Controlling Your Way to Happiness?

PRIVATE PROPERTYIn some ways, control is at the heart of the most common clinical approaches to mood disorders like depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the “gold standard” talk therapy for depressive disorders, focuses on controlling one’s reactions to troubling events. By exerting control over thoughts (cognitions), people can gradually reduce their negative emotional responses to events. Eventually, the process becomes more automatic and the person is, hopefully, able to reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms of depression.

Now, yet another psychology study has teased apart the contributions of being able to control what happens and being able to control how you respond to something on happiness.  The researchers found that working to control life circumstances was associated with day-to-day happiness, while working to control reactions to those circumstances was associated with more long-term happiness (Helzer & Jayawickreme, 2015). In other words, we’re happiest in the here and now when we have some control over the situation,  but we can thrive in the long-term even when circumstances are hard by focusing on our responses to them.

Dr. Helzer said to the NY Times about his findings:

“One may also attain a sense of mastery – and cultivate a good life – by balancing these attempts with reflective self-mastery, in the form of learning from and coming to appreciate one’s daily challenges and adversities.”

As for me, I think it comes back yet again to the Serenity Prayer: Change the things you can, accept the things you can’t, and try to understand the difference whenever you can.


Helzer, E. G., & Jayawickreme, E. (2015). Control and the “good life”: Primary and secondary control as distinct indicators of well-being. Social Psychological and Personality Science.  doi:10.1177/1948550615576210