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Is This One Lifestyle Habit the Key to Happiness?

Research tested the role autonomy plays in living a happy and engaged life.

Key points

  • A study explained how autonomy may be the most important ingredient for day-to-day happiness.
  • In the study, autonomy was “consistently found to override activity type in predicting well-being,” the researchers said.
  • A key takeaway message may be that bringing a higher sense of autonomy to daily tasks could help increase happiness.
Source: Denise Jones/Unsplash

A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology explained how creating and experiencing autonomy may be the most important ingredient that influences day-to-day happiness.

“Simply put, autonomy is the sense of wanting to take action instead of being coerced to do so,” says psychologist Atsushi Kukita from Claremont Graduate University and co-author of the study. “I believe that the sense of autonomy is something we intuitively value in society.”

To examine the connection between autonomy and happiness, Kukita and his team leveraged an Experience Sampling Method (ESM)—a methodology in which participants receive notifications at randomly programmed times throughout the day over the course of multiple days (six times a day for seven days in this study) via their smartphones.

Upon receiving a notification, participants were instructed to answer a short questionnaire that measured what they were doing (e.g., working, playing, resting, studying, etc.) and how they were feeling at that present moment.

The researchers found that it mattered less what people were doing and more about whether people were engaging in an activity of their own volition in terms of predicting how happy they were in that present moment.

“Autonomy was consistently found to override activity type in predicting well-being,” say the researchers.

Interestingly, Kukita’s study makes an unexpected but strong case for autonomous restful activities as another predictor of happiness.

“I was surprised to find how restful activities were generally perceived as meaningful—and even more interestingly, how they were perceived as most meaningful when accompanied by a medium level of autonomy (i.e., a mixture of wanting to rest and needing to rest),” points out Kukita.

According to Kukita, a practical message one could take from this research is that people may not necessarily have to change what they do to experience more happiness—but doing what they already do differently might make a difference. That is, one might strive to bring a higher sense of autonomy into their daily tasks, whatever they may be.

“There will always be things that I feel I have to do,” says Kukita. “But that is OK. I would not pretend that I purely want to do it. Admitting the have-to as is, I would try to see if I would feel that I want to do it as well.”

According to the authors, finding ways to turn have-to’s into want-to’s can have the following psychological benefits:

  1. You will feel better.
  2. You will be engaged more deeply.
  3. And, you will find tasks to be more meaningful.


Kukita, Atsushi (Interview). Did you know about this unexplored aspect of happiness?, March 30, 2022.

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