One of the top determinants of well-being is autonomy: the perception that one can govern oneself and not have decisions dictated externally by someone else. Understanding what autonomy is could be tricky. Many people mistake it to mean the same as independence, but it’s not. Being autonomous does not mean you do not depend on others to help accomplish tasks, reach your goals, and provide you with the many benefits of having company. Having autonomy is not about being able to do stuff all by yourself. It’s about having the power to decide what happens next in your life. Autonomy is about having the authority to make decisions, not the independence to execute on them. Even more specifically, it’s about having the *perceived* power to do so.
Carol Ryff’s groundbreaking research on the determinants of well-being places autonomy as the most important factor that affects our psychological wellness. The modern science of motivation, namely Self Determination Theory, establishes the desire to be autonomous as the most important factor in providing intrinsic motivation for the pursuit of one’s goals. In my view it is the single most important contributor to one’s well-being and inner peace.
Changes in one’s mindset and outlook can change their own perceived autonomy. Take for example this guy in the supermarket standing right in front of you in line. You are already late for dinner and sweating yourself off, while he insists on paying in cash, picking his pockets for the exact change and holding up the line for long valuable moments. He is hijacking your time, deciding what happens next for you (your spouse will surely be mad), and denying you of your rightful entitlement to be the master of your own destiny. This guy is taking your autonomy away. Or at least it seems so. If you really enumerate your options you may realize that you actually have alternatives to choose from. You can give up shopping and just head straight home, you can move to a different cash register, or you can simply pay for the guy with your credit card and put an end to his search for change. When you become aware of your alternatives your perceived level of autonomy increases, your anger quiets, and your well-being gets a nice boost.
In addition to people and situations that may attempt to deny you of your autonomy, there is another potential autonomy thief that lies within. One that accompanies you everywhere you go. And unlike the supermarket guy he is much faster than you.
Think about the moment in the grocery store when you realize that you are going do be delayed more than you had thought. It doesn’t take long for your skin to sweat and your fists to clench at that moment. You are well ticked-off before you get a chance to consciously think about the possibility of being late or make any real assessment of the situation. The reason is that the stress response initiated in your limbic parts of your brain (also known as the “lizard brain”) are much faster than the thinking and planning that happens in the more evolved parts of your brain. When you get stressed or angry it feels like someone else has pushed a button and is pulling on your strings to make you behave a certain way. This fast mechanism simply *bypasses you*. It goes straight from the limbic brain to your sweat glands and to the muscles that clench your fists. It’s controlling what happens next, denying you of your autonomy. And in doing that it adds unnecessary misery to the small misfortune of being late for dinner.
Heaps of words have been written about the “fight or flight” stress response and about how irrational and inadequate it could be to the safe modern environments in which most of us live today. The one important factor that is often overlooked is that these responses are faster than any conscious thoughts over which you have control. To nurture your well-being and reclaim your autonomy from your limbic brain you have to allow more time for the slower neural processing of conscious thoughts to kick in. And to do that you may need to utilize the oldest intervention in the toolbox of the science of psychology:
Count to ten.