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What Makes for a Life Well Lived? Autonomy and its Relation to Full Functioning and Organismic Wellness

Abstract and Keywords

What makes for a life well lived? Although the capacity for well-being is widely acknowledged in current psychological theory, there is less agreement on what constitutes “the good life” and, indeed, considerable debate has centered on how such a life may be achieved. According to self-determination theory, all individuals require satisfaction of the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness for the promotion of physical, psychological, and social wellness. Herein, we present findings from three areas of research in self-determination theory on the antecedents of “the good life,” namely, the correlates of behavior that are regulated with autonomy (rather than heteronomy), the pursuit and attainment of intrinsic (rather than extrinsic) aspirations, and being mindfully aware of internal and external experiences as they occur. Throughout this review, the authors stress the importance of autonomy for an experience of harmony among thoughts, feelings, and actions, which is sine qua non for happiness.

Keywords: aspirations, autonomy, eudaimonia, hedonia, mindfulness, self-determination theory, self-regulation, the good life, wellness

But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?

(Albert Camus)

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

(Mohandas K. Gandhi)

Thinkers from a wide range of academic disciplines recognize the tendencies toward full functioning and organismic wellness as inherent to the human condition. For instance, some developmental theorists, most notably Gottlieb (2003), consider all living entities to be self-organizing systems and view the capacity for reorganization as essential to the promotion of adaptive experience. Such views are echoed by organismic biologists, who speculate that the emergent properties of agency and organization may be defining features of life itself (Kauffman & Clayton, 2006). Thus, at a biological level the behaviors of living things (p. 215) can be thought of as oriented toward maintenance and enhancement of the organism (Goldstein, 1963).

This general view of the proactive organism oriented toward growth and integration can also be found in several psychological theories of personality and development. For instance, psychoanalytic theorists view the ego as a synthetic process that develops toward autonomy and integration (Loevinger, 1976) and serves the critical function of managing intrapsychic and interpersonal conflict (Freud, 1923/1960). Within the humanistic tradition, Rogers (1963) posited an actualizing tendency that orients individuals toward realizing their full potential. Finally, developmental psychologists maintain that the process of development occurs through differentiation of information and integration of novel experiences with pre-existing aspects of the self to form a coherent, hierarchically organized whole (Piaget, 1971).

Although diverse in their focus, such organismic perspectives from the biological, personality, and developmental sciences converge to suggest a natural inclination toward psychological synthesis and integration, from which a unified sense of self derives. This sense of self, in turn, provides the basis for healthy cognitive, affective, behavioral, and social functioning—in short, the basis for organismic wellness (Ryan & Deci, 2002).

Two Distinct Philosophical Views of “The Good Life”

Well-being can be defined as optimal human experience and psychological functioning (Ryan & Deci, 2001). Theory and research on well-being has burgeoned over the last decade with the advent of the positive psychology movement (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). This paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1962) stresses the importance of examining both the darker (psychopathology) and brighter (flourishing) sides of experience to obtain a more complete understanding of psychological functioning. The field of positive psychology acknowledges that wellness does not simply reflect the absence of physical disease and/or psychological distress, and thus calls for empirical examinations of the factors that produce optimal experience.

Interestingly, whereas the capacity for well-being is widely acknowledged in current psychological theory, there is less agreement on what constitutes “the good life” and, indeed, considerable debate has centered on how such a life may be achieved. The origins of two distinct philosophical views of “the good life”—namely, hedonism and eudaimonism—can be traced to the beginnings of intellectual history, yet such opposing views continue to have a profound impact on theory and research in psychology (for a spirited discussion on this topic, see Kashdan, Biswas-Diener, & King, 2008; Ryan & Huta, 2009; Waterman, 2008). In what follows, we provide an overview of the distinction between hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to the conception and promotion of well-being, which will offer a theoretical context into which a discussion of research from self-determination theory on the antecedents of full functioning and organismic wellness—that is, “the good life”—can be provided.

(p. 216) The hedonic approach

An ethical philosophy, hedonism focuses on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain as the path to happiness. The roots of this approach to “the good life” can be found in the writings of the Greek philosopher Aristippus of Cyrene, who argued that the experience of pleasure, irrespective of its source or cause, is the only good. Within psychology, those who espouse the hedonic view (Kahneman, Diener, & Schwarz, 1999) endorse a broad conception of wellness based on pleasure attainment and pain avoidance. Operationally, well-being is typically defined subjectively as the presence of pleasant emotions, the absence of unpleasant emotions, and the belief that life is satisfying in general. The sum of these affective and cognitive variables is termed subjective well-being (Diener, 1984).

