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How Losing Control Revealed Our Need for It

When Marie Kondo introduced her KonMari Method of tidying up, she sparked a decluttering revolution around the world[1]. She launched her first book in 2011 which has sold 13 million copies worldwide, released a Netflix series, and even spurred a consulting arm of more than 700 “certified KonMari consultants” ever ready to help[1].

Then, in late 2020, months after COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, the worldwide urge to tidy up skyrocketed to another level, particularly in Singapore[2]. Interestingly, this surge in popularity of the KonMari Method during the pandemic embodies more than just an increased interest to tidy up. 

Commenting on the phenomenon, Kondo said, "I think many people looked for answers to address their anxiety of the unknown and the KonMari Method gave people an opportunity to have control over something, which was their own space at home, and, more importantly, focus on the things that spark joy in their lives[2]." 

Revealing the Need for Control

Dr Victor Seah, Deputy Head of Psychology Programme at SUSS, breaks this observation down. According to him, the KonMari movement’s appeal comes from hitting all the right topics of the day. It rides on the wider trends of preferences for minimalist design, worries about excessive consumerism and also concerns about environmental footprint.

When COVID-19 hit, the KonMari Method also resonated with our basal humanistic need for control. The pandemic robbed us of our sense of control and the KonMari Method provided the much-needed comfort for rituals and habits, as a way to regain a sense of control over our immediate surroundings in times of uncertainty.

"There's a calm in such rituals - for example, the specific method of folding laundry - that fits in with this sense of wanting to be in control, and this is where the KonMari Method presents itself as a solution," Dr. Seah adds[2].

The Importance of Control to Our Psyche

Gaining control over our lives is not just a desirable outcome, but a fundamental need in the human psyche. Dr. Seah points to an often-cited research done on nursing home residents, where they were given control over their own immediate environment[3]. They were given the choice to change the orientation of their surroundings, such as the freedom to move the furniture to their liking. The result was that the residents lived longer, and had better and healthier lives compared to nursing home residents who were not allowed to control their surroundings.

Through this research, we can understand the power of shifting our locus of control. The locus of control refers to the degree of our belief that we can control the things that happen to us. It determines our core self-evaluations, affects emotional stability and is significantly linked to our self-esteem. If we have a stronger internal locus of control, we believe that whatever has happened to us is within our control. Allowing the nursing home residents to choose how they arranged their furniture also enabled them to gain a stronger internal locus of control.

Conversely, not having the choice to control outcomes will cause our locus of control to shift outward. And prolonged feelings of being unable to control our outcomes, Dr Seah explains, can eventually lead to feelings of what is termed as “learned helplessness”, or hopelessness. 

The Impacts of a Loss of Sense of Control Over Our Lives

When COVID-19 hit, the obvious impact was that people could not make the simplest choices that they usually did in their daily lives. And this caused a ripple effect across the nation. 

On the work front, people were forced to suddenly adjust to working from home and virtual communications. Dr. Seah notes that this could be one of the reasons that saw the rise of the Great Resignation - a term coined to describe the post-pandemic phenomenon of great numbers of people resigning[4].

“We're still trying to understand if that's indeed the case. But one reason, if that were the case, is because of this inability to switch off from work. And that ultimately leads to burnout and other work-related stresses, and hence the decision to resign.” he says. 

In our personal lives, the impact of COVID-19, which has been called a crisis of a generation, has left an indelible mark on the psyche of many - youths especially[5]. In a recent TODAY Youth Survey conducted at the end of 2021, many Singaporean youths reported to feel greater insecurities[5]. 54 percent said they had become less sociable than before the pandemic, while 59 percent of the respondents said they became more cautious and fearful[5]. Marriages in Singapore also saw a decline in numbers during the pandemic, while there was an increase in divorces at the same time[6].

On a broader societal level, Dr. Seah points out that there has also been a rising sense of xenophobia, thanks to the percieved threat of catching the COVID-19 infection from foreigners. He believes that this is an act of displacement - of directing our frustrations and anger to other people, and this can lead to a generally unhappier society.

Preparing for the Future

From our experience with COVID-19, we have learnt that the sense of control over our lives is important. And as adaptive beings, our experience of losing control has taught us how we can prepare - or ensure we have control - in future uncertainties.

Dr. Seah shares how one can regain a sense of control in our personal lives. First, we can learn to shift our lens of control from the external to the internal, which simply put, is to focus on what you can control within your immediate surroundings. Secondly, we can reframe situations in a positive light, which is to focus on the positive outcomes of the situation rather than the negatives. And finally, we can relook situations and set new ground rules.

Take today’s hybrid working situation for example. While there is increased flexibility to work from anywhere and anytime, it also means that there is a diminished ability to separate oneself from work. We thus need to relook and redefine our boundaries. For instance, even though working hours may no longer be on a 9-to-5 basis, it does not mean that we let it get out of control. Instead, we should set an internal work schedule that is unique to us. One that gives us ample time for both work and relaxation, in order to not lose track of the separation between the two. And ensure that we adhere to it[7].

Dr Seah shares two further tips on how we can gain a sense of control in our daily lives. First, we can aim to reduce the reliance on others, when it is practical and feasible to do so. For example, if we have always been used to getting a ride from family members to do grocery shopping, we can start travelling on our own to do the task instead. While this appears to make going out a far more tedious task, it helps to internalise our control over how we travel. Secondly, we can seek out environments where there are lower constraints in order to exercise control. For example, we can practise improvisation by cooking a meal with what is in the pantry, rather than following a recipe.

On a national level, new measures to help with preparedness for future uncertainties have also been talked about.

Singapore’s Finance Minister Lawrence Wong recently spoke at the Special Ministerial Conference for Asean Digital Public Health about the need to build adequate buffers for future pandemics. While this means ensuring that the nation makes good investments in public healthcare, he also shared his views on the need for larger regional cooperation in the matter. To build better mechanisms to prepare for similar crises, such as facilitating better exchanges of information, risk pooling and sharing of resources[8].

On the global stage, at the recent G20 forum that saw the world’s major economies convene to discuss measures to protect future global economic growth, Singapore’s Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam contributed a key statement concerning preparedness for the future. He mentioned how “We (the world) don’t have the luxury of waiting for COVID-19 to be over before we start preparing for the next pandemic, because the next pandemic can come any time.”

He then proceeded to raise the notion that the world has “got to use our current effort to tackle COVID-19, to also build up the capacities required to head off the next pandemic[9].” As a result, some measures proposed from the forum include providing better and more reliable funding for WHO (World Health Organization), as well as tapping multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help fund the fight against a pandemic.

Moving Forward 

While we ultimately cannot control the uncertainties in life, what COVID-19 has helped us to understand is that we can control our outlook. 

Dr. Seah believes that Singapore has coped reasonably well throughout this pandemic. As a nation, we have learnt many lessons, such as better communication and reporting by the government and news agencies, greater workplace flexibility and understanding of mental health by organisations. And finally, on an individual level, we can all recognise our ability to cope, and even thrive through disruptions. All these put us in good stead and provide guidance, should we face future adversities.

This article is an adaptation of the podcast Coming Clean About Tidying. The podcast features Dr. Victor Seah (Deputy Head of Psychology, School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences, SUSS), who explains how COVID-19 has impacted our locus of control, and shares strategies on how we can adapt our behaviour to the situation. Listen to the podcast here.

[1 South China Morning Post (SEP 2021) Marie Kondo's decluttering empire: from Netflix shows Sparking Joy and Tidying Up to bestselling books, the Japanese queen of clean has ama:ssed a US$8 million net worth 

[2] Straits Times (SEP 2021) Tidying takes off during COVID-19 in Singapore and around the world

[3] Wolk, S. (1976). Situational constraint as a moderator of the locus of control-adjustment relationship. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 44(3), 420–427

[4] CNBC (MAR 2022) The great resignation continues as 44 percent of workers seek a new job 

[5] Channel News Asia (NOV 2021) The Big Read: The pandemic has affected the human psyche. What does this mean for Generation COVID's future? 

[6] Channel News Asia (JUL 2020) Fewer marriages, more divorces in Singapore last year - CNA 

[7] Fast Company (AUG 2021) How to set boundaries when you are doing hybrid work 

[8] The Straits Times (OCT 2021) Build better regional and multilateral partnerships to prepare for future pandemics: Lawrence Wong

[9] CNBC (JUL 2021) The world must start preparing for the next pandemic, Singapore's senior minister says


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