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What Money and Popularity Cannot Buy, Authenticity Can

What makes an experience satisfying? What makes it unsatisfying?

When an experience seems satisfying to you, what makes it feel that way? Is it fulfilling certain basic needs? What about unsatisfying experiences? Do they leave fundamental needs unfulfilled?

To consider this more concretely, think about the most personally satisfying event you experienced in the past several months. Also think about the most personally unsatisfying event you experienced during that same time. That’s what University of Missouri Professor Kennon Sheldon and his colleagues asked college students from the U.S. and South Korea to do. They reported their findings in “What is satisfying about satisfying events?” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

10 Basic Needs and How They Were Assessed

To get at the needs that these experiences may or may not have fulfilled, the participants were also asked 30 questions about how they felt during their experiences, relevant to 10 basic needs.

I’ll list the 10 needs alphabetically, so if you want to see if you can predict which ones mattered most, you won’t have any hints from the order in which they appear. I’ll also include one of the 3 items used to measure each need.

  1. Autonomy. “During this event, I felt that my choices were based on my true interests and values.”
  2. Competence. “During this event, I felt that I was successfully completing difficult tasks and projects.”
  3. Money/luxury. “During this event, I felt able to buy most of the things I want.”
  4. Physical thriving. “During this event, I felt that I got enough exercise and was in excellent physical condition.”
  5. Pleasure-stimulation. “During this event, I felt intense physical pleasure and enjoyment.”
  6. Popularity/influence. “During this event, I felt that I was a person whose advice others seek out and follow.”
  7. Relatedness. “During this event, I felt close and connected with other people who are important to me.”
  8. Security. “During this event, I felt glad that I have a comfortable set of routines and habits.”
  9. Self-actualization/meaning. “During this event, I felt a deeper sense of purpose in life.”
  10. Self-esteem. “During this event, I felt quite satisfied with who I am.”

Do you have your predictions? Do you think the results were different for the Americans than for the South Koreans?

The 4 Needs Most Important in Both the U.S. and South Korea

Four needs were especially important to the satisfying experiences of both the Americans and the South Koreans: autonomy, competence, relatedness, and self-esteem. For Americans, self-esteem was the most important of the four; for South Koreans, relatedness most important. Money/luxury came in last in both groups.

The most unsatisfying events that people experienced were marred by a lack of those same top four qualities—autonomy, competence, relatedness, and self-esteem—plus one more, security.

From a single person’s perspective, what seems notable about the findings is that our most satisfying life events do not require marriage or even coupling. In fact, I think the findings are consistent with the possibility that one of the things that matters most is authenticity—pursuing your true interests and values. That’s something people who are Single at Heart do in embracing single life, even as coupled life is the life more celebrated, respected, and rewarded. If you are Single at Heart, the experiences of romantic coupling just aren’t going to be among your most satisfying life events. Closeness and connection to other people may well matter a lot, but those other people can be friends or family; they don’t have to be spouses or romantic partners.

These findings are limited in obvious ways. For example, all of the participants were college students, and they were only asked about the most satisfying events over a short period of time, not an entire lifetime. Still, I think the results are intriguing, and the consistency of the results across two different countries make them compelling.

As in all social science research, the results are based on averages. There are always exceptions. What makes an experience particularly satisfying or unsatisfying for you may be different than what this research found.