With its definition of happiness based in subjective appraisals of current life experiences, the hedonic approach makes no a priori assumptions about what types of activities are expected to produce well-being, nor does this view posit any universal factors that would typically contribute to or detract from wellness. Indeed, the hedonic approach is largely atheoretical, as hedonic psychologists want people to identify what makes them happy (Kashdan et al., 2008). Although not logically necessary, hedonic psychologists tend to endorse a culturally relativistic perspective on happiness and frequently align with the standard social science model (SSSM; Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, 1992), which depicts humans as malleable and able to be shaped by predominant social factors. According to the SSSM, individuals are born tabula rasa and acquire important cultural values, beliefs, and norms for appropriate behavior through socialization. In line with this view, well-being results from attainment of culturally valued goals, no matter what those are. Hedonic psychologists thus typically maintain that multiple, idiosyncratic paths may be taken to achieve “the good life.”

The eudaimonic approach

Traditionally viewed in juxtaposition and, indeed, in contrast to the hedonic approach to happiness, eudaimonism is an ethical philosophy that stresses the importance of living in a way that represents human excellence. The roots of this perspective on “the good life” can be found in the Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle, 4th century BCE/2002), in which Aristotle presented a practical, rather than theoretical, guide to achieving wellness. Eudaimonia, which was Aristotle's notion of well-being, is etymologically rooted in the Greek words eu (good) and daimon (spirit) and describes a process of living based on contemplation, virtue, and realization of potentials. Within psychology, those who espouse the eudaimonic view (Ryan, Huta, & Deci, 2008; Ryff & Singer, 2008; Waterman, 2008) posit that full functioning is an objective condition that involves living in accord with one's true nature, or daimon, and is experienced subjectively as personal expressiveness (Waterman, 1993) and vitality (Ryan & Frederick, 1997).

In contrast to the SSSM perspective in which humans’ views of and routes to happiness are molded by cultural factors, eudaimonic theorists ascribe universal contents to human nature. Based on their compatibility with this nature, particular “ways of being” are theorized either to enhance or undermine the well-being of all individuals, regardless of their gender, age, culture, social class, or any other delimiting factor. In line with Aristotle's intent in outlining his theory of “the good life,” eudaimonic theorists take a functional approach to examining the specific values and practices that promote or hinder full functioning and organismic wellness.

(p. 217) Self-Determination Theory: Meta-Theoretical and Theoretical Underpinnings

Self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 2000; Niemiec, Ryan, & Deci, 2010; Ryan & Deci, 2000b; Vansteenkiste, Niemiec, & Soenens, 2010) is an approach to human motivation, emotion, and personality in social contexts that is interested in spontaneous hedonic processes, such as interest and enjoyment, and eudaimonic perspectives on well-being and integrity. With its philosophical roots grounded in organismic theory (Ryan & Deci, 2002), SDT posits that humans are proactive organisms who seek out opportunities to feel choiceful, effective, and close to important others, as such experiences support their natural tendencies toward psychological (autonomy) and interpersonal (homonomy) integration (Angyal, 1965). Yet people remain vulnerable to passivity, control, incompetence, and isolation, particularly when social conditions are not supportive of their inherent psychological growth tendencies. Thus, SDT assumes a dialectical perspective in which humans’ natural propensities toward intrapersonal and social integration are met either by supportive or thwarting social contexts.

At the core of SDT is the postulate that all people require certain key nutriments to function in a healthy, integrated way. Specifically, SDT posits the existence of three basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness that, when satisfied, support the organismic tendencies toward psychological growth and internalization of ambient values, beliefs, and practices into the self. The need for autonomy (de Charms, 1968) refers to the experience that behavior is enacted with a sense of choicefulness, volition, and self-endorsement. The need for competence (White, 1959) refers to the experiences of effectance and mastery in interacting with the social and physical surroundings. The need for relatedness (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) refers to the experience of deep, meaningful, and mutually supportive connections with important others.

Together, the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness specify the psychological content of human nature. Simply stated, all individuals require satisfaction of these needs for optimal psychological and social functioning. As a unifying principle in SDT, the concept of basic psychological needs is used to categorize aspects of the environment, as well as specific values and practices, as either supportive of or detrimental to full functioning and organismic wellness. Social and personal factors that foster satisfaction of these needs are theorized to facilitate optimal experience and wellness, whereas those factors that thwart need satisfaction are expected to undermine healthy functioning. Thus, by examining their association with the basic psychological needs, it is possible to develop a more complete understanding of the compatibility of different “ways of being” with one's underlying nature.

