The Marie Kondo Effect: Our Quest For Control

There’s a reason why organizational guru Marie Kondo has become a cultural phenomenon. When the world seems increasingly bizarre and unpredictable, we look for things we can still control.

Based on my news feed, it appears that may be limited to our garage and our sock drawer.

In 1954, American psychologist Julian Rotter introduced something he called the locus of control.  To lift the Wikipedia definition, it’s “the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control.”

Control is important to humans, even if it’s just an illusion. Our perception of being in control makes us happier.

Kondo has tapped into a fundamental human principle: Choosing to organize is choosing joy. There is a mountain of academic research to back that up.

But you really don’t have to look any further than the street you live on. That old Italian guy who’s up at 6:30 every morning washing his driveway? That’s Mario flexing his own locus of control. The more bizarre the world appears to become, the more we narrow the focus of our locus to things we know we can control. And if that’s 1,000 square feet of asphalt, so be it

It’s not just my paisano Mario who needs to stake his claim to control where he can find it. This narrowing of the locus of control commonly goes hand in hand with aging. Typically, as our inevitable cognitive and physical decline catches up with us, we reduce our boundaries of influence to what we can handle.  With my dad, it was recycling. He’d spend a good chunk of his time sorting through cans, jars and cardboard boxes, meticulously sorting them into their respective bins.

We need to feel that we can still exercise control — somehow, somewhere.

This need for control and some semblance of connectable cause and effect always takes a beating during times of upheaval. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer, which he began using in sermons during the tumultuous 1930s and 40s, became a lifeline in times of turmoil:

“God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Reinhold Niebuhr

Unfortunately for us, we don’t have a track record of doing so well on the first two parts of Niebuhr’s prayer. We don’t “accept with serenity” — we usually freak out with anxiety and stress. We adapt by focusing as best we can on those things that can be changed. When external disruption is the norm, our locus of control shrinks inward.

This brings up another facet of our need for control: the source of disruption. Disruption that happens to us personally — divorce, a health crisis, career upheaval, loss of a loved one — tends to at least fall somewhat within our locus of control. We have some options in how we respond and deal with these types of disruption.

But disruption that plays out globally is a different matter. How much control do we have over the rise of populist politics, climate change or microplastics in the ocean? The levers of control we can pull are minuscule compared to the scope of the issue.

That’s the problem with our densely connected, intensely networked world. We are hyper-aware of everything that’s wrong anywhere in the world. We are bombarded with it every minute. Every newsfeed, every CNN alert, every Facebook post seems to make us aware of yet one more potential catastrophe that we have absolutely no control over.

It’s no wonder that sometimes we just need to retreat and clean out our Tupperware drawer. In today’s world, you have to find joy where you can.

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