was to become a landmark experiment in Arden House, a care home in New England.
What they did was deceptively simple but startlingly effective.
Langer and Rodin divided the residents into two groups, both of which were given plants to care for and films to watch, with a subtle variation in the parameters set around the control group.
While one group had everything done for them, the other was given the power to make decisions for themselves.
Nothing grand, they were simply given the ability to decide where and when they would receive visitors, if and when they would watch the films being shown and in what way they would care for their houseplants (how often they would water them, where they would place them in their rooms and so on).
The idea being, writes Langer in her book Counterclockwise, was to make this group feel actively engaged with the world around them — and less of a passive bystander.
The results were remarkable.
Eighteen months later, they revisited Arden House, compared the two groups and found that the control group were not only healthier, happier and more alert but twice as many of them were alive.
It raised the idea that not only is the feeling of control directly linked to happiness - it's linked to longevity, too.
What is so reassuring about this study, is that sometimes the desire to be in control of our lives can take on what feel like unreachable goals - we want to own a house, run our own business, be in a position of status. And, of course, these things might come.
But for the time in between, it is a relief to know that the things that markedly improve our happiness levels right now are the little decisions we are able to take every day - and knowing that there are always some aspects of our lives (if not all) that we are in control of.
What We Can Do Now
Even if it is just choosing what we focus on, there are always some aspects of our lives (if not all) that we are in control of — and they might be more vital to our long-term health and happiness than we realise.
Here are a few suggestions to get started: