We all want to be happy – but achieving such an abstract goal has its challenges. No matter how much effort you put into thinking positively and ‘focusing on the good bits’, you can’t force happiness, and doing so can actually have a negative impact on your emotions.
However, just because you can’t control how you feel all the time, doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to boost your happiness and overall wellbeing – and that’s where a study published in The Journal Of Positive Psychology in 2022 comes in.
Before we get into it, it’s important to note that psychologists see wellbeing and happiness as having three key components: affect (emotion or mood), engagement and meaning.
According to the new article, there could be an ingredient that boosts all three of these factors (and therefore makes a big difference to overall health and wellbeing): autonomy.
As defined by the psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, autonomy refers to volition, ie “having the experience of choice… [and] endorsing one’s actions at the highest level of reflection”.
It essentially means being able to make decisions that are intrinsically motivated (eg doing something because you enjoy it or find it satisfying) rather than extrinsically motivated (eg motivated by social pressure or reward).
To find out whether autonomy has a significant impact on a person’s happiness and wellbeing, the authors of the new study asked 68 participants to answer questions about what they were doing at various times of the day.
The questions the participants asked covered areas such as the kind of activity being informed, whether or not the person had chosen to or had to do the activity (aka autonomy), and the effect it had on their mood. The questionnaire also assessed their level of engagement in the activity and how meaningful the activity was.
When they’d completed these questions six times a day for a week, participants were asked to answer questions about their life satisfaction, too.
The results were conclusive: the level of autonomy the participants had had a significant impact on engagement, meaningfulness, positive affect and mood.
However, while affect and mood continued to increase with autonomy, the benefits of autonomy on engagement and meaningfulness only occurred up to a moderate level, which suggests that, as long as people find the activity they’re doing interesting and satisfying, a bit of extrinsic motivation (such as making money at work) doesn’t matter too much.
In short, autonomy can have a big impact on our overall happiness and wellbeing – but in cases where we have to do something (like work), having a moderate degree of intrinsic motivation (eg, enjoying what you do) will have the desired effect.
If anything, this study is a reminder of how important it is to pursue the things we find interesting and satisfying, rather than things that offer a large external reward. You don’t need to be in love with your job to be happy, but feeling engaged and interested to learn more can make a real difference to your overall wellbeing.