The only essential ingredient for happiness and well-being
Well-being and happiness have three components: affect (i.e. emotion or mood), engagement and meaning.
In other words, the recipe for well-being is to live:
- Pleasant life: Pleasant experiences and positive affect (e.g., happiness).
- An engaged life: feeling engaged and absorbed in one’s activities.
- A meaningful life: a life with purpose.
Maybe bigger autonomy also contribute to well-being and happiness? May be. A recent article by Kukita, Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi—published in the January/February issue of The Journal of Positive Psychology—describes the use of real-time assessments to determine the effects of situational and motivational factors, such as autonomy, on the above three components of well-being.
Before reviewing the study, let me briefly explain what autonomy means.
Although autonomy is sometimes considered synonymous with independence and freedom, Deci and Ryan, authors of the theory of self-determination, defined autonomy as follows: “Autonomy refers to the will, to the experience of choice, to the approval of one’s actions at the highest level of reflection.
Autonomy is often associated with intrinsically motivated actions – doing something because it is interesting, enjoyable and naturally satisfying – rather than extrinsically motivated actions (i.e. motivated by rewards or punishments).
A survey on autonomy and well-being
Let us now turn to the study by Kukita et al..
Sample characteristics: 68 participants (38 women); mean age 31 (range 18-74); mainly professionals and students (47% with university degrees); 59% white; 17% Asian or Pacific Islander; 45% Democrat, 21% Republican; 40% Christian, 25% agnostic.
Methods: Participants were alerted six times a day (for seven days) via their smartphones to answer various questions related to their experiences at the time of the alert.
The questions answered by the participants related to the following points:
- The type of activity performed (for example, work, study, play, relaxation).
- Degree of autonomy (eg whether the person chose or had to do the activity).
- Positivity or negativity of mood and affect.
- Level of engagement in the activity.
- Sense of activity.
For the survey, completed at the end of the study, participants answered questions about life satisfaction (e.g., “In most cases, my life is close to my ideal” ).
The link between autonomy and affect, commitment and meaning
The results showed that autonomy was a significant predictor of engagement, meaning, positive affect, and mood. And “autonomy was found to be consistently superior to activity type in predicting well-being.”
From no to moderate autonomy in activity, engagement increased linearly, as did affect. However, unlike affect, when autonomy increases from moderate to high, the level of commitment does not increase further. This suggests a moderate the level of autonomy is sufficient for engagement. In other words, as long as one is intrinsically motivated – finds the activity interesting and naturally satisfying – some degree of extrinsic motivation (eg, small monetary rewards) is unlikely to reduce engagement.
Regarding the third component of happiness, meaning, the results indicated that autonomy was the best predictor of momentary experiences of meaning. Regardless of what people did, greater autonomy was associated with more meaning.
And the pattern of meaning was similar to that of engagement. Specifically, increases in autonomy from zero to moderate levels were associated with higher levels of perceived significance. However, from moderate to high battery life, the level of sense remained the same. This means that extrinsic motivation did not reduce significance, as long as people enjoyed the activity and found it naturally enjoyable to a moderate degree.
Affect versus Commitment and Meaning
Why were only certain models linear? Specifically, why did increasing autonomy beyond a moderate level result in greater positive affect (i.e., improved mood) but not increased engagement or meaning? ? One explanation of this pattern involves the hedonic-eudemonic distinction:
Positive affect is more strongly related to hedonic well-being (i.e. the pursuit of pleasure and joy), while commitment and meaning are more strongly related to eudemonic well-being (i. i.e. to develop one’s potential, to live a virtuous and virtuous life). Since short-term pleasure can be directly linked to its autonomy at a particular time, more autonomy means higher positive affect. On the other hand, to seek long term satisfaction and meaning in life may only require a certain level of autonomy, just enough to achieve one’s goals.
As the authors note, meaning and engagement “connect us to both our past and our future.” In doing so, “they may involve voluntarily doing necessary things, such as taking risky actions to uphold enduring value or engaging in tedious practice to cultivate a desired skill.”
To take with
- Increases in autonomy, up to moderate levels, are linked to more positive engagement, meaning, affect and mood.
- Beyond moderate levels, increases in autonomy drive positive affect, but not engagement or meaning.
Let me end with the potential applications of these findings:
To determine how independent you are, you may want to examine the level of independence in your daily activities.
For example, think about how much time you spend doing things you really want to do, activities that help fulfill your desires, and your innate tendencies to explore, learn, or express yourself. To compare, now think about how many activities you do primarily because of rewards, obligations, fear of punishment, or other external reasons.
If you find that you lack autonomy, try to include more independent activities in your daily routine.
When it comes to the tasks that fall to you, you may be able to further increase your level of autonomy by choosing when Where How? ‘Or’ What to do them.
Check to see if these changes are making a difference to your well-being and happiness. The results might surprise you.