It is worthwhile to note that SDT's specification of the basic psychological needs as universal requirements for optimal functioning and wellness is not without critics. Indeed, some theorists have questioned the importance of autonomy for individuals from Eastern cultures (Markus & Kitayama, 2003), for women (Jordan, 1997), and for working-class persons (Stephens, Markus, & Townsend, 2007), suggesting that they do not need autonomy (for a more thorough discussion, see Vansteenkiste et al., 2010). However, SDT (p. 218) asserts that when people are deprived of autonomy—regardless of whether they value it—they will experience lower wellness, and data support this claim. Autonomy, which reflects the inner endorsement of what one does in life, is thus a component of integrity and wellness across cultures, and is at the very heart of what it means to live in accord with one's nature.

Self-determination Theory: The Antecedents of “The Good Life”

SDT is deeply interested in how people live. Researchers in this tradition have examined various aspects of motivated behavior, including the values around which individuals organize their lives and the motives that direct their behavior. Rather than taking a descriptive approach (cf. Schwartz, 1992), SDT is unabashedly prescriptive and proscriptive in suggesting that certain types of values and practices are more likely than others to promote full functioning and organismic wellness. Only those pursuits that facilitate satisfaction of the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are theorized to promote well-being. In what follows, we present findings from three areas of research in SDT on the antecedents of “the good life.” Specifically, we examine the correlates of: (1) behavior that is regulated with an experience of autonomy, rather than heteronomy; (2) the pursuit and attainment of intrinsic (relative to extrinsic) aspirations; and (3) being mindfully aware of internal and external experiences as they occur.

Motives that underlie behavior

Research in SDT began with investigations into the factors that either support or diminish intrinsic motivation, which refers to doing an activity for its own sake and is accompanied by feelings of interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and fun (Ryan & Deci, 2000a). Intrinsic motivation is considered to be the embodiment of the proactive organism and is a natural wellspring of psychological, physical, and social health. When intrinsically motivated, people engage their physical and social surroundings with an experience of volition so as to expand their capacities and develop new ways of interfacing with the world. In line with SDT, research has shown that intrinsic motivation is supported by meaningful choice (Patall, Cooper, & Robinson, 2008) and competence (Vallerand & Reid, 1984), but is also readily undermined by controlling rewards and other pressures and inducements (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). Thus, intrinsic motivation is a source of both positive development and experiences of interest and enjoyment (Huta & Ryan, 2010), and is inherently tied to satisfaction of the basic psychological needs.

Despite the importance of intrinsic motivation to the promotion of growth and well-being, with age people typically spend less time engaged in exploration and play and more time fulfilling responsibilities and obligations. Extrinsic motivation refers to doing an activity to accomplish an outcome separate from the behavior itself (Ryan & Deci, 2000a). Originally, some theorists (Harter, 1981) viewed extrinsic motivation in opposition to (p. 219) intrinsic motivation and, thus, extrinsic motivation was thought to lack self-determination. In contrast, SDT posits that extrinsic motivations can vary in the degree to which they are volitional (Ryan & Connell, 1989), and specifies four types of extrinsic motivation that exist along an underlying continuum of autonomy.

Types of extrinsic motivation

The least autonomous type of extrinsic motivation is labeled external regulation, in which the behavior is performed solely to comply with external demands, typically to obtain a reward or to avoid punishment. For example, a smoker may make a quit attempt because of pressure from a spouse or physician. Such behaviors are perceived as originating outside the self and are experienced as relatively controlling. The next type of extrinsic motivation is labeled introjected regulation, in which the reason for the behavior has been partially internalized, but the behavior is enacted to satisfy internal (rather than external) contingencies, typically to enhance feelings of pride and self-esteem or to avoid feelings of guilt and shame. For example, a student may study to avoid feeling guilty for not having done so. Although such behaviors emanate from dynamic forces inside the person (rather than the social environment), these forces are nonetheless perceived as acting on the self and, as with external regulation, are experienced as relatively controlling.

With fuller internalization, the regulation of behavior is experienced as more autonomous. The next type of extrinsic motivation is labeled identified regulation, in which the reason for the behavior is understood, valued, and personally endorsed. For example, a patient with diabetes may enact lifestyle changes because of the personal importance of healthy living. Such behaviors are perceived as originating inside the self and are experienced as relatively autonomous. The final type of extrinsic motivation is labeled integrated regulation, in which the reason for the behavior has been brought into harmony and coherence with other identifications and aspects of the self. For example, a student may pursue a medical degree so as to help those in need, a goal that aligns with other personally endorsed values such as altruism and benevolence. Such behaviors are fully internalized and, as with identified regulation, are experienced as relatively autonomous. In line with SDT, the natural, active process of coming to endorse the value of extrinsically motivated behaviors (internalization; Ryan, 1993) has been shown to be facilitated by need satisfaction in such domains as parenting (Niemiec et al., 2006), education (Jang, Reeve, Ryan, & Kim, 2009), and work (Baard, Deci, & Ryan, 2004).

