Self-determination theory (SDT) is a school of thought in psychology that explores the motivations behind people’s choices and how they relate to psychological needs. It looks at how we make decisions when there’s an absence of external influence.
A self-determined individual is essentially someone who:
- Takes responsibility for their own actions
- Feels in control of their own behaviors, decisions and life direction
- Validates themself and finds motivation from within
- Makes decisions based on their own set of values
- Pursues goals that fulfill their own intrinsic needs
The last point is significant because our goals guide our behavior and drive us to take certain actions.
According to SDT, there are two kinds of goals: intrinsic and extrinsic goals. They each have the opposite effect on our happiness and well-being.
Intrinsic goals are goals of the self, whereas extrinsic goals are outer, worldly goals.
Let’s look at some examples:
|INTRINSIC GOALS||EXTRINSIC GOALS|
|Personal development||Getting filthy rich|
|Physical health||Having status or the perfect image|
|Having good relationships||Becoming famous|
|Being your authentic self||Marital success|
|Upgrading skill set||Admiration from others|
Certain goals make us happier because they help us fulfill our deep-seated psychological needs.
Self-determination theory says that we as humans have three basic needs that we’re motivated by:
- Autonomy: The need to feel in control of your own behaviors, life and ultimately your destiny.
- Competence: The need to master tasks or skills that are personally important.
- Relatedness: The need to feel a sense of connectedness and maintain relationships with others.
The goals we chase affect our well-being differently depending on whether or not they help us meet these needs.
Striving for intrinsic goals makes us happier because these needs can be directly fulfilled.
Chasing extrinsic goals, on the other hand, makes us unhappy. Several studies have shown that adolescents, university students and adults who are motivated by extrinsic values are more likely to report psychological problems such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse and less likely to report feelings of self actualization, subjective vitality, or positive affect.
If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Extrinsic goals like rewards are contingent upon others.
They’re also a means to an end. When we chase them, we’re actually in search of something else.