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The Essential Ingredient for Happiness and Well-Being

... and what to do if you feel you're missing it.

Key points

  • Well-being is associated with living an engaged, pleasant, and meaningful life.
  • High levels of engagement, increased meaningfulness, and better mood may require greater levels of autonomy.
  • We experience more autonomy when we perform an activity for internal reasons (e.g., self-expression) than external ones (e.g., rewards).
Source: Pexels/Pixabay

Well-being and happiness have three components: affect (i.e., emotion or mood), engagement, and meaning.

In other words, the recipe for well-being is living:

  1. A pleasant life: pleasurable experiences and positive affect (e.g., happiness).
  2. An engaged life: feeling engaged and absorbed in one’s activities.
  3. A meaningful life: a life with purpose.

Might greater autonomy also contribute to well-being and happiness? Perhaps. A recent article by Kukita, Nakamura, and Csikszentmihalyi—published in the January/February issue of The Journal of Positive Psychology—describes the use of real-time assessments to determine the effects of situational and motivational factors, like autonomy, on the above three components of well-being.

Before reviewing the study, let me briefly explain what autonomy means.

Though autonomy is sometimes considered synonymous with independence and freedom, Deci and Ryan, authors of self-determination theory, have defined autonomy in the following way: “Autonomy refers to volition, to having the experience of choice, to endorsing one’s actions at the highest level of reflection.”

Autonomy is often associated with intrinsically motivated actions—doing something because it’s interesting, enjoyable, and naturally satisfying—rather than extrinsically motivated actions (i.e., motivated by rewards or punishment).

An Investigation of Autonomy and Well-Being

Let us now turn to the study by Kukita et al..

Characteristics of the sample: 68 participants (38 women); average age of 31 years (range of 18–74 years); mostly professionals and students (47 percent with college degrees); 59 percent white; 17 percent Asian or Pacific Islander; 45 percent Democrat, 21 percent Republican; 40 percent Christian, 25 percent agnostic.

Methods: Participants were alerted six times a day (for seven days) via their smartphones to answer various questions related to their experiences at the time of the alert.

The questions the participants answered concerned the following:

  • The kind of activity being performed (e.g., work, study, play, relaxation).
  • Degree of autonomy (e.g., whether the person chose to or had to do the activity).
  • Positivity or negativity of mood and affect.
  • Level of engagement in the activity.
  • Meaningfulness of the activity.

For the survey, completed at the end of the study, participants answered questions about life satisfaction (e.g., “In most ways my life is close to my ideal”).

The Link Between Autonomy and Affect, Engagement, and Meaning

The results showed autonomy was a significant predictor of engagement, meaningfulness, positive affect, and mood. And “autonomy was consistently found to override activity type in predicting well-being.”

From no to moderate autonomy in the activity, engagement increased linearly, as was the case with affect. However, unlike affect, when autonomy went from moderate to high, the level of engagement did not increase further. This suggests a moderate level of autonomy is enough for engagement. In other words, as long as one is intrinsically motivated—finds the activity interesting and naturally satisfying—it is unlikely that some degree of extrinsic motivation (e.g., small monetary rewards) will reduce engagement.

As for the third component of happiness, meaningfulness, results indicated autonomy was the strongest predictor of momentary experiences of meaningfulness. Regardless of what people were doing, greater autonomy was associated with more meaningfulness.

And the pattern for meaningfulness was similar to the one for engagement. Specifically, increases in autonomy from none to moderate levels were associated with higher levels of perceived meaning. However, from moderate to high autonomy, the level of meaning stayed the same. This means an extrinsic motivation did not reduce meaningfulness, as long as people valued the activity and found it naturally enjoyable to a moderate degree.

Affect vs. Engagement and Meaning

Why were only some patterns linear? Specifically, why did increasing autonomy beyond a moderate level result in greater positive affect (i.e., better mood) but not increased engagement or meaning? One explanation for this pattern involves the hedonic-eudaimonic distinction:

Positive affect is more strongly related to hedonic well-being (i.e., the pursuit of pleasure and joy), while engagement and meaningfulness are more strongly related to eudaimonic well-being (i.e., developing one’s potential, living a purposeful and virtuous life). Since short-term pleasure may be directly related to one’s autonomy at a particular moment, more autonomy means a higher positive affect. In contrast, seeking long-term life satisfaction and meaning might require only some level of autonomy, just enough to meet one’s goals.

As the authors note, meaning and engagement “link us to both our past and future.” In so doing, “they may entail willingly doing necessary things, such as taking risky actions to defend an abiding value or embracing tiresome practice to cultivate a desired skill.”

Source: kalyanayahaluwo/Pixabay


  1. Increases in autonomy, up to moderate levels, are linked with more engagement, meaningfulness, and positive affect and mood.
  2. Beyond moderate levels, increases in autonomy boost positive affect but not engagement or meaningfulness.

Let me end with potential applications of these findings:

To determine how autonomous you are, you may want to examine the level of autonomy in your daily activities.

For instance, think about how much of your time is spent in doing things you really want to do—activities that help satisfy your desires and innate tendencies to explore, learn, or express yourself. To compare, now think how many activities you perform mainly because of rewards, obligations, fear of punishment, or other external reasons.

If you conclude you lack autonomy, try to include more autonomous activities in your daily routine.

As for tasks you are obligated to do, you might still be able to increase your level of autonomy by choosing when or how to do them.

Check to see if these changes make any difference in your well-being and happiness. The results may surprise you.

LinkedIn image: Vadym Pastukh/Shutterstock. Facebook image: Pheelings media/Shutterstock

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