Correlates of relative autonomy

One of the central aspects of Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia is that actions are actively chosen, reflectively endorsed, and in accord with deeply held values and beliefs. If so, then it follows that the relative autonomy with which extrinsic motivation is regulated would be differentially associated with full functioning and organismic wellness. The empirical evidence supporting this claim is extensive and has been presented elsewhere (Deci & Ryan, 2000), so herein we cite several illustrative examples.

In the education domain, elementary students’ autonomous self-regulation has been shown to promote greater conceptual learning (Grolnick & Ryan, 1987) and teacher-rated adjustment (Grolnick, Ryan, & Deci, 1991). Interestingly, Ryan and Connell (1989) found (p. 220) that introjected regulation predicted anxiety amplification following perceived academic failures while identified regulation predicted positive coping with failures, although both regulatory styles were associated with parent-ratings of students’ being “motivated.” Among college students, autonomous reasons for learning organic chemistry have been related to greater interest and perceived competence, lower anxiety, and higher performance in the course (Black & Deci, 2000). Notably, the benefits of autonomy extend beyond classroom experiences, as autonomous self-regulation has been associated with lower dropout (Vallerand & Bissonnette, 1992) and higher global evaluations of psychological health (Niemiec et al., 2006).

Autonomy yields functional benefits in other life domains as well. In the realm of healthcare, autonomous self-regulation for smoking cessation has been shown to promote enhanced vitality (Niemiec, Ryan, et al. 2010) and smokers’ likelihood of maintaining long-term tobacco abstinence (Williams, Niemiec, et al. 2009). Among patients with diabetes, Williams, Patrick, et al. (2009) found that autonomous self-regulation for medication use predicted higher perceived competence and quality of life, greater medication adherence, and improved physiological outcomes. In the work domain, autonomous self-regulation among unemployed individuals has been associated with higher well-being and job-search intensity (Vansteenkiste, Lens, De Witte, De Witte, & Deci, 2004).

Autonomy is critical to full functioning and organismic wellness in multiple contexts, including sport, relationships, work, and religion. The findings from studies across these domains have shown that autonomous self-regulation is associated with increased behavioral persistence; improved task performance; and greater psychological, physical, and social wellness. Thus, the relative autonomy with which behavior is regulated appears to be an important antecedent of “the good life.”

Pursuit and attainment of life goals

Other research has examined the aspirations around which individuals organize and direct their behavior over extended periods of time. Some theorists outside SDT (Locke & Latham, 1990) have argued that people are most likely to experience wellness when they attain valued goals, regardless of their content. According to Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia, however, living well entails pursuing ends that are of inherent worth. If so, then it follows that the pursuit and attainment of certain types of values are more likely than others to contribute to well-being.

Within SDT, different types of aspirations have been distinguished according to their association with satisfaction of the basic psychological needs (Ryan, Sheldon, Kasser, & Deci, 1996). Using factor analysis, Kasser and Ryan (1996) found evidence for two categories of life goals. One factor was labeled extrinsic aspirations and included values for wealth, fame, and an appealing image. Such goals are unlikely to be associated with need satisfaction. The second factor was labeled intrinsic aspirations and included values for personal growth, close relationships, community contribution, and physical health. Such goals are likely to facilitate need satisfaction. The structural distinction between the intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations has been observed across 15 cultures throughout the world (Grouzet et al., 2005). Therefore, an important question concerns whether the pursuit and attainment (p. 221) of intrinsic (relative to extrinsic) aspirations differentially predict full functioning and organismic wellness.

