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Have you ever wondered why you do the things you do?
What drives you to pursue a certain career path?
Why do you invest in relationships?
What motivates you to achieve mastery in your field of work or study?
The answer is – needs.
Needs are the driving force behind our every action and decision. Whether we’re talking about our personal, social, or professional life, there’s always a core psychological need that prompts us to take action and achieve the life we believe will bring us happiness and fulfillment.
But did you know there’s a psychological theory that seeks to explain human motivation and the quest for happiness by looking at our core needs?
And we’re not talking about basic needs (food, water, shelter); we’re talking about the psychological needs that shape our personality and decisions.
When I first read about Self-Determination Theory, I felt like I discovered a lost gem of psychology. In my opinion, this theory offers a simple and elegant blueprint for authentic happiness.
What is a Need?
In essence, a need refers to something that is required or wanted. In a way, “needs” is one of those particular concepts that we’re all familiar with even though it’s difficult to put into words. It’s something we all share and know on a personal level, a universal human feature that defines our existence and purpose.
Needs are behind every goal we set, every decision we make, and every action we take.
We invest in our skills because we need to feel competent, we hang out with people because we need to feel connected, and we move out of our parents’ home because we crave autonomy and freedom.
Psychologists believe our psychological needs hold the key to emotional well being, life satisfaction, and success. Many of the emotional difficulties we struggle with have something to do with unfulfilled needs.
But self-determination theory doesn’t focus on the effects of unfulfilled needs but rather the amazing potential that we can achieve once we dedicate our lives to the fulfillment of our core psychological needs.
For example, one paper suggests that the fulfillment of basic psychological needs (competence, connection, and autonomy) can improve students’ subjective well-being.
So, what exactly happens when you decide to pursue your needs? How will your life change once you give up on chasing other people’s dreams and prioritize your needs, above all else?
Needs are the Pathway to Authentic Happiness
For many of us, happiness and life satisfaction are the ultimate goals. But each person has his/her definition of happiness. Each of us knows exactly how a satisfying life should look like.
Some strive for professional success, while others are looking for the comfort of a healthy family. Some wish to be the visionaries of their time while others want to be the best parents, and some want to achieve both.
The point is, happiness comes in many shapes and sizes, but according to self-determination theory, there’s one guaranteed way to achieve it – by fulfilling three fundamental psychological needs.
But fulfilling these needs isn’t a one-time job, but a lifelong journey. In other words, our core psychological needs are the driving force behind every project, relationship, or goal that we choose to pursue.
And once the fulfillment of these goals satisfies our core needs, we experience true happiness. The fact that we can be in control of our lives and pursue whichever goals we believe are the right for us places happiness into our own hands – and that’s empowering!
Long story short, needs are the pathway to authentic happiness because they’re powerful enough to inspire and motivate us, but flexible enough to allow us to find a personal version of happiness.
Self-Determination Theory and Psychological Needs
Self-determination theory revolves around three fundamental needs – competence, connection, and autonomy.
According to its founders, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, human beings achieve their true potential when they fulfill these three fundamental needs. In other words, the need for competence, connection, and autonomy motivates us to change, adapt, and grow.
Even though we are often motivated by external factors (money, status, prizes), our universal desire for growth is what inspires us from within. And growth can only be achieved through our core psychological needs.
What started as a theory on human motivation ended up becoming a recipe for authentic fulfillment and happiness. But as you can probably imagine, becoming self-determined takes work and a shift in mindset.
People who are high in self-determination believe they are in control of their actions and decisions, which makes them proactive. In other words, they take risks, own their mistakes, and are confident in their ability to create the future they envision.
They know that failure is part of growth, and they don’t allow it to put an end to their journey toward personal and professional success.
From an organizational perspective, research suggests that self-determination theory provides a framework for promoting autonomous motivation, performance, and wellness.
In short, self-determination gives you control over your life and puts you in charge of finding authentic happiness.
Let’s take a closer look at the fundamental needs we should pursue to become self-determined individuals:
The need for competence refers to our abilities and skillset. Each of us strives to gain mastery in a given field of work or study; to become good at something and deliver actual results.
And what happens when we invest in our skillset? We gain the confidence we need to put our skills to good use and achieve our goals. We become competent and motivated to pursue happiness and create the life we’ve always dreamed of having.
In short, competence provides the tools we need to achieve personal and professional growth.
We know for a fact that humans are social creatures that thrive in groups. One of the reasons why we climbed to the top of the food chain is that we were smart enough to collaborate and evolve as a group.
As a result, each of us experiences a profound need for connection. We all wish to form attachments and experience that pleasant sense of belonging.
Whether we’re talking about friendships, romantic relationships, or business partnerships, every bond we forge with another human is motivated by our need for connection.
