In an interesting, albeit cruel, study using rats, researchers placed the animals into three groups. The first set of rats could consume cocaine whenever they wanted to. The rats in the second group were forced to take the drug whenever a "partner rat" in the first group chose to. The rats in the third and final group were the sober ones—no coke for them.
As you might guess, doing drugs is bad for you. The rats that didn't take cocaine lived longer, on average, than the rats that did. But the rats in the first group didn’t fare all that badly in comparison. It was the rats in the second group—the ones that did the drug but didn’t have control over when—that fared the worst.
Being in control, it turns out, is important not just for rats but for people, too. A study of residents in a retirement home showed that those who maintained control over even seemingly trivial things—like which movies to watch on the weekend and which plants to grow in their rooms—lived far longer than those who didn’t have such control. Summarizing this and other such studies, some researchers have concluded that we humans are born to choose—that is, our desire for control is genetically hardwired.
If that's true, then you might conclude that trying to control everyone and everything around you is a key to success and longevity. But you'd be wrong, and here's why.
Although being in control is a good thing, seeking control over others (or over outcomes) may not be. Psychologists have found that being overly controlling of others leads to misery and frustration rather than to happiness and success—a tendency that, at certain levels, can be symptomatic of a range of psychiatric disorders.
The reason why is simple enough: When you try to control other people too much, they don’t like it and usually let you know it. This may explain why most parents and employees find spending time with their children and their bosses, respectively, to be pretty unpleasant. Children and bosses may differ in almost every way, but the one thing they share in common is that they frustrate our attempts at controlling them by doing just as they please.
Being a control freak when it comes to other people and the outcome of events has actually been found to lower success. Those with a high desire for control tend to surround themselves with yea-sayers, which reduces the quality of their decisions. Being overly controlling is also associated with greater foolhardiness, which also lowers quality of decisions.
So if you are overly controlling, the question becomes how to control your urge to control. And for that problem, the typical advice on improving self-control might not cut it.
Whereas self-control is about your willpower—your ability to stick with a goal or abstain from something—what I call "internal control" is more about gaining control over your own thoughts and feelings. It turns out that the more in control we are of our internal state, the less external control we seek.
Perhaps the most effective way to gain internal control is by practicing mindfulness—a suggestion you've surely heard often enough. But as some scholars have noted, mindfulness is not for everyone. Plus, it takes patience to practice—something that those with a high control-seeking tendency don't have a lot of. So, that leaves us with three other ways of gaining internal control.
1. Steer clear of what you sets you off. "Situation selection" is about avoiding situations that make you feel stressed and out of control. So for example, if interacting with your next-door colleague deflates or irritates you, don’t interact with him before your next client meeting. Likewise, if seeing your emails after 9 p.m. disturbs your sleep, make it a rule to never to check your inbox after dinner. The problem with situation selection, of course, is that it sounds simple in principle but rarely is in practice. Due to work, willpower, or a combination of the two, you simply might not be able to avoid the emotion-inducing situation.
2. Let your body do the work your mind is struggling with. What do you do when the unwanted emotion has already crept in? One way of regaining internal control is to use your body language to your advantage. As Amy Cuddy summarizes in her excellent TED talk and her book Presence, assuming a "power pose" for just two to three minutes can significantly increase your self-belief and confidence.
3. Call it like you see it. "Emotional labeling" involves coming up with a word or phrase, whenever you're feeling out of control, to describe the negative emotion you're experiencing. So for instance, if you feel frustrated while stuck in traffic, simply admit to yourself, "I’m frustrated." Most people think that emotional labeling will intensify the emotion being labeled. But they are wrong. The psychologist Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues have found across several studies that it effectively mitigates those negative emotions and can help them from boiling over.
If you can improve your internal control, you'll be much less likely to try controlling others—and your job, health, and personal relationships may begin to reflect it.
Raj Raghunathan is a professor of marketing at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin and author of If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy? (Portfolio-Penguin).