Samantha Boardman M.D.

Positive Prescription

The Hat Trick of Happiness

Researchers believe lasting happiness is built on three core principles.

Posted Jan 14, 2016

According to self-determination theory (SDT), lasting happiness is built on three core principles. Researchers consider these to be the three basic psychological needs that make us human and which are necessary for well-being. They are:

1. Autonomy: Rather than always being told what to do or motivated by an extrinsic reward such as money or a prize, autonomy is about being free to follow one’s own interests. This is counterintuitive. We assume that rewards and threats are effective motivational strategies but research show that the opposite is true. Studies show that “carrots” in fact undermine autonomy, decrease motivation, lead to poorer problem solving and less creativity.  In comparison, providing choice, encouraging initiative taking and acknowledging feelings enhances motivation.

2. Competence: Achieving mastery and taking on challenges is essential for having a sense of competence. It’s about feeling capable of reaching one’s goals and that one’s skills match the task at hand or at the very least, that the necessary skills are within one’s reach through hard work and effort. Competence-building experiences enhance motivation and are self-sustaining.

3. Relatedness: Feeling connected and having secure relationships is essential for well-being. Research indicates we are not lone wolves—we have a fundamental need for belonging to a community and feeling connected to others. Cultivating a supportive and strong social network is important for promoting acts of kindness and other prosocial behavior. When people’s needs for relatedness are satisfied, studies show they are further motivated to engage with others. It is an upward spiral of connectedness.

These three basic psychological needs—autonomy, competence and relatedness—go hand in hand with well-being and cultivating them is essential for thriving mental health.  As self-determination theory posits:

...these needs are as essential to our psychological health as food, water, and shelter are to our physical health.

Human beings are growth oriented—we are biologically wired to grow, to learn and to gain fulfillment—and unless we actively cultivate these needs they may fall by the wayside.

Bottom line: Figure out what motivates you internally, gain mastery, build skills, rise to challenges and nurture your relationships actively every single day.

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