Pursuit of life goals

Research in SDT on life goals began with examinations of the correlates of pursuing intrinsic (relative to extrinsic) aspirations. Kasser and Ryan (1996) found that those who placed strong importance on intrinsic (relative to extrinsic) aspirations reported higher well-being and lower ill-being. Similar results have been obtained across diverse countries (Ryan et al., 1999) and contexts (Niemiec, Ryan, Deci, & Williams, 2009). Vansteenkiste et al. (2007) reported that adult employees who held an extrinsic (relative to intrinsic) work value orientation evidenced less work-related satisfaction, dedication, and vitality, and more work-family conflict, emotional exhaustion, and turn-over intention. The deleterious consequences of holding an extrinsic (relative to intrinsic) work value orientation were mediated by need satisfaction experienced at work. In the exercise domain, Sebire, Standage, and Vansteenkiste (2009) showed that intrinsic (relative to extrinsic) goals predicted cognitive, affective, and behavioral outcomes through their associations with autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Attainment of life goals

Other research in SDT on life goals has examined the correlates of attaining intrinsic (relative to extrinsic) aspirations. In line with expectancy-value theories, most contemporary goal theorists suggest that attainment of valued goals is beneficial to well-being (Locke & Latham, 1990). In contrast, because of their differential associations with the basic psychological needs, SDT asserts that attainment of intrinsic aspirations is likely to promote wellness, whereas attainment of extrinsic aspirations is unlikely to benefit well-being, and may contribute to ill-being. Studies have provided evidence to support these claims. Kasser and Ryan (2001) found those who attained intrinsic (relative to extrinsic) aspirations reported higher psychological health and quality of interpersonal relationships. Similar results have been obtained in Russia (Ryan et al., 1999). In a sample of senior citizens, Van Hiel and Vansteenkiste (2009) reported that attainment of intrinsic aspirations was associated with higher ego-integrity and death acceptance, whereas attainment of extrinsic aspirations was associated with more despair. Niemiec, Ryan, and Deci (2009) examined young adults’ aspiration attainment from 1–2 years post-college, an important period marked by transition into adult identities and lifestyles. Results showed that attainment of intrinsic aspirations promoted psychological health, whereas attainment of extrinsic aspirations was unassociated with well-being and actually contributed to ill-being. In line with SDT, the benefits of attaining intrinsic aspirations for psychological health were mediated by satisfaction of the basic psychological needs.

To summarize, research from SDT has shown that pursuit and attainment of intrinsic (relative to extrinsic) aspirations are associated with enhancement of psychological, physical, and social health. Importantly, such associations have been observed in numerous life contexts and across diverse cultures, lending credibility to the postulate that need satisfaction, which accrues from pursuit and attainment of intrinsic aspirations, is a universal (p. 222) component of optimal functioning and wellness. Thus, the values around which individuals organize their lives appear to be important antecedents of “the good life.”

Mindful awareness and attention

Recent research in SDT has examined the role of awareness in fostering a reflective stance toward experience. According to Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia, contemplation is essential to the development of virtue and realization of potentials, and indeed reflectivity is an important component of autonomy within various philosophical traditions (Dworkin, 1988; Ricoeur, 1966). If so, then it follows that relaxed, non-judgmental awareness of ongoing experience would promote volition, pursuit of outcomes that are of inherent value, and less defensive responding to threat.

Brown and Ryan (2003) initiated a program of research focused on mindfulness, or receptive attention to present experience. When mindful, people perceive internal and external experiences without distortion or automatic reactions, and thus remain open to responding in reflective, self-endorsed ways. In line with SDT, mindfulness has been shown to promote autonomy and well-being (Brown & Ryan, 2003), adoption of intrinsic (relative to extrinsic) aspirations and engagement in ecologically responsible behavior (Brown & Kasser, 2005), and constructive responding to romantic relationship conflict (Barnes, Brown, Krusemark, Campbell, & Rogge, 2007) and life stressors (Weinstein, Brown, & Ryan, 2009). Niemiec, Brown, et al. (2010) examined the role of mindfulness in ameliorating defensive responding to existential threat. Results demonstrated that less mindful individuals responded to mortality salience with higher worldview defense and self-esteem striving, whereas those more mindful showed no such defense. To summarize, research from SDT on mindfulness has shown that this mode of conscious processing yields benefits for personal, interpersonal, and societal well-being. Thus, the receptive, non-judgmental attention to ongoing experience that characterizes mindful awareness appears to be an important antecedent of “the good life.”

Concluding Comments

What makes for a life well lived? Using SDT, we sketched an approach to “the good life” and presented research showing that full functioning and organismic wellness are associated with autonomous self-regulation, pursuit and attainment of intrinsic values, and mindful awareness of present experience. Although SDT embraces the eudaimonic perspective, we do not dismiss the importance of subjective well-being, which has been associated with satisfaction of the basic psychological needs (Sheldon & Niemiec, 2006). Rather, we stress the importance of autonomy to the experience of harmony among thoughts, feelings, and actions, which the quotes by Camus and Gandhi that opened this chapter suggest is sine qua non for happiness.

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