Lifestyle Positivity Diaries Wellness

Using Perceived Control to Boost Your Well-Being

I don’t share too much about my life on my blog but I recently graduated from college with a degree in psychology and recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the cognitive fallacies and false beliefs that are holding us back from being our happiest selves. We have all of these choices to make every day, all of this effort we exert and all of these activities we fill our days with. What if we got a little bit more mindful about what choices, activities, and efforts will actually boost our happiness and tried to do more of those and less of the ones that don’t? We have so much research at our fingertips to gently guide us towards becoming a happier version of ourselves so I thought I’d break some of it down for us all to think about and maybe pick up a few pointers!

The topic of today’s post is perceived personal control. Perceived personal control is how much control you feel like you have over your environment. I’ll also talk a little about self-efficacy, which is the belief that you can achieve your desired outcome or goal. Notice any very intentional italicizing? Here we are talking about perceived personal control, or the belief that your environment is responsive to your actions, NOT actual control. One researcher says, “The mere belief that one has control is as important to psychological well-being as objective control” (Smith et al., 2000). The big idea here is that these are both the belief that you have influence over your outcome. The control you feel over your life doesn’t have to necessarily be related to the things stressing you out. It can be control over anything in your life, like what you’re eating for dinner tonight.

The mere belief that one has control is as important to psychological well-being as objective control

Smith et al. (2000)

Research shows that increased perceived personal control (how much control you feel like you have over your environment) is strongly related to increased psychological and physical well-being and even success. Let’s look at some of the research!

Psychological well-being (a.k.a. enjoyment and fulfillment in life)

A lack of perceived personal control over the participants’ situation was a significant predictor of distress in a study with individuals in a period of unemployment (Creed & Barnum, 2008). Perceived personal control has even been found to be one of the most important predictors of psychological well-being across the lifespan (Smith et al., 2000). These highlight that while high feelings of personal control can boost you up, low feelings of control can also bring you down. 

Physical Health

There’s also research on nursing home residents where half the residents studied got a plant to care for and the others didn’t, but everyone got the same level and quality of care. The residents with the plant reported feeling happier, more active, more alert and even showed improvement in their physical health at a rate 2.5x the other group. The major lesson here is to find something small in your day, it doesn’t have to solve all of your problems, it just has to give you that feeling of control over something in your life.

Success and Achieving your Goals

And if you’re looking to achieve all of your 2023 goals: people with higher feelings of self-efficacy (remember: the belief you can achieve success) not only set higher goals, they also achieve them more than those with low feelings of personal control. Believing in your ability to achieve your goals will actually help you achieve them.

This might all sound a little bit like common sense. Feeling like you have control in your life is going to make you feel better! But the nuance here is like the quote from above said, feeling in control is just as powerful as actually being in control, and that what you feel like you can control does not have to relate to the things that are making you feel down or anxious, nor do they have to be major.

Reflection questions:

  • Make a list of everything you do have control over today
  • Can you think of any ways you can empower yourself and find ways to have the belief that you’re in control? Can you get a plant or buy a few options of tea so you can make the choice which to drink every morning rather than only having one option? These don’t have to be major by any means!
  • Do you have roles and responsibilities that are fulfilling to you? Think nursing home resident with a plant to water. 

I hope you enjoyed this little psychology-focused, research-backed pep talk and hope this lesson will help you get through the winter blues like it has helped me!


Creed, P. A., & Bartrum, D. A. (2008). Personal Control as a Mediator and Moderator Between Life Strains and Psychological Well-Being in the Unemployed: PERSONAL CONTROL AND UNEMPLOYMENT. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38(2), 460–481.

Langer, E. J., & Rodin, J. (1976). The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged: A field experiment in an institutional setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(2), 191–198.

Smith, G. C., Kohn, S. J., Savage-Stevens, S. E., Finch, J. J., Ingate, R., & Lim, Y.-O. (2000). The Effects of Interpersonal and Personal Agency on Perceived Control and Psychological Well-Being in Adulthood. The Gerontologist, 40(4), 458–468.