The mind, just like any other entity in nature, follows some specific laws. The mastery of these laws can be immensely helpful in improving mental health and generating happiness.
Long before the discipline of psychology was established, philosophers started providing answers to the question of how to reach happiness. Tested by science, some their claims have been refuted, while others were confirmed, such as the following statement made by Epictetus in The Art of Living:
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.
In 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. Their findings suggest that being in control of a stressful situation can make it less harmful. 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. 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’s 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. 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.
When we think more about what we can control and less about what we cannot control, we experience a better mood. In his inspiring TED Talk “My philosophy for a happy life,” 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 order 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.
Feeling in control is an experience that we all pursue. However, this feeling is pursued through different means, some of which are problematic. Many individuals resort to harmful and sadistic practices in order to feel in control. They mistakenly believe that control means control over others and power means the ability to harm others.
Science has proven that control and power can be reached through prosocial practices such as altruism and kindness. The next blog entry will discuss the benefits of these practices on mental health.