Help Others Feel in Control of Their Own Lives to Feel Better Yourself

Academic articles can make for dry reading; that’s why at The Retirement Whisperer we’re committed to finding and reading interesting new research—so you don’t have to—and explaining what it means in plain English.  But that’s just the start. Scholars draw cautious conclusions from data, but we give ourselves license to speculate about the research’s possible broader implications. We couple the research with intuition to turn narrow findings into specific advice on finding happiness and fulfillment in retirement.

When Your Spouse Feels More in Control of His or Her Life, You Feel Better, Too

When our spouse or partner experiences a momentary increase in perceived control over his or her life, we experience a decline in what psychologists call “negative affect,” that is, bad feelings or thoughts that together add up to stress and distress.  That’s the finding in a February, 2018, article in the Journals of Gerontology titled “The More We Are in Control, the Merrier?  Partner Perceived Control and Negative Affect in the Daily Lives of Older Couples.”  

Previous research has shown that individuals experience stress and negative emotions when they perceive low levels of control; this German study sought to go beyond that insight to see if the same dynamic operates in “social systems” likes longstanding couple relationships.

87 Older Berlin Couples Surveyed

To get answers German researchers asked 87 Berlin couples to complete a brief survey six times a day for seven consecutive days.  At least one person in each couple was 70 years old or older, and the couples had been together for an average of 46 years. Survey participants throughout the day rated their perception of being in control—that is, belief in their ability to “influence and change life circumstances”—on a 0 to 100 scale and, on the same scale, the degree to which they felt nervous, jittery, frustrated, sad, worried or other emotions used to measure “negative affect.”

Results showed that you won’t experience fewer negative emotions just because your partner feels relatively higher levels of perceived control—that your own perception of control is the driving factor.  If, however, your partner experiences higher than usual perceived control, your negative emotions will abate.  My plain English take on the results? Each of us is to some extent an emotional island, but coping with life’s challenges is easier if you make it a team sport and help your partner experience more control in their life.

Applying This Insight in Your Own Life

Here are five Retirement Whisperer thoughts, speculations, and takeaways from the research:

  1. Not everyone is in a long-term relationship, but that’s not the only kind of intense emotional relationship.  Do similar kinds of mood interdependence exist, say, in close friendships that aren’t romantic relationships? My gut tells me that it does, and this research starts to help us see some of the ways to be a better spouse or friend.
  2. If I’ll feel better (with lower “negative affect”) if my spouse or friend feels more perceived control, what specifically can I do that will help them feel more control?  A plan of action would clearly depend on the person and the circumstance, but it seems clear that helping someone help themselves will both make them and you feel better.
  3. We’ve all heard the advice to “surround ourselves with positive people” but maybe that doesn’t quite get it right.  Positivity and optimism in those around us may not be enough; we need ways to help each other achieve more perceived control.
  4. What about other relationships in our life?  Can we lower our negative emotions by helping relative strangers experience higher levels of perceived control?  This might be one of the reasons why volunteering to help others makes us feel good. Teaching literacy or English as a second language may not only be empowering for the student but mood enhancing for the teacher.
  5. The research is just the launching pad for speculations like these, and I hope you find them intriguing.  Socializing is one of the pillars of successful retirement, and the more we understand exactly how our actions in relationships and friendships influences our happiness, the more intentional and proactive we can be.  In the meantime, helping others help themselves won’t hurt you. And it may help you.

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