Big-Picture Thinking Makes You Happier, Hopkins Research Shows

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If you want to be satisfied with your life, don’t focus on those niggling details–think about the big picture. That may be old advice, but it’s now been scientifically validated thanks to recent research out of Johns Hopkins.

Erik Helzer, an assistant professor at the university’s Carey Business School, took a close look at the secondary control mindset. Plenty of studies have linked the primary control mindset–which is the feeling of taking action to change your circumstances–with greater life satisfaction. That makes sense; feeling as though you have some sort of control over what happens to you, and that if things aren’t working out you have the power to take action and make changes, is a good way not to feel daunted by life.

Secondary control, however, is kind of the opposite: It’s the attitude that much of what happens in life is actually not under our control, and can’t be altered or directed by the simple application of willpower. Other studies have shown that secondary control mindsets help people adapt in the wake of tragedy, but Helzer wanted to find out whether this mental strategy also serves as a useful coping mechanism in regular, non-tragic, day-to-day life.

Helzer and his fellow researchers found that both primary and secondary control mindsets were linked to positive present mood in study subjects–but only primary control was linked to negative moods. The researchers concluded that the reflective, big-picture attitude you take when in a secondary control mood can help promote feelings of well-being and peace, even when bad things happen. In other words — if you don’t feel as though everything is under control, you don’t have to feel like everything bad or annoying that happens is your fault (or your responsibility to fix).

“This gets at what secondary control is about, being able to fit one’s experiences into a broader narrative of life,” Helzer told the Hopkins Hub. “Gaining mastery of your life and feeling satisfaction shouldn’t be the domain exclusively of primary control. The idea of gaining mastery over your circumstances without having to conquer them is an important one. That’s one thing we wanted to get across in this paper, that secondary control shouldn’t be viewed as a passive, second-best, last-resort strategy, as it is in the previous literature.”

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