Control is Essential to Happiness

From a New Yorker piece on the Psychology of First Person Shooter Games

“Control, compounded by a first-person perspective, may be the key to the first-person shooter’s enduring appeal. A fundamental component of our happiness is a sense of control over our lives. It is, in fact, “a biological imperative for survival,” according to a recent review of animal, clinical, and neuroimaging evidence. The more in control we think we are, the better we feel; the more that control is taken away, the emotionally worse off we become. In extreme cases, a loss of control can lead to a condition known as learned helplessness, in which a person becomes helpless to influence his own environment. And our sense of agency, it turns out, is often related quite closely to our motor actions: Do our movements cause a desired change in the environment? If they do, we feel quite satisfied with ourselves and with our personal effectiveness. First-person shooters put our ability to control the environment, and our perception of our effectiveness, at the forefront of play.”

Or put another way: “We are genetically programmed to control value.”

All of this makes complete sense. Our ancestors that recognized value and successfully controlled it were the ones that were successful in the their environments (i.e. didn’t get killed by exposure, or hunger, or violence) and thus lived to reproduce. We are their progeny. So, when someone asks, “Why does that politician/businessman/religionist/militarist appreciate value?” The right answer is, “Because he was programmed to. Just like you. Just like me. Just like everyone.” Which is why we shouldn’t be surprised when someone takes an interest in controlling our own value.

“the psychologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues found that, between 1960 and 2002, Americans have increasingly turned to external explanations for the shapes of their lives. The shift is not a function of socioeconomic background; the attitude change occurred across demographics. This, in turn, suggests increased alienation and, as a result, more of a need for a means by which to reassert the control that otherwise seems to be missing from our lives.”

If, indeed, Americans do have less control today than in 1960, we shouldn’t be surprised to find an increasing divergence where people recur to virtual worlds to get the control they’re looking for and this partial abdication of real world control then leaves our real world value less protected, and we lose more of it. At some point I’m optimistic that Millennials that are used to very high levels of virtual control, will start to demand the same of the real world and reverse the trend.