Pursuing the Excellent Life
Feb. 15, 2023

Finding Fulfillment through Self-Determination

Much of your well-being is determined by satisfying three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In this episode, Craig discusses the theory behind this thinking, self-determination theory, and how you can use its ideas to move towards living a fulfilled and flourishing life.

Practice, Habit and Being: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/practice-habit-and-being/

Can a Hermit Flourish?: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/can-a-hermit-flourish/ 

Live Well and Flourish website: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/

The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, hazel.crossler@gmail.com.

Production assistant - Paul Robert


Craig 00:01 

Have you ever wondered what drives you to pursue your passions and goals? Or why you may feel fulfilled and content at some moments, but unfulfilled and dissatisfied at others? The answer to these questions may lie in today’s topic, self-determination theory (SDT), a theory that explains the psychological and social factors that influence our motivation and well-being.

Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke. If you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.

Craig 00:54 

Before getting into today’s topic, I wanted to let you know that this is my 50th episode and I also wanted to thank y’all for your support throughout this journey. OK, enough of that. Let’s move on.


If you listen regularly, you know I believe that one of the most important things you can do to improve your flourishing is to increase your feelings of control. When you feel out of control, it’s hard to flourish. My beliefs about the importance of control didn’t come out of thin air. Control is at the core of ancient philosophies such as Stoicism and modern psychological theories, such as the one I’ll discuss today - self-determination theory.


Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan developed the ideas around self-determination theory in the 1980s. It’s what we academic types might call a macro theory, which is just a theory that can spawn more detailed “mini-theories.” In other words, it provides a framework for trying to understand a lot of stuff. Today, I want to focus on how self-determination theory helps us understand our basic psychological needs. Satisfying these needs is important to your flourishing. As a bonus, understanding self-determination theory can also shed some light on what affects your motivation.


Craig 02:11 

According to self-determination theory people have three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When these needs are satisfied, you’re more likely to be motivated and feel satisfaction with your life, and you’re further along the path to flourishing. Unfortunately, when those needs aren’t met, you are likely to feel dissatisfied and unhappy. So let’s talk about each one of these needs.


Autonomy refers to the extent to which you feel like you have control over your life and decisions that face you. You feel like you have the freedom to make choices that align with your values, interests, and purpose. Regular listeners know that I’m a huge proponent of taking steps to increase your feelings of control. When you feel like you’re more in control, it not only increases your well-being through autonomy, but it also motivates you to take actions that will move you towards a fulfilling life. After all, if you feel like you don’t have any autonomy, what’s the point of taking action?


Craig 03:15 

Competence refers to feeling like you’re effective and capable in your activities. Feeling competent leads to feeling confident in your abilities; like autonomy, feelings of competence also motivate you to take action to pursue your goals and your purpose. Again, if you don’t feel confident in your abilities, you’re less likely to take steps to serve your purpose or to live the sort of life you want to live.


Relatedness refers to the need for social connections and a sense of belonging. Like autonomy and competence, relatedness increases your feelings of satisfaction and well-being. Of course, you don’t have to feel connected to everyone around you, but you do need to feel like you’re a part of a community and have a sense of being connected to others.


Craig 04:02 

All three of these can help you experience something called autonomous motivation. We can categorize motivation into broad two types, autonomous motivation and controlled motivation. Autonomous motivation occurs when you’re motivated by your own interests, goals, and values. Controlled motivation, in contrast, occurs when you’re motivated by external factors, such as rewards or pressure from others. Autonomous motivation comes from an inherent desire to engage in some activity rather than doing it because of some external reward or pressure. Take this podcast, for example. I do the podcast because I feel like it helps me serve my purpose in life, to help others flourish. Nobody pays me, nobody forces me. I produce Live Well and Flourish because I find it personally meaningful. Because of that, doing this podcast is intrinsically rewarding, which increases my flourishing. When you think about it this is a pretty good situation, I boost my flourishing by helping you boost yours. Nice, right?


Craig 05:10 

Let’s look at how autonomy, competence and relatedness affect autonomous motivation. When you feel autonomous, you feel like you have control - you get to choose what you do and how you think. When you feel this way, you’re more likely to engage in activities that align with your personal values and goals, which leads to a greater sense of satisfaction and well being, in part because you feel like the activities are personally meaningful. On the other hand, I mow the pastures because it has to be done. I don’t find it meaningful or fulfilling. I’ll admit that sometimes there’s a sense of satisfaction when the job is done, but that’s probably more a sense of relief. Don’t judge me. Do you have any idea what it’s like to spend six hours mowing on a hot, humid Louisiana August day?


Craig 06:00 

This is actually kind of interesting. Generally, I hate yard work. It’s certainly not autonomously motivating to me. My wife Tracy is different. Get this, she LOVES working in the garden (I don't get it.) She actually does it for fun. Me, not so much. She gets great satisfaction out of seeing her fruits, vegetables and flowers come to life. So, she is driven to garden by autonomous motivation and finds the work fulfilling and satisfying. There's a critical point here … what makes something autonomously motivating to you is how YOU feel about it. Not how someone else feels about it. Autonomous motivation is very personal. There’s no “one size fits all.”


Feelings of competence also contribute to autonomous motivation. When you feel competent and effective in your actions, you have more of a sense of mastery and control over your environment, which leads to greater autonomous motivation to take on activities that stretch your abilities and therefore improve your well-being.


Craig 07:07 

Finally, feelings of relatedness contribute to autonomous motivation by helping you feel like your actions may benefit others and contribute to their well-being. Because you feel connected to these people, you feel a sense of satisfaction from helping them. This makes the activity intrinsically rewarding, personally meaningful and fulfilling, which increases your flourishing.


Self-determination theory is a relatively new development in psychology, but it aligns surprisingly well with some very old ideas from philosophy. Let’s turn to Aristotle, for example. He believed that the ultimate goal of human life is eudaimonia (and I never know if I'm pronouncing that right), which is essentially the same as flourishing. Aristotle’s view was that eudaimonia comes from fulfilling your potential and living a virtuous life. There’s an implicit assumption underlying this - that you have autonomy to act in ways that help you fulfill your potential and live according to virtue.


Craig 08:11  

Aristotle also notes that before you can act according to virtue, you have to become competent in acting virtuously. In his Nicomachean Ethics (and I have no idea if I'm pronouncing that correctly) he goes into some detail about how this is done. Central to his process is the idea of practice. To become someone who acts according to virtue, you first need instruction in the virtues, then you need to practice them. Over time this builds a habit of acting with virtue, and eventually you become a virtuous person. I go into some detail on this in my episode on Practice, Habit, and Being. As always, I’ll put a link in the show notes. The idea of competence runs throughout Aristotle’s method. Through practice, you gradually build competence in acting virtuously and that enhances your flourishing.


Craig 09:01 

Aristotle also emphasized the importance of friendships and social relationships in driving your happiness and well-being. If you don’t have friends and social relationships, you can’t really flourish. My former co-host Andrea Christelle and I talked about this in an episode called “Can a hermit flourish?” Yeah, link in the show notes.


Stoicism also supports the ideas in self-determination theory. Since I talk about the Stoics A LOT, I’ll be brief here. Stoics are all about control. The central tenant of Stoicism is understanding what you can and cannot control. The link with autonomy seems clear, but this precept also points out the importance of competence. One part of acting according to nature, which is kind of like Stoic flourishing, is developing competence in self-control through the use of reason. So, both autonomy and competence are pretty important in Stoicism. But, so is relatedness. Stoics believed that to live properly, you must live in the world, not isolated from others. 


Craig 10:06 

It seems to me that when ancient philosophy and modern psychology converge, we ought to pay attention. That brings us to the question of how to improve your feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness, which is the perfect opportunity to move to three things that you can do this week to increase your flourishing.


Let’s start with a two-fer. For the coming week, set three or four goals. But be sure to set behavioral goals that align with your values and interests. The more the goals are driven by core aspects of yourself, the stronger they’ll be felt. Also, make sure they’re goals about behaviors that are under your control. For example, if family is important to you, a goal might be calling or sending a card to a relative that you don’t communicate with frequently. Your goal is to call or send a card. That’s all. How they respond is beyond your control, but taking action isn’t. This is really important. By taking action you not only increase your sense of autonomy, but by tying the goal to what’s under your control, when you complete the goal, you’ll increase feelings of competence. My example is really a three-fer since it also addresses relatedness.


Craig 11:18 

The second suggestion is at the end of each day write down three things that you did well that day. This might be something really simple, maybe you made awesome toast for breakfast or you were really good at brushing your cat. Whatever. Write them down every day. Competence breeds competence. Feeling competent in one area can help you feel competent in other areas and overall. At the end of the week, write down one thing you’d like to get better at. Then develop an action you can take next week to build your competence in that area. Again, it’s OK to think small. Maybe you wanna make better toast. Make your goal to watch three videos on making perfect toast. Again, this addresses both autonomy and competence, since you’re exercising your autonomy to make gains in competence.


Craig 12:08 

My final suggestion is to spend 30 minutes thinking about how you can improve your social connectedness. Two things to think about are reconnecting with friends or family and finding opportunities to interact with others in your community, perhaps by attending some local event or pursuing volunteer opportunities. Pick one thing that you’ll do next week based on your ideas. Don’t get carried away. Just set one behavioral goal that will help you implement your chosen idea. Maybe you attend a church service; maybe you contact the local food bank. Maybe you call an old friend. Then, follow through and actually do what you planned. Once more, this will not only help with connectedness, it will also boost your feelings of autonomy and competence.


Let me close the “three things” by suggesting that all three dimensions of self-determination theory have stronger effects on flourishing when you're driven by and aligned with your purpose. So, as you consider your three things for this week, keep your purpose at the forefront of your mind. Remember, purpose drives all.


Craig 13:13 

Seneca provides our closing quote. “No good thing is pleasant to possess without having friends to share it with.”


Until next time, be well my friends.

I produce Live Well and Flourish because of my dedication to helping others live excellent lives. I don't accept sponsorships and I don't want your money. The only thing I want is to help you and others flourish. If you've received some value from this episode, please share it with someone that might also benefit from listening. The best way to do that is to direct them to livewellandflourish.com

Until next time.