To Feel Effective – A Life of One’s Own

All the power and affluence that modern, “developed,” ways of life bring also present us with a great challenge: modern tools/toys are effective, powerful – but if something doesn’t work the way you want, tough luck. And that’s the easy  example.

Politics, economics, environmental problems, all seem even more removed from the sphere of our own influence. Sure, you can vote, you can give donations, you can “buy green” – but does that really change anything? With a tanking economy, can you live well? (And besides, had you felt the supposedly great times that went before, other than in the form of easy credit?)

We want to feel that we have a grip on things, though.

In fact, human beings don’t just want, but need, a sense of influence, of accomplishment, of control over their lives. Without it, we cannot be happy. As it so often goes, there is a multitude of ways we can get that feeling of self-efficacy. However, some are better – and in some ways, harder; some are of less good effect, but typically easier.

Environmental problems have long had to serve as the paragon of futility. Not just futility, actually, but even “well-informed futility:” The more you learn about all the things that are wrong, the more you also know that whatever you personally do isn’t just a drop in the bucket, it’s less than a drop in the ocean.
It doesn’t exactly help that the things you are supposed to do are either to give donations (meaning you need to have a job, make enough, and be content just giving away money) or to give up some of the same things that make a modern life modern. The very talk of “giving up things” is demotivating, the call for donations hardly enough – we want to own, to do,… to experience and to influence.

It is particularly troublesome a matter, if you think about it, because many of the problems we face are caused simply by the way we currently live a normal life, by our daily actions – the same small things we don’t want to change because we all think “if I alone change that, it’s not really going to do anything.”

This is the ecology of happiness, not the ecology of whiny ignorance, though.

The issue is this: if you want to feel in control of your life, you have to take control of your life. And to know when and what to let slide…

You alone are not going to change your country’s politics, in all likelihood. You will not just magically conjure up the perfect job you’ve always wanted. (Programs like “The Secret” are based on exactly the sort of wishful, magical thinking hoping that this is possible – and in the process, shoveling money for those peddling the idea. It’s not, or there would be more lottery millionaires, don’t you think?)

You cannot even produce your success all by yourself, no matter what some of the self-help/online entrepreneur-crowd may want you to believe – but you can improve your chances of success, and certainly your happiness in life, only when you do something. Self-efficacy does not come from laziness.

Of course, the question is what activities are best – and here, the problems start all over again. As do the chances:

One example that shows the dangers: video games. Like sports, they are good at distracting from all the doubts and troubles of everyday life, invite us to immerse ourselves in ways that challenge skills and, in the combination of the two, can get us into a state of flow. Not to forget that you have a pretty clear-cut set of goals, the sense of accomplishment you get from achieving them, and therefore, the feeling of self-efficacy. The green pigs stole the eggs, and I’ll get them back.

Video games tend not to be as good for your health, and might not train the skills you really need in your life, though.

They are, however, fun. Many things are done because they feel good, and probably continued also because they provide a feeling of control. I decide to go out and pick someone up, I decide to get wasted, I treat myself to something new, this is me slapping you around.
Some psychologists have gone so far as to suggest that the increase in violence one sees amongst (young) people is based on the loss of the feeling of control. It’s not so much a loss of control (over oneself), as it is a desperate attempt at feeling in control and effective in one’s life. After all, what could be more “in control” than choosing who will live or die? In less extreme forms, if you cannot contribute constructively to society, at least you can still destroy – and be of obvious effect in the world.

I tag (spray graffiti), therefore I am?

Bringing video games and amok, teen violence and graffiti into such close proximity is quite a béte noire, however. Many a drive for ever more wealth and power is probably based on not much other than the feeling of control it brings; many a beating in a family nothing but a desperate attempt to regain the upper hand – if not over oneself, then at least over the others. (It’s much easier to blame others, too.)

The opposite also applies. One can gain a feeling of self-efficacy simply from managing one’s finances well, having a steady income (no matter whether it is based on doing a good job on an assembly line, maybe even deciding to become yet better at it…, or being self-employed in the creative industry – though entrepreneurship does add a whole new layer of meaning, and stress, to it).

In fact, in one of those simple-but-not-easy connections typical of the ecology of happiness, living responsibly is an excellent way of taking control:

  • When I turn off the TV and do something active, creative, instead, I take back control.
  • When I tell the ads I watch that, no, I don’t actually need what they are trying to sell me, I take back control.
  • (And hey, when I choose something well and splurge on it, having the money and knowing I will be happy with it, I also get in control – if I don’t cheat myself.)
  • (In that vein, when I learn how I may be cheating myself – or simply, when I learn and use that knowledge in practice – I may be taking the reins back.)
  • When I stand in the kitchen and cook from scratch, I care for the health of me and mine, create something pleasurable to partake of – and it’s literally in my own hands.

Like cooking, gardening is one of the best – and simplest – activities in which environment and self come together in self-efficacious ways. And, these two activities show very nicely that it is not an absolute control we are talking about, but something more akin to a form of play.
On the one hand, you have to take what the material and situation you are given: the climatic conditions, the plants, their requirements, your and other’s likes and dislikes. On the other hand, you can learn how to get better at it, experiment with what’s possible, try out new things – or stick to the old.

It is your decision, your skills, your actions and attitude – your life. Take it on.


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