Scientists, philosophers, and psychologists alike agree that human beings’ experience is some combination of genetic traits and environmental influences. (Sorry, folks, I am not about to settle the nature vs. nurture debate for you… But, if you want to impress your friends at your next get-together, throw out the word “epigenetics,” nod, and give them your most knowing look.)
Philosophical narratives aside, science has spoken to the immeasurable impact our environments have on our behavior. Think of it this way: from the moment you were conceived, your environment (which, at the time was your mother’s womb) was already impacting your development. Did your mother use substances while pregnant with you? Was she under a lot of stress?
Then you were born. Did you have older siblings, younger siblings, or were you an only child? How frequently and in what way did your parents discipline you? Were you easily able to make friends in school? As you got older, were you allowed to make your own decisions? How did your family respond when you made mistakes? This list of questions are a few of thousands we could ask about your upbringing, but they all hit at this same point: little things in our lives add up to big consequences in terms of our choices, preferences, and identity.
So if our environment is really that impactful, what does this mean for our own quests for fulfillment, meaning, and happiness? Right now, you and I are both wondering if I have anything resembling an interesting point to all of this. Let’s find out.
In my work as a researcher, one of my areas of expertise involves understanding how environments (meaning the people, jobs, classes, cultures, systems, etc. that surround us) help or hurt us on that quest for happiness and motivation. What the research has found is that environments that help us have a lot in common, as do the environments that hurt us. And these commonalities boil down to three basic psychological needs.
Meaning, researchers have identified three super duper important needs human beings have. When these needs are met, people feel happy, motivated and fulfilled. When these needs go unmet, they feel the opposite. And seriously, you guys… it is not just one study that’s found this. It’s a ton of studies in a ton of countries in a ton of different areas of life. These needs lead to people feeling more satisfied, less depressed, more motivated to exercise, happier in their jobs, etc. It’s HUGE (look up “Self-Determination Theory” if you don’t believe me).
I’d like to write a few articles about these three basic psychological needs, and here’s why: it’s important for us to understand what might be helping and hurting our efforts to live productive, fulfilling, and joyful lives. If we are able to identify where our needs are being unmet, we might be able to create space for us to feel more fulfilled.
Are you dying to know what they are?? Alright, calm down and keep your shirt on! These needs are autonomy (the sense that you are able to make your own choices), competence (the belief that you are able to successfully accomplish important tasks), and relatedness (the sense of belonging and connection with other people).
If you’re not convinced, think of the last time you felt really happy at your job. And not happy in the sense that you got off work early or didn’t have to do anything. Happy as is, “I love what I do. This is my calling.”
Let me guess: this was a time you felt really good at what you were doing. It was also a time you had some independence and freedom to do what you wanted to do. It was also a time you felt close and connected to the people surrounding you.
No, my degree in “Psych” doesn’t stand for “Psychic.” I just described a situation in which all three of these needs were met. Easy peasy.
In this three-part series, I’ll discuss autonomy, competence, and relatedness. How are these needs met by our environments? What do we do if our environments currently do not meet these needs? What is the meaning of life? The first two are questions this series will answer.