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Karen Salmansohn
Karen Salmansohn

The No. 1 Contributor to Happiness

Why and how to regain your autonomy to increase your joy!

Guess what's been reported to be the number-one contributor to happiness?

Money? No.

Good looks? Nope.

Popularity? Still nope.

A hot sex life? Guess again!

According to a report by The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, all these mentioned life goodies were topped by the biggest life goodie of them all: "autonomy"—defined as "the feeling that your life—its activities and habits—are self-chosen and self-endorsed."

This makes sense when you take a moment to contemplate how lovely autonomy can make you feel—and how miserable its absence can make you. In fact, when you're upset about something in your life—a breakup, a job problem, your weight—it's usually because you're feeling as if you're no longer in control of this area your life and lacking autonomy bigtime. Indeed, much of what creates sadness, anger, regret, disappointment—all these bad boy emotions—is having a feeling of being "autonomy-challenged"!

Researcher Angus Campbell emphatically endorses the perks of autonomy. "Having a strong sense of controlling one's life is a more dependable predictor of positive feelings of well-being than any of the objective conditions of life we have considered," says Campbell.

A University of Michigan nationwide survey also sings the praises of autonomy, reporting how the 15 percent of Americans who claimed they felt "in control of their lives" also raved about having "extraordinarily positive feelings of happiness."

All of this reminds me of that now-famous study on those mice whom researchers either gave cheese or electric shocks—no matter what these mice did. Purposefully, these researchers created no logic to when the mice would be rewarded with cheese or punished with electric shocks. After a while, these mice eventually learned that their actions had no effect on their environment, and they lapsed into a state of passive listlessness and depression. Even when the experiment changed over, and the mice were given autonomy to avoid the electric shocks or gain more cheese, the mice were so depressed, they just lay there, choosing not to do anything at all!

Luckily, unlike a mouse, you, as a human, have that terrific Homosapien perk called "consciousness." Meaning? You know better not to give up, even after your autonomy has been temporarily challenged. You know that after a difficult time, you can take back the control you have over your life!

How to begin? Psychologists suggest that if you want to bounce back after a sideswiping resiliently, you slowly increase your "internal locus of control"—the power you have to make easy, small changes. Studies even show that all you have to do is take control of a few small actions—and you'll be on your way to feeling like the master of your destiny once again.

Here's a quick, happy example of increased happiness due to an increased internal locus of control:

Yale psychologist Judith Rodin encouraged depressed nursing-home patients to exert more control in their lives by motivating them to make a few small, but key, changes in their environments. For example, Rodin made sure patients were asked to decide for themselves if they wanted the air conditioning on or off, if they'd like to change the channels on the TV, if they'd like to have different foods for dinner, or if they'd like to re-arrange the furniture in their rooms.

Plus, Rodin pushed patients to request changes in various nursing home policies—which they subsequently received. As a result, 93 percent of these patients became more alert, active, and happy. Similarly, upbeat results were shown in prisoners who were allowed to move chairs and take control of the lights and TV remotes.

Is an out-of-control life challenge making you feel "out of control" over your entire life? If so, stop lying around doing nothing. Stop sleeping late. Stop watching too much TV. Start recognizing that this lack of a disciplined schedule will only increase your feelings of being out of control of your life.

"For unhappy people, their time is unfilled, open, and uncommitted. They postpone things and are inefficient," says Oxford University psychologist Michael Argyle. "For happy people, time is filled and planned. They are punctual and efficient."

Decide you will take back your autonomy today by tapping into your "internal locus of control!" Create three preset deadlines for new projects and three exciting events to be shared with loved ones. Mark them all down in your calendar. Then do these things and meet these people in a timely, efficient way.

Know this: Establishing preset deadlines—and then meeting them—will absolutely help you once again feel like the kick-ass master of your destiny that you know you are!

About the Author
Karen Salmansohn

Karen Salmansohn is an author and contributor to She also writes a popular business column for amNY newspaper called "The 1 Minute Career Therapist."

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