Inspired Living: Letting Go v. Taking Control for Happiness

October 26, 2015

How controlling are you? I think we all have a good idea of where we stand on the control spectrum. I’m probably in the middle, with a slight lean toward control: I do have my way of doing things, but I am generally flexible and willing to accommodate others. But if my routine is thrown off for an extended period of time, like when I’m travelling, I begin to feel my nerves fraying at the edges. On the other hand, I’ve known some people who are much more controlling to the point of laying objects exactly the same way each time. On the other extreme, some people feel happiest when they are least structured. So what kind of philosophy / disposition leads to greater happiness?

Inspired Living: Letting Go v. Taking Control for Happiness

Balancing “freedom” and “control”

To judge from our culture, it would be freedom that takes the happiness cake. Our current zeitgeist is firmly tilted in favor of freedom, spontaneity, individuality, and appreciating life in the present. Ads of expensive electronics always feature a panoramic take of a person standing at the top of a mountain or riding the waves, or swaying to music at hip music festivals, being enviably free and exhilarated all the time. (No tedious takes of labor and routine, here). It is no coincidence that one of the most popular songs in recent years is entitled “Let It Go.” But this feels like a misnomer: Elsa, the princess with magical powers, sings the song as she builds her own castle out of ice. Yes, she is letting go of her fear of nonconformity, but more significantly she is taking control over her life. But would the song have been as popular had it been called “Take Control”?

Unlike freedom, the values of control and self-discipline are viewed with ambivalence in our culture. Being “controlling,” of course, is considered harmful to the well-being of self and others. Even highly functional and successful people actively seek to downplay their self-control and rigidity: Arianna Huffington, for instance, became one such high profile advocate for well-being and work-life balance, after suffering a breakdown.

Ironically, that balanced state of mental and physical wellness itself requires active self-discipline. Whether that comes in the form of clean, organic, and all-natural diet, daily meditation, or high-end fitness classes, we’ve all had to wonder whether we’ve become too obsessed with control. So what really leads to genuine happiness and sense of well-being–living in the moment and prioritizing experience over accomplishment, or exercising restraint with an eye toward sustained and long-term fulfillment? (Hmm…every inch of my Korean being is saying, “The latter! latter!” but let’s see here).

A recent study by scientists at the University of Maryland provides an interesting insight into this question of how rigidity affects happiness. The researchers indexed 32 countries on cultural looseness and tightness, based on strength of social norms, permissiveness, and tolerance for deviance. They then compared the countries’ data for happiness, dysthymia (mild but chronic depression), suicide, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, life expectancy, and gross domestic product.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the countries on either extremes of permissiveness showed the worst results for happiness. It feels intuitive that extreme societal rigidity would undermine the sense of autonomy over one’s own life and environment, which is critical to happiness. On the other hand, too much permissiveness leads to social chaos and even a sense of meaninglessness and lack of purpose.

What may be more eye-opening is that the most rigid and most permissive countries were worse off than the moderate countries in all six of the criteria tested, including life expectancy and GDP. So excessive or insufficient control doesn’t just affect your mood, but also your long-term physical health, longevity, and financial well-being (yes, money! whew!). If you want to live a long, happy, healthy, successful and prosperous life, the best policy seems to be moderation.

So how moderate are you, really? The U.S., it turns out, is the 11th most permissive country out of the sample of 32–in the top 1/3. After all, we are a country defined by personal freedom and “Let It Go.”

Nonetheless, the greatest difference is always at an individual level; and how unrestrained, moderate, or controlled you are is first and foremost a matter of personal choice rather than culture. The definition of “moderate” self-control is indeed personal.

Embrace the amount of routine, rigidity, and self-discipline that encourages you to grow, yet feels sustainable and healthy for you. It’s about finding something that doesn’t lead to dramatic upheavals, crash-and-burn, yo-yo pattern. Listen to your body, your mind, and your soul. Here’s a good test that always works for me: Ask yourself, “can I continue this rhythm for the next six months without becoming unhappy or burned out? Will this make me grow and feel happy?” And if it’s yes, you’ve found your rhythm. On the other hand, if the thought makes you feel like breathing out a huge sigh, you should see what you can do to re-organize your lifestyle.

This might mean taking a different career to be able to freely travel the world, or staying rooted to your routine of 6 a.m. alarms, green juices, and marathon training while working a high-powered job. Your “moderate” is the rhythm that makes you feel most like yourself, whether that leads you to “let it go” or “take control.”

Related: On Letting Go of Perfectionism

How Surrender Makes You Stronger

9 Ways to Feel Good About Yourself Right Now

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Photo: Rainbow Phoenix World via Instagram

Juhea is the founder and editor of Peaceful Dumpling and the author of bestselling novel Beasts of a Little Land. Follow Juhea on Instagram @peacefuldumpling, @juhea_writes and Pinterest.


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