The need for autonomy reflects our desire for freedom. The kind of freedom that makes us feel in control of our actions, decisions, and behaviors.
Knowing that you have control over who you are and who you want to become is a powerful feeling that cultivates optimism and motivates us to pursue our goals.
When you feel like you have autonomy over your happiness and well-being, you gain a sense of clarity. In other words, you know exactly which path will take you to a happier life.
Long story short, each of us has an innate desire (or need) to be free and explore all sorts of possibilities. It’s part of the reason why we’ve grown and developed as a society.
Ways to Fulfill Your Need for Competence
Invest in your skills
Investing in your skills is one of the fundamental ways in which you can satisfy your need for competence.
By taking the time to sharpen your skills or develop new ones, you make the first step towards becoming a competent individual. And I’m not just talking about work or school.
The idea is to get to a point where you feel competent at something. For example, you can satisfy your need for competence by being a good cook for your family, even though you’re not a chef.
But before you can prove your competence, you must be patient and determined enough to do the hard work – to read, study, exercise, and train.
Just because you’ve sharpened your skills doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly feel competent. As I said earlier, competence is built on both theory and practice.
But putting your skills to use involves a certain amount of risk, and that can generate anxiety. It’s one of the reasons why you might refuse an opportunity even though you might be competent enough to handle it.
The only way to know – and succeed in satisfying your need for competence – is by putting your skills to the test.
Learn how to handle failure
So, what happens when you test your skills and realize you might not be competent enough?
I think knowing how to handle failure is just as important as having the courage to take risks. Just because you failed at something you thought you were good at, doesn’t mean you can label yourself as incompetent.
Keep in mind that fulfilling your need for competence is about learning, trying, failing, and repeating this cycle until you succeed. And that’s when you’ll experience authentic happiness.
Ways to Fulfill Your Need for Connection
Empathy is one of the foundations of authentic human connections and healthy relationships. This ability help you understand what the person in front of you is going through, thus allowing you to come us with an appropriate reaction.
When it comes to fulfilling your need for connection, you need empathy is you wish to forge meaningful interactions with the people around you.
Next time you have a conversation with a friend or family member, try to look beyond words and discover the emotion that the other person is looking to share with you.
Be a good listener
If you offer an empathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on, others will trust you enough to ‘open up’ and invite you into their words. And that’s the moment when you can establish a real connection with them.
Thee are many ways in which we can fulfill our need for connection – from strengthening the relationships you already enjoy to cultivating new ones.
Curiosity plays a significant role when it comes to expanding your social circles and satisfying your need for connection. It’s what prompts you to engage in conversations when you’re at a party.
Furthermore, curiosity motivates you to ask the right questions not because you’re looking for something specific, but because you’re interested in knowing the person in front of you.
Ways to Fulfill Your Need for Autonomy
Do what you’re passionate about
As I said before, autonomy means freedom, the freedom to do whatever you’re passionate about (if it doesn’t negatively impact others!).
The simplest way to fulfill your need for autonomy is by pursuing a job, hobby, or activity that you’re genuinely interested in.
When you invest your time and energy in something that you’re passionate about, good results will soon follow. That will give you a sense of confidence and control that motivates you to do more and become more.
Don’t be afraid to explore
Once again, curiosity proves to be a valuable tool when it comes to pursuing our core psychological needs and, ultimately, a happier life.
By exploring new opportunities – both in your personal and professional life – you test your boundaries and limits. In other words, you understand yourself better by understanding what is within your control and what’s not.
Make yourself a priority
Lastly, always remember to make yourself a priority. And not just for the sake of satisfying your need for autonomy.
Putting yourself first helps you prioritize your needs and goals above everything else. Only when you will have fulfilled your core needs will you be mentally and emotionally strong enough to help others.
Autonomy gives you the power to shape your future and discover your version of a happy life.
Final Thoughts on Psychological Needs
Long story short, self-determination theory offers an interesting perspective on human motivation and personal development.
It’s an elegant system to revolves around our three fundamental needs – competence, connection, and autonomy.
If you focus your personal and professional endeavors on fulfilling these needs, you can make happiness last for a lifetime.
For more tips on how to cultivate a happier life, check out Happier Human: 53 Science-Backed Habits to Increase Your Happiness.
Remember, even though we all share three core psychological needs, each of us has their way of pursuing them. That means there’s one path to happiness for every person on this planet.
Have you found yours? If you need some help finding your purpose, start with these posts:
- 5 Simple Steps to Find Your Life Purpose
- 19 Life Purpose Examples to Find Your True Purpose
- 7 Steps to Live a More Purposeful Life
Alexander Draghici is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, CBT practitioner, and content writer for various mental health websites. His work focuses mainly on strategies designed to help people manage and prevent two of the most common emotional problems – anxiety and depression.