Want To Be Happy? Look No Further Than Your Sense Of Autonomy

New research examines the role autonomy plays in living a happy and meaningful life.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 17, 2022

A new study appearing in the Journal of Positive Psychology describes how creating and experiencing autonomy is possibly the most important ingredient that influences our daily happiness.

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

Kukita and his colleagues used an Experience Sampling Method (ESM) to investigate the relationship between autonomy and happiness. This is a methodology in which participants receive notifications via their smartphones at randomly programmed times throughout the day over the course of multiple days (six times a day for seven days in this study).

Following notification, participants were instructed to complete a brief questionnaire that assessed what they were doing (e.g., working, playing, resting, studying, etc.) and how they felt at the time.

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

"Autonomy was consistently found to override activity type in predicting well-being," state the researchers.

Interestingly, Kukita's research makes an unexpected but compelling case for autonomous restful activities as a 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)," says Kukita.

According to Kukita, a practical takeaway from this study is that people may not have to change what they do to experience more happiness — but doing what they already do differently may make a difference. That is, one may strive to instill a greater sense of autonomy in their daily tasks, whatever they may be.

"There will always be things that I feel I have to do," explains Kukita. "But that is okay. 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 researchers, finding ways to turn have-to's into want-to's can have the following psychological benefits:

  • You will be engaged more deeply
  • You will feel better
  • And, you will find tasks to be more meaningful

A full interview with Atsushi Kukita discussing this new research can be found here: Did you know about this unexplored aspect of happiness?