NEWS

Simply Believing You Can Improve Your Mental Well-Being Goes a Long Way

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Key Takeaways

  • New research shows that those who believe they could do things in their daily life to improve their mental well-being actually had better mental health than those who did not.
  • Having an internal locus of control, meaning you believe your happiness and mental health are dependent on internal factors and what you can control, is better for mental health than having an external locus of control, the belief that your mental well-being is dependent on external factors beyond your control.
  • There are steps you can take to shift from an external to internal well-being locus of control.


“I can do it” may take on a new meaning when it comes to mental health. People who believe they can do things in their daily life to improve their mental well-being have better mental health than those who don’t, according to a survey of over 3,000 Danish adults that was published in Mental Health and Social Inclusion.

While the authors concluded that it is more beneficial for a person to take steps to improve their mental health, just believing they can is helpful.

Their analysis showed that those who believe that they can do something to enhance their mental health scored higher on mental well-being than those who do not. Furthermore, people who take action to enhance their mental health scored higher on mental well-being than those who didn’t act.

Feeling in Control is Important for Mental Wellness

The researchers note that having an internal locus of control, meaning you believe your happiness and mental health are dependent on your own actions, thoughts, and what you can control, is better for mental health than having an external locus of control, the belief that your mental well-being is dependent on external factors beyond your control. 

“In psychology, we use the term ‘self-efficacy’ to describe the belief that we can achieve the things we set out to achieve. When it comes to behavior change, a person’s desire to change and a person’s ability to change are both important, but a person’s belief in their ability to change is critical,” says Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD, clinical psychologist and wellness expert.

When it comes to making desired change, she adds that a person’s expectation of success is a much better predictor than their effort.

Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD

When it comes to behavior change, a person's desire to change and a person's ability to change are both important, but a person's belief in their ability to change is critical.

— Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD

“Doubt in our ability to change can inadvertently undermine our motivation and effort,” she says. 

Chloe Carmichael, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of your Anxiety,” agrees.

She says when you believe that something is within your control, you are more motivated to take steps to shape and manage it. However, if you believe only external factors influence your outcomes, then you are not motivated.

For example, if you believe you are destined to have depression because it runs in your family and there is nothing you can do to control it, you might not be motivated to take wellness measures. 

“On the other hand, if you say, ‘I may be prone to depression, which is why I’m going to make sure I do 30 minutes of exercise a day and spend 5 minutes deliberately making sure I notice the positive things that have happened in the day,’ or whatever types of behaviors that you’ve developed as a good regime for yourself, would be having that internal locus of control,” explains Carmichael. 

She says an internal locus of control also connects to personal responsibility.

“Instead of feeling daunted or overwhelmed by the responsibility of taking good care of your mental health, I encourage people to feel empowered by it by realizing that it actually is something that they have the option to do something about if they want to, and there is more freedom in that than having a mental state just happen to them…as if there is nothing they can do about it,” she says. 

Ways to Implement an Internal Locus of Control

If you tend to think things are out of your control, and want to shift toward having an internal locus of control, Dattilo says anything that helps you develop greater well-being “self-efficacy” will help develop a stronger internal locus of control. The following are some ways to get started.

Aspire but within reason

A caveat to believing you can do something is making sure your beliefs are realistic. In her book, Carmichael discusses a technique called thought-replacement, which involves replacing a maladaptive thought like “I’ll never amount to anything” with a sentiment like “I’m a competent person and I can do a lot of great things.”

However, she stresses that it’s important not to replace the thought with something like, “I’m invincible. I can do anything I put my mind to.” 

“The truth is I cannot do anything I put my mind to. For many people, when they get into the affirmations space, they go into a place of being unrealistic,” says Carmichael. 

For instance, she says if a person is struggling with finances, a healthy aspiration might be: “I may be broke right now, but I’m working hard and I’m saving and being broke won’t last forever.”

On the other hand, an unrealistic thought-replacement would be: “I’m brimming with prosperity and I’m full of wealth,” because that’s simply not true, explains Carmichael.

“Studies have shown that if people use aspirational affirmations which their brains know aren’t true, that can sometimes be more damaging,” she says.

Set small and achievable goals

To help boost your “change confidence,” which Dattilo defines as the belief in your ability to make desired changes in your life, she suggests setting “micro-goals,” which are easily attainable rather than “stretch goals,” which require a lot of effort.

Examples of micro-goals might include making your bed everyday or drinking eight glasses of water a day.  

“Both are specific and achievable. Be mindful of your efforts and realize that you are in charge of the goals you set and your motivation to achieve them. Try to anticipate and minimize any external or practical barriers, which can sometimes sound like excuses,” she says.

Chloe Carmichael, PhD

Studies have shown that if people use aspirational affirmations which their brains know aren’t true, that can sometimes be more damaging.

— Chloe Carmichael, PhD

Choosing goals that are rewarding can also help make your mental health and well-being a priority.

“The more rewarding, the more likely we are to continue the behavior,” Dattilo says. 

Be honest with yourself

Carmichael suggests writing a two-column list that forces you to be honest with yourself.

On one column, write things in your life that you believe are not in your control. This could include statements like: “My bad moods just happen and there’s nothing I can do about them.”

Then, in the other column, write a sentiment to challenge that belief, such as: “I have a fair amount of control over my moods.”

Include things you can do that can control your mood and mental health, such as committing to weekly therapy appointments, arranging to go to brunch with friends once a week, or setting your alarm to a positive song.

“When people start exercising a little bit of that power, in a positive way they get addicted to it and start realizing that they do have a sense of control,” says Carmichael, adding that the list is great to refer to when you feel helpless.

Show yourself some compassion

Combining both honesty and compassion is needed to make positive change, says Carmichael.

An example would be realizing that you’re not eating well because you’re not managing your time well. Then showing yourself compassion by understanding the underlying reason for not eating well is that you are hurt and turn to food as a coping mechanism.

“Telling yourself, ‘I need support and I’m going to book myself some massages or some therapy appointments,’ or whatever would be a healthier way to cope. So that balance between honesty and compassion is the way that people grow. They really need both,” says Carmichael.

What This Means For You

New research shows that those who believe they can improve their mental well-being have better mental health than those who don’t. There are ways to practice believing in yourself that can help you develop an internal locus of control. Changing your mindset can help change the state of your mental health.

1 Source
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  1. Santini ZI, Nelausen MK, Kusier AO, et al. Impact evaluation of the “ABCs of Mental Health” in Denmark and the role of mental health-promoting beliefs and actionsMHSI. 2022;26(3):271-291. doi:10.1108/MHSI-03-2022-0014