Our sense of agency – part 1

The sense of agency we are able to bring to our lives is one of the most important factors which influences our health, wellbeing and success. Yet it’s not often talked about, and usually poorly understood. Agency is the feeling of being able to make something happen, of being the cause of events rather than the effect. We’d like to believe that we, and everyone else in the world, is able to live with a sense of agency. It’s fundamental to how we see ourselves as humans.

Unfortunately, research (including some very cruel studies on animals) has shown that it only takes a few experiences of being disempowered, of not being able to get yourself out of a painful situation no matter how hard you try, to develop a sense of learned helplessness, where you give up altogether and simply accept whatever comes at you. Not only that, but it takes many more positive experiences of agency, of being able to make a difference, to counter the effect of one negative experience of helplessness.

This is where the saying ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ is so fundamental. It’s all too easy to look at other people’s lives and judge them for not trying hard enough. From the outside, it might look perfectly obvious what someone should be doing to improve their circumstances. Yet really, we have no idea why this person may be struggling. Chances are they have experienced traumas we can only guess at. And yes, people who are disempowered sometimes make bad decisions, just as people with all the power in the world also make mistakes. Often, however, our society often judges people who are on benefits much more harshly than those who are materially successful, although the research would suggest it should really be the other way round.

Mindfulness practices can be very empowering for us, as they can greatly increase our sense of agency. We will look at some of the ways in which mindfulness can lead to ‘learned agency’ in next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, if you find yourself being judgmental about someone, pause and ask yourself – am I really sure I know the whole story? This is not to make excuses for the other person, but simply to acknowledge there may be aspects to the story we don’t know about.

Anja Tanhane