Did You Know About This Unexplored Aspect Of Happiness?

Psychologist Atsushi Kukita sheds light on the crucial influence of autonomy on one’s psychological well-being.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 30, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology explains how experiencing autonomy while going about your activities throughout the day influences your well-being in a positive manner.

I recently spoke to psychologist Atsushi Kukita from Claremont Graduate University to better understand autonomy, well-being, and the relationship these concepts share with each other. Here is the summary of our conversation:

What does 'well-being' mean within the purview of your study and what inspired you to study it? How would you differentiate it from other more common definitions of well-being we have today?

Before offering my perspectives specifically to this study, my personal view of "well-being," intentionally stated in the broadest sense possible, is the state of living a good life. However, many different factors can play into this.

Consequently, well-being in psychology has been studied based on many different definitions. Research often focuses on a specific definition at a time so that the target can be precisely observed and measured.

Nonetheless, I felt a need for contrasting some of them simultaneously in a single study so that other factors can be held constant.

Specifically, the present study employed the suggestion from Peterson et al. (2005), which views well-being from three aspects of:

  1. Pleasant life
  2. Engaging life
  3. And, meaningful life

One of my inspirations was to potentially offer a nuanced look at how the same factor of autonomy (previously found to contribute to well-being) may exhibit different patterns of relationship to good life depending on which specific aspect of well-being is looked at.

Could you give us a brief description of autonomy as a contributing factor toward well-being?

According to Ryan and Deci (e.g., 2000), who are among the most widely known experts of research on autonomy, it is said to be a fundamental and innate human need, the fulfillment of which leads to enhanced well-being.

Simply put, it is the sense of wanting to take the action instead of being coerced to do so. I believe that the sense of autonomy is something we intuitively value in society, which also in part inspired its inclusion in the present study.

Also on a practical side, it is something ubiquitously observed within daily life decisions and is relatable to all three well-being aspects mentioned above. It has been thus considered relevant to be measured in the context of various daily actions.

Could you describe the methodology you adopted for your study? What would you say was your most important finding?

It is called Experience Sampling Method (ESM) developed by Csikszentmihalyi (Larson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1983). Using a signaling device (often via a smartphone app today), participants receive notifications at randomly programmed timings multiple times throughout their waking hours over the course of multiple days of participation (six times a day for seven days in this study but the numbers can vary).

Not knowing when exactly to expect a sampling moment, participants would go through their regular life as usual. Upon receiving a signal, they are instructed to immediately answer a short questionnaire as soon as practically and safely possible and report what they were doing, what they were feeling, etc. at that moment.

This being repeated, a wide distribution of various daily activities (such as experiences at work or leisure as well as moments in transit or relaxation, just to name a few) is recorded while retrospection bias (i.e., reinterpreting memory instead of documenting the raw experience) is minimized compared to a traditional survey.

Apart from the key takeaways of your study, it also makes a strong case for restful activities and how they add meaning into our lives. Could you expand on this?

I was surprised to find how restful activities were generally perceived as meaningful, and even more interestingly, 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), more so than when feeling fully autonomous (i.e., wanting to rest but not needing to).

Turning to affect and engagement, resting was reported as more pleasant when more strongly wanted, while it was not necessarily more engaging when more strongly wanted, both seemingly intuitive.

Although this would be a speculation because the study did not allow causal explanations, my personal takeaway was that when feeling the need to rest, I should take that inner voice seriously. It may be beyond just a passive recovery of returning to zero from negative but instead, it may feel as meaningful as other productive activities, leaving a positive impact to the moment of life.

Your study also emphasizes some key differences between the different aspects of well-being you studied. Could you take us through the eudaimonic and hedonic types of well-being?

Eudaimonic and hedonic classifications of well-being seem to have gained increasing acceptance among researchers in recent years (e.g., Kashdan et al. 2008).

Eudaimonic well-being is rooted in Aristotle's view of a good life that is lived to its fullest potential and is more on the side of objective value, which translates to concepts including meaning, as studied today in psychology.

Hedonic well-being is a collective term indicating pleasurable state of life, more on the side of subjective feelings, including positive affect.

Meaning and affect, while both very popularly examined within psychology, are thus representing distinct aspects of well-being, which inspired the present study to include both at the same time.

What do you think could be some practical takeaways from your research for our readers?

One practical message that I would walk away with would be that I do not necessarily have to change what I do in pursuit of a good life, but doing what I already do differently might make a difference.

That is, I would strive to bring in a higher sense of autonomy in approaching my daily tasks, whatever they may be. At the same time, I would not stress about gaining full autonomy, especially considering the meaning and engagement aspects of well-being.

There would always be things that I feel I have to do, 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.

I believe regaining that sense of control is much more practical than only working on things I want to do while avoiding all the things I have to do. The benefit would be threefold: I would feel better, be engaged more deeply, and find the task more meaningful.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on this topic go in the future?

I would like to further expand on this topic but hopefully with a larger dataset with finer measures of each factor that was investigated in the present study, both to replicate the current findings and delve deeper into understanding more precise patterns of relationship among variables. As a general theme, I aspire to conduct research that matters, not only academically but also in a sense of informing everyday life. While I will continue to be engaged in exploring the fundamentals of the human mind, it would feel great if the findings can even remotely help somebody live a good life, which I also find extremely meaningful — well, it seems three aspects of well-being examined in this study are also incorporated in my research endeavors, which is surely a path I have autonomously chosen to undertake.