Our sense of agency – part 2

Last week we looked at our sense of agency, and its opposite – helplessness. The experience of learned helplessness – this feeling of ‘it doesn’t matter what I do, it won’t make any difference’ – is a major risk factor for anxiety and depression. We humans can be remarkably resilient, as long as we feel we have some influence over how our life unfolds. There are times when much of our life is outside our control. We might be stuck in a miserable job, but can’t afford to resign. We might be dealing with a major illness, get caught up in a natural disaster, or have a family member who requires a lot of care. It’s also possible that our external circumstances look very rosy, but internally we feel trapped in the grip of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.

This is where practising mindfulness can be empowering. Over time, if we meditate regularly, we notice we can have quite an impact when it comes to how we respond to certain situations. For example, we might be feeling under pressure at work, but are able to ground ourselves and take some slow deep breaths before a difficult meeting, helping us to think more clearly, speak more calmly, and therefore be more effective. Or we are able to listen more deeply to our teenager, and find that the conversation takes a more constructive turn as a result. Perhaps we feel attacked by someone, but don’t over-react, and the other person realises you’re not such an easy target any more.

People who are learning mindfulness often report a greater sense of choice. Rather than trudging down the well-worn path of habit with our eyes to the ground, barely noticing our environment, we can pause, look around, get a wider perspective, decide perhaps to take the ‘path less travelled’. These brief moments of choice add up over time to a sense of ‘learned agency’. We often underestimate the power of small but wholesome choices to steer our lives in a better direction.

Studies have shown that people with a strong sense of agency are more likely to look after their health better. They are also more confident, resilient, have a greater sense of responsibility, and are more successful. Agency is like a boat which carries us through a stormy sea – we are still caught up in the elements, but are safer and more in control than if we were trying to swim through the waves.

Our sense of agency is developed through increasing our experiences of efficacy – being effective. We will look at how mindfulness can help us to do this over the next two weeks.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose a current situation which is causing you difficulty, and think of a small way you might be able to bring a greater sense of agency to it. For example, take the time to pause now and then, or write down what you want to say to someone before having that tricky conversation.

Anja Tanhane

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