Many things bring us a burst of happiness-family; music; a new Blue Ray TV... the list is infinite. But, according to self-determination theory (SDT), lasting happiness is built on only three basic, psychological needs that we all share-relatedness, which is connection to others; competence, which is taking on challenges and experiencing mastery; and autonomy, which is having a sense of acting of your own accord and in harmony with your sense of self.
Lasting happiness-or psychological well-being-involves a natural tendency toward pursuing our interests, enjoying activities in which we display competence, feeling connected to others, and feeling a sense of vitality. With it, we experience greater self-esteem. It also creates a tendency toward trying to create a coherent, meaningful life.
Research conducted internationally has shown impressive results in support of this theory. Satisfying the three basic needs of relatedness, competence, and autonomy has been associated with not just feeling good, but also high-quality performance, being better at maintaining desired behavior changes, and better overall mental health. In addition, people whose goals feed these needs (i.e. personal growth, connecting with others) tend to experience greater well-being.
Research has also shown that you will fall short of lasting happiness if you are not satisfying any of the basic needs. For instance, one study investigated the effects of parents showing love only when their children act in certain ways; leading the children to have to pick between autonomy (being themselves) and relatedness. It found that the children often struggle with feeling unloved (less relatedness) and controlled (less autonomous). Another study found that adolescents who thought their parents were unsupportive of their autonomy were more likely to engage in behaviors such as using tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana. Still more research has shown that failing to meet the basic needs often leads to self-defeating behaviors; such as neglecting health care and experiencing a sense of helplessness in life.
So it's clear; you must meet your basic needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence to find lasting happiness. Unfortunately, as you no doubt realize, this is far from complete advice. Assuming that you can meet these needs, where exactly will you find your happiness? Where should you put your energy? One way to answer this question is offered in the movie City Slickers. Jack Palance's character Curly explains that "the secret of life is sticking to one thing"-but when implored as to what that thing is, he says, "That's what you've got to figure out."
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ.