I’ll do it myself

Anybody, anywhere in the world, all they want is to be free, to choose what they want to do without having someone tell them how to do it.
Freida Pinto
1984 –

Have you ever tried to feed a two year old — hoping to get the food in their mouth and not on the floor — only to be rebuffed? About that age, children start demonstrating a desire to be in control of their lives; they want to do things for themselves.

At the other end of the spectrum is elder care. If you’ve ever been a caregiver, you know that older people fiercely cling to their independence. Even though it would be easier on everyone for you to do certain things for them, they can be very stubborn about doing everyday tasks on their own.

It turns out that one of the basic drives of humans is the desire for autonomy. When we try to do things for others, we rob them of opportunities for self-sufficiency.

Psychologists Ellen Langer and Judy Rodin performed an interesting study in the early 1970s to explore the relationship between autonomy and well-being. They had observed that patients in most nursing homes lived in a ‘decision free’ environment where everything was done for them. Even though the patients were well treated, they had very little choice in anything. They had no autonomy.

So the researchers divided the nursing home residents into two groups and presented each resident with a plant for their room. There was no change in the way the staff related to the control group; staff members took care of each person’s plant. But in the other group, patients were told they would need to care for their plant.

After eighteen months, the researchers conducted a follow-up study and discovered remarkable results: the patients who were responsible for their plants were happier, more active, and more sociable than the patients in the group that had no responsibility. What was even more astounding was that the death rate in the control group was twice as high as the other group — the patients who cared for their own plants.

We all have a basic need for control in our lives. Psychologists have discovered that there doesn’t have to be a direct connection between our choices and their benefits. The fact that the patients had a choice about the care of their plants should not have had any bearing on their health. But clearly it did.

So what do these findings mean for you? In your dealings with children, employees, friends and loved ones, be sure that you allow them some choices. If you make all the decisions, you’ll be robbing them of their sense of autonomy.

There are always tasks that require specific handling, and I’m not advocating negligent behavior. But you can certainly find opportunities to allow people a choice. The circumstances don’t matter; the important thing for the people involved is feeling that they exercise some control in their lives. They’ll be happier and healthier as a result.

You’re on your own. And you know what you know. You are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel)
1904 – 1991

Copyright © 2017 John Chancellor

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