In one study, researchers gave elderly residents of a local nursing home a houseplant. They told half the residents that they were in control of the plant’s care and feeding (high-control group), and they told the remaining residents that a staff person would take responsibility for the plant’s well-being (low-control group). Six months later, 30 percent of the residents in the low-control group had died, compared with only 15 percent of the residents in the high-control group.
A follow-up study confirmed the importance of perceived control for the welfare of nursing-home residents but had an unexpected and unfortunate end. Researchers arranged for student volunteers to pay regular visits to nursing-home residents. Residents in the high-control group were allowed to control the timing and duration of the student’s visit (“Please come visit me next Thursday for an hour”), and residents in the low-control group were not (“I’ll come visit you next Thursday for an hour”). After two months, residents in the high-control group were happier, healthier, more active, and taking fewer medications than those in the low-control group. At this point the researchers concluded their study and discontinued the student visits. Several months later they were chagrined to learn that a disproportionate number of residents who had been in the high-control group had died. Only in retrospect did the cause of this tragedy seem clear. The residents who had been given control, and who had benefited measurably from that control while they had it, were inadvertently robbed of control when the study ended. Apparently, gaining control can have a positive impact on one’s health and well-being, but losing control can be worse than never having had any at all.
Daniel Gilbert, “Stumbling on Happiness,” (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), p.23.