What's the biggest predictor of happiness in life? Is it money? Career success? Relationship status? Nope.

"According to a report by The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, all these mentioned life goodies were topped by the biggest life goodie of them all: 'autonomy' - defined as 'the feeling that your life - its activities and habits -- are self-chosen and self-endorsed,'" writes author Karen Salmansohn on Psychology Today.

It's really hard to feel happy if you don't feel in control of your life. And the bad news is today's hectic lifestyles really don't help us feel in control of our time or our choices (though it should be noted that if you're not financially insecure you're probably more in the driver's seat than a lot of your fellow humans).

How do you get back to a sense that you actually hold the reins of your life? A new book entitled The Power of Agency by Anthony Rao and Paul Napper, a pair of veteran psychologists, offers a deep dive into this question. A recent article on the site of UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center boils their seven key insights. Here's a sampling:

1. Control stimuli. 

You can't tell your brain not to hear a pinging phone or a chatty colleague, but you can control your environment to make it less likely that your attention will be hijacked by these sort of distractions, allowing you to  consciously choose what you focus on.

"Agency begins with what you let into your mind--meaning what comes in from your environment," they writes. "To help you increase your agency, practice going to quiet and screen-free spaces to escape overstimulation. That may mean spending time in nature, turning off your phone notifications while at work, or avoiding eating in loud cafeterias."

Other experts have offer plenty of advice on taming your tech and clearing out distractions so you can get in a clear head space.

2. Embrace lifelong learning

If you believe your capabilities are fixed, you're much more likely to feel stuck wherever you are in life. The antidote to this is to embrace lifelong learning so that you feel more empowered to move from wherever you are to wherever you want to be.

This sounds straightforward but our egos often get in the way, Rao and Napper note. "This isn't always easy," they write. "Practicing a growth mindset--where you recognize that you are a work in progress, capable of learning and changing--can help combat the fear of failure or judgment that often come with learning new things. If you have trouble letting go of perfectionism, it might help to practice mindfulness meditation, which has been shown to reduce self-judgment."

3. Don't be a slave to intuition.  

Wait, wouldn't following your gut make you feel more in control of your life? Sometimes it's true that listening to your instincts can be invaluable, but the authors also caution that intuition can simply be our biases and fears talking. Valuing them too highly can keep you from making more considered and ultimately better decisions.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has written and spoken extensively on this subject, but the authors also offer some suggestions. For instance, consciously choose to leverage your intuition by taking a break from a difficult problems to let subconscious processes gnaw away at them. Also, learn to tell areas of expertise in which your intuition is likely to be reliable apart from instincts driven by stereotypes and raw emotion.

Interested in more tips? Check out the full Greater Good post or pick up the book for the real deep dive.

Published on: May 10, 2019
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