I recently read an article by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci (2000) about Self Determination Theory (SDT). Herein I summarize and respond to some of the main ideas in the paper. At the end, I come up with some of my own suggestions for practical application.
Authenticity: why is it important? Because people who live authentic or self-endorsed lives are more likely to remain interested in the decisions they’ve made and the consequences those choices have. They are also going to experience greater well being over the course of their lives.
Basically speaking, people who live authentically will be more engaged and invested in the lives they live. Consequently, it stands to reason to think that living a self-determined life will lead to more life satisfaction because an individual’s core values will be directly linked to the life s/he is living. People living authentic lives are more likely to be intrinsically motivated more often than those who are not.
Conversely, people who primarily live by external motivations (by social pressure or otherwise) may end up living a life that does not keep them interested.
This is sad to me, and I’ve seen it happen up close from time to time. That sad, winding road of people who defer, defer, defer making authenticity and competence priorities. I’m not blaming…sometimes these psychological needs are at odds with another one we deem more important: belonging.
Belonging: It’s our desire to connect to others, to be loved and to love, that is a powerful motivator. It can internalize extrinsic motivations as self-endorsed ones. That love can attach us to the behaviors that aren’t exciting or naturally interesting to us. It’s important, however, to remain authentic in this pursuit of belonging.
If we feel that we need to deny ourselves authenticity and a sense of competence to be accepted by those we consider “our people” then we let ourselves erode until one day it’s all too much. People snap. Or people don’t snap, but they rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms (overeating, alcoholism, addictions of various sorts, etc.) until they aren’t experiencing well being; they are merely coping with their life.
Of course it’s impractical to think that every behavior in life should be intrinsically motivated. Some things have to happen. There are seasons where we do things we’d rather not day after day because it’s what we have to do. What then? Live an alienated life like machines in human flesh? I hope not because there is an alternative. It is possible for people to internalize an extrinsically motivated behavior as self endorsed. If you can do this then you will remain attached to your life, so to speak (meaning your life will feel volitional, self-endorsed, and purposeful).
To do this, you’ve got to tie your immediate behaviors to values, beliefs, or goals that do matter to you. So this way, you are being authentic even if your actions aren’t intrinsically motivated. This will make you much less likely to become disengaged from your life, your behaviors, and the commitments you have.
Examples of extrinsic goals would be working a job to get money to live a certain lifestyle or doing homework to get good grades to eventually land a good job. Extrinsic goals alone (wealth, fame, beauty), however, do not meet basic psychological needs directly.
Better yet is if you can tie the behavior to intrinsic goals (connectedness, a sense of belonging, or personal growth) because these do meet psychological needs directly. Thus it stands to reason that this would lead to more fulfillment overall. An example would be that maybe someone doesn’t love running for exercise but they have friends who invite them to go running. The running part might sound dreadful but the friend part triumphs in the end.
But we do need to make sure–to experience well being–that we are working toward a life (if not already living one) where all of our basic psychological needs are met. If we keep deferring our other very real needs (i.e., to be authentic and competent) in the name of “it’s because it matters to so and so,” we end up doing “so and so” as well as ourselves a huge disservice.
According to Ryan and Deci (2000), the above are the three basic psychological needs that must be met over the course of the lifespan to experience well being.
Extrinsically motivated behaviors can become self-determined (authentic and self-endorsed) when all three of those basic psychological needs (competence, autonomy, and relatedness) are met in the immediate context of one’s life.
All three needs must be met for someone to thrive. You wouldn’t expect someone to flourish with water and oxygen but no food; furthermore, if needs are at conflict with each other, it can lead to ill mental health. If someone is expected to conform to someone else’s prescription for how to live or to hide who they truly are to be accepted, that would mean that autonomy and relatedness are being put in mutually exclusive terms.
So, what’s the practical application for this? I think it’s important to believe that it’s never too late to start trying to be well, to live well, and to start living a self-determined life. Here are some of my thoughts on how to work towards living a self-determined life if you feel trapped and alienated in a life that feels somehow boring and overwhelming all at the same time:
Step 1: Don’t panic. No, really. People freak the heck OUT when they hit some milestone in their life where they start to wonder if their dreams have passed them by. Before you do anything stupid that could hurt yourself or others, take a minute. Perhaps go to therapy or a trusted friend to talk openly with them about what you are experiencing.
Step 2: Be authentic. Do the work that it takes to figure out who you are. What do you value? Why do you have those values? Who do you love? What decisions are you making because you are intrinsically motivated? What decisions are you making for externally motivated reasons? In the case of the latter, if you are thinking it’s for someone else’s good, ask yourself if you are sure the people (for whom you’ve been living a somewhat alienated life) are requiring you to do so. It’s unlikely there aren’t any improvements that can be made in your situation if you are honest about your needs. If there is absolutely no possible way you can change anything about your circumstances (this is very rare in my opinion), how can you tie your values into the commitments you must keep?
Step 3: Do things that matter to you. Even if you feel alienated in one area of your life, find a way to get yourself into some activities that give you a chance to feel and be competent. Learn a new skill. Help others. Get a better job.
Step 4: Get connected to others. You do not exist in isolation nor do you need to pretend you do. Humans are social and relational beings. Find a way to get social support if you don’t readily have family and friends already surrounding you (common interest groups, church, sports, etc). If you do have family and friends around you, be honest and authentic with them. Take the plunge. You must be known to feel loved. And you must love and be loved to be well.
Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist. 50, 68-78.