To what extent do you believe that your fate is in your own hands? If you go for a job interview, do you believe that the result is largely a matter of luck or the interviewer’s mood on the day, or does it depend more heavily on the preparation you did, and of course your skills and experience?

Locus of control is a psychological concept referring to the extent to which people feel that they have control over what happens to them. The more you feel what happens is down to other people’s actions or luck, the more of an external locus of control you probably have, the more you believe you can influence what happens, the more internal that locus is.

If you’re not sure where yours lies on the continuum, there is a more in-depth test here.

Why does it matter?

Research shows that people who have a more internal locus of control tend to be more confident, physically healthier, and happier, whereas those with a more external locus are more likely to feel helpless and hopeless. An external locus of control is also closely associated with imposter syndrome, as people feel that any success is a result of luck, and not down to their efforts or ability.

Can we really control everything?

Of course not. In fact, I would say that placing ourselves at either of the far ends on this continuum isn’t healthy. Ultimately we can’t control a lot of things in life, and it can be a huge relief to accept this. However, I believe that the key to happiness is recognising the difference between those things which we can’t control, and those where we definitely do have more influence.

When my son was about two I took him out in his pushchair on a very windy day. He got upset and started shouting, ‘No, wind, no!’. I often think of this when I am getting frustrated with external circumstances, or other people’s behaviour. We often can’t change these things any more than we can stop the wind blowing, but we can, of course, change our response. If we don’t like the weather, we can dress differently, go home, or change our perspective. Maybe we can actually enjoy the sensations of the wind, or the rain?

Having a more internal locus of control means that we recognise our responsibility for those things which we can control, and that we take positive steps to improve the situation. If the job interview went badly, we don’t immediately blame bad luck or the interviewer, but we look at what we could have done better and what we can learn for the future.

Avoiding self-blame

This doesn’t mean that we berate or blame ourselves. Taking responsibility for what we can control is very different from feeling everything is our fault. It’s about simply seeing things that didn’t go so well as a learning opportunity, rather than just ‘bad luck’, and seeing how we might do things differently next time.

In the words of the well-known serenity prayer:

‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

Courage to change the things I can

And wisdom to know the difference.’