Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How Much of Our Life Is Controllable?

3 control sticks for steering our lives in good directions.

LightField Studios/Shutterstock
Source: LightField Studios/Shutterstock

In the grand arc of our lives, we are all largely at the mercy of random, unknowable, and mostly uncontrollable forces and events. Like leaves that have dropped into a river—inexorably swept downstream by the current—we are constantly swept farther and farther down the river of time into the future. But unlike passive leaves on a river, people are more like active entities in canoes with some ability to steer the course of their lives within the eternal, forward-moving direction of time’s arrow.

To extend this canoe metaphor, there are three “paddles“ we can use to influence the direction of our lives: What we do, what we say, and what we consume. In other words, these are the three main aspects of our lives that we have virtually total control of. And learning vital skills to apply in these three areas allows us to control what we can and thereby attempt to actively steer our lives towards optimum health and happiness.

What We Do

Our behavior is, perhaps, the most powerful means we have of influencing our lives and is one of the critical parts of our nature we have almost complete control of. With few exceptions (e.g., sleepwalking, reflexes, seizures, and falls) our motor behavior is almost completely under our voluntary control. What we do and don’t do, what action we take or don’t take, and ultimately how we move our bodies is almost entirely up to us. Thus one very important part of taking control of our lives and health is through consistent physical activity and regular exercise. In this way, we can use the “paddle” of our behavior to avoid many potential hazards on the river of life.

What We Say

Another zone of our lives we have almost total control of is what comes out of our mouths—that is, what we say and how we speak. (Exceptions to this basic truism include phenomena like sleep talking, vomiting, and vocal tics associated with Tourette’s.) Thus learning the vital social skills of appropriate assertiveness, tact, and diplomacy, and often emulating the wise man who once said…nothing...allows us to steer around significant and potentially life-altering social and interpersonal obstacles.

What We Ingest or Take

The third steering paddle of our lives as human beings is what we put into our bodies. That is, what we eat, drink, take, or otherwise administer. Again, notwithstanding what comes into our bodies involuntarily—such as environmental toxins through the water we drink, pollutants we breathe, and viruses and bacteria we involuntarily contract—we have practically complete control of what we put into our mouths and bodies.

Hence heeding the advice of Michael Pollan who reminds us to “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” is perhaps the ultimate “paddle” we have with which to stay on a healthy course. And, of course, limiting alcohol and other medicinal/recreational substances; discussing with healthcare providers alternatives to prescription medications or using the lowest effective dose for the briefest amount of time; and acquiring some knowledge of basic nutrition will all help you navigate the treacherous currents of time's arrow.

The astute reader will notice the conspicuous absence of matters related to our thoughts and emotions. This is because human beings have only a limited ability to control the emergence and conscious experience of many thoughts and feelings. While they can be influenced to some extent (e.g., disputing a thought, changing an image, or through mindfulness), human cognition and emotion are simply not amenable to direct control (C. Lazarus and A. Lazarus 2015, C. Lazarus 2019).

Remember: Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well!

Copyright 2021 Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional assistance or personal mental health treatment by a qualified clinician.

Dear Reader: The advertisements contained in this post do not necessarily reflect my opinions nor are they endorsed by me.


Lazarus, C. N. & Lazarus, A.A. (2015). Multimodal Therapy. In E. Neukrug (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Counseling and Psychotherapy, (Volume 2, pp. 667-682). Los Angeles: CA.

Lazarus, C. N. (2017). Multimodal Therapy. In A. Wenzel (ED.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Abnormal and Clinical Psychology (Volume 4, pp. 2163-2166). Los Angeles: CA.