If humans were cars, we would have been recalled a long time ago for a key fix in the ignition equipment. A serious defect keeps our desire machinery defaulting to a belief that other people, goodies, or status can make us happy or worthy -- the exact opposite of what can do the job. This leads to a lot of stall-outs as we chase external payoffs that can't possibly satisfy us.
So what do we really need? That's the 64-zillion-dollar question. If we knew the answer, we'd know exactly how to get what would satisfy us. How big would that be? For most of human history, the answer to that question has been a gray area that sales folks have happily filled in for us, creating needs where there weren't any for designer togas or shoes with blinking lights in them. Luckily, we live in a time when some very sharp minds have deciphered the correct motivational wiring.
Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester have led the way, with an aspirational framework known as self-determination theory. I find it amazing that this remarkable tool hasn't made its way into the public consciousness. Self-determination theory is a veritable GPS to fulfillment, decoding our innermost longings and linking the world of science and spirit. It's been vetted by hundreds of scientists in more than a dozen cultures.
If anything ever merited a Nobel Prize, this is it, a formulation that you can use every day to be more effective and satisfied in your work and life. No longer do you have to rely on guesswork and marketers to know what you need to feel satisfied. No longer do you have to have expectations that constantly disappoint. No longer do you have to put your life on hold while you wait for some external ship to come in. You can live more fully than you ever imagined when you finally know what it is you're living for.
Deci and Ryan found that at the root of human aspiration, there are three core psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (the need for social connection and intimacy), a trio that are starring players in my new book on the skills of engaged experience, "Don't Miss Your Life." You need to feel autonomous, that you are freely choosing things in your life and are not being controlled. You have to feel effective and competent, doing things you initiate and that make you stretch, not what you're pressured by others into doing. And you have to have close relationships with others to satisfy your social mandate.
Think about all the flailing we have to go through to find what fills us up. Now there's a roadmap; satisfy your three core needs and you'll be happy. You can have all the external success in the world, but you'll remain unfulfilled if even one of the core needs is unaddressed. The catch is that you can only satisfy these needs through intrinsic motivation, the reverse of the external reflex. You seek no payoff, only the inherent interest of the activity itself -- for learning, fun, growth. Do it just to do it and you'll get a whopping internal reward in the form of the lasting version of happiness, gratification.
This is the unconditional path about which the sages have tried to clue us in, from Aristotle's idea of living well through lifelong learning, a reward in and of itself, to the Buddhist concept of right intention and the Taoist notion of acting in line with your authentic nature.
You must be in full alignment with your true self and values, while allowing the three core needs to work as your homing device.
"When people are oriented to goals of doing what they choose, growing as a person or goals for having good relationships, they experience higher levels of the basic psychological needs," says Tim Kasser, of Knox College, a leading researcher in the psychology of motivation.
That's not the training we get, of course. We're taught to go for the payoff. Everything has to get us somewhere socially, financially, emotionally. We're like trained capuchins, waiting for our peanuts after each task. I used to be so externally run that I was a walking production report, ticking off a litany of projects to anyone who said "hello." I realized that external rewards weren't a payoff at all but an endless come-on that only delivered the need for more payoffs.
Deci showed in one experiment how external rewards sabotage us. Subjects were asked to solve a puzzle in an exercise in which some got paid while others didn't. The ones who received no money kept playing with the puzzle after the teacher left the room at a strategic moment, while the financially motivated had no interest playing unless they got paid for it. "Stop the pay, stop the play," Deci summed it up later. His work and those of many others have documented that we learn more, remember it longer, are more interested in what we're doing, and are more satisfied when we act for intrinsic goals.
Because work is an external affair, for the most part (though autonomy support also works on the job, as Deci has demonstrated and Daniel Pink detailed in his stellar book on motivation, "Drive"), your core needs find their best expression in the world off the clock. You can't get more autonomous than choosing what you want to do in your free time. You have the best chance of fulfilling your core needs at play, as long as your goals are intrinsic. Otherwise, social opportunities, softball games, creative outlets and vacations get shelved by the external reflex: where's this going to get me? How about to your life?
The core needs tell us we're waiting in vain when we expect other people, things, and status to make us happy, and that we are the ones who must make our lives fulfilled through self-determined choices. Your core isn't satisfied by thinking or spectating but by directly participating in life's meaningful experiences.
The need for autonomy comes from a desire to feel that you are the author of your own script. When you feel that your activities are self-chosen, there's a sense of self-determination and freedom, which brings gratification. You've moved forward. The need to feel effective is essential to self-worth, but you can only satisfy your need to feel competent by doing things you initiate; it has to be coupled with autonomy. You can be effective on an assembly line, but you won't satisfy your competence need, because the activity is not autonomous. Learning a new skill is one of the best ways to activate competence. In one study, first-time whitewater canoeists felt a surge of competence as they handled new risks.
The third core need, relatedness, is a well-documented route to increased positive mood, better health, and a longer life. You can't satisfy your need for relatedness by networking, since it won't produce the satisfaction that comes from close personal relationships. Your core needs are very smart. They know when they're not getting the real intrinsic deal.
The findings of Deci, Ryan and their many colleagues have yanked us out of the Dark Ages of our unknown needs. Their data lights the way forward for you to become who you are, as Alan Watts once put it. The key to the meaningful and fulfilling life you want is acting from intrinsic goals that reflect your inner compass -- learning, fun, challenge, growth, community, excellence. It's tricky, since external metrics are so instinctual, but you can do it.
Act for the sake of it, and you are at the center of full engagement in the most rewarding life possible, one that gratifies your deepest longings. There are no barriers to your attention and involvement, no agendas to get in the way of the good stuff. You have arrived at the place where the chief ingredients of optimal living meet: experience, intrinsic motivation, and the riveting moment of now.