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Control Is the Psychological Goal

The belief that more control will bring more happiness creates more suffering.

There are four basic goals of psychology: to describe, explain, predict, and control behavior (Coon, Mitterer, 2013). Although the last goal may sound ominous, it is actually the one the majority of those reading about psychology are most interested in. Although the goal of control is really about helping one control himself in some manner, it often leaks into the desire to control others and situations.

Many may try to deny this, but the desire to control permeates our lives. People want to know, before they commit to a decision, what the best choice will be. People want to control themselves, and their situations. And, in my professional experience as a therapist and a psychology educator, people want to control others. This is true despite aversion to believing so. Prediction and the goals preceding it above, are simply essential components to the ultimate goal of control.

Self-efficacy is a term that describes one’s belief she can take action to meet a challenge. The idea that one can exert control over a situation is linked to better health functioning and psychological health. The perception of control is also directly correlated with happiness, as illustrated beautifully in Rory Sutherland’s TEDx Talk, “Perspective Is Everything.” Happiness and better health functioning, both psychologically and biologically, suggests the idea that control is at least an unconscious goal in people’s lives. However, a problem may lie in the idea that the ability to control one’s actions is the same as controlling a situation. Being able to overcome a challenge is much different than controlling circumstances.

Control is not the goal for one branch of psychology, the theories that make up the Humanistic school. Abraham Maslow, the theorist responsible for Holistic-Dynamic Theory, argued that control should never be a goal of therapy or psychology. The Humanistic school of therapy is not popular in the now empirically tested world of psychology, where prediction and control dominate.

Existential theory, another in the Humanistic school, also finds the idea of control averse as it relates to its application to others and situations. Existentialists believe that humans have to recognize their ability to choose, and to take responsibility for those choices. The governing belief is that many issues that arise and require therapy are issues of existence: fear of death and its cohort the fear of really living, freedom and refusal to take responsibility for it, and the creation of meaning. Instead of controlling others and situations, there is a realization of the freedom of others and acceptance. Another aspect of existential thought is that life is absurd and chaotic.

The fact that life is chaotic should not be lost on anyone. John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Everyone should be able to relate to something unplanned and unexpected occurring, and disrupting the best-laid plans. This often sends an individual into a frenzy of emotion, and the desire for control arises. There was once a saying, “Relax. Everything is under control.” Recently a new one has been making its rounds on social media: “Relax. Nothing is under control.” The latter statement is much more accurate.

Despite this awareness and an intellectual understanding that life can be chaotic and people don’t have as much control as they might like, there remains an underlying desire to control. People want to have as much control over their lives as possible. Just imagine how much easier life would be if everything went as one wanted it to; if the universe and others behaved the way you determined would be best, everything would be easier. But life doesn’t work like that.

Though it is often believed control leads to a happier life, there is evidence to suggest the opposite is true. In Eastern philosophies, the goal is to let go of control, to let things unfold, to go with the flow of the universe. Wu-Wei is a term which is translated to “action through non-action.” Wu-Wei is practiced by letting go, letting things unfold, and aligning one’s actions with the flow of the universe. It is the opposite of trying to control.

When practicing this philosophy, there is acceptance of life on life’s terms, rather than attempts to get life to mold into one’s desires. This acceptance leads to a happier existence. Though it is irrevocably true that people can control themselves, there is far more in life there is no control over (despite best attempts). People seek this control because of an ingrained belief that control will lead to more happiness. This is too often not the case, and often brings more suffering. As I’ve written in “What Recovering Alcoholics Can Teach Us About Happiness,” and “Let Go, Be Happy,” letting go of trying to control is a proven path to a happier existence.

Copyright William Berry, 2014.


Coon, D., Mitterer, J.; 2013; Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior.

Lennon, John; 1980; Song: “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy).”

Sutherland, Rory; 2011; Perspective is Everything; TEDx Talk; retrieved from: