Practice Autonomy

How to be Happier and Feel in Control of Your Life

Many of us feel like life is a whirlwind that is filled with a constant stream of activities and that we are trapped with a never ending “To do” list that is thrust upon us by other people and life in general. We are overwhelmed by our lack of control and the feeling that this is the life we are stuck with.

The solution is to re-establish our autonomy. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology defines autonomy as the feeling that your life, its activities and habits are self-chosen and self-endorsed. In other words having autonomy means you feel like you have control of your life.

Having a strong sense of controlling ones life is a more dependable predictor of positive feelings of well-being than any of the objective conditions of life we have considered…” Angus Campbell

 According to research done at the University of Michigan, the 15% of Americans who felt in control of their lives also had extraordinarily positive feelings of happiness.

Autonomy at its core is the freedom to make choices. If you have a choice, you are in control. To cultivate a feeling of autonomy, then, requires you to focus on the choices you have instead of the choices you don’t have. What is within your control vs. what is not within your control?

In the 1970s, EllenLanger and Judith Rodin did a study with seniors in a Senior Care Center. One floor was given autonomy–the seniors on that floor could choose when and where they received visitors and what movies they’d watch. They were also each given a houseplant, which they could place anywhere and care for in any manner they chose. Seniors on the floor below were given plants, but weren’t allowed to make any of other choices, including how to care for the plants. Unsurprisingly, the seniors with choices were overall happier and healthier. What is surprising and very interesting is that the group with autonomy lived 50% longer on average. Feeling like you have control over your life, like you get to make decisions that will have an impact on your life, can help you be healthier, feel happier, and possibly even live longer.

Studies with students have found that they get higher grades, more rigorously pursue their preferred careers, and are happier if they feel they are in control of their own lives. Workers are also happier at work and at home, are less stressed out, and stay in their jobs longer when they feel they have autonomy.

Focusing on what we can control and the decisions we can make can help us re-claim some of those feelings of autonomy. Feelings of autonomy arise out of clearly differentiating between what we can control and what other people control. We change what we can, and accept what we cannot change.

Autonomy also plays a big role in our jobs and careers. In most cases, losing a job feels much worse than quitting a job. If you are unhappy with your job, it’s probably related to being required to do things you would choose not to do if you had the autonomy to make those decisions. Lepper and Greene studied what they called the“Sawyer Effect”with pre-school children. The Sawyer Effect is based on a scene in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, in which young Tom cleverly made the chore of painting a fence sound so interesting that his friends volunteered to paint the fence for him. In studying the Sawyer Effect, Lepper and Greene found that pre-school children who were offered a reward for drawing actually liked drawing and painting less when they were presented with future opportunities to do so. Getting the reward turned their intrinsic motivation into an extrinsic motivation. It took away their feeling of autonomy, because they were no longer choosing to paint for fun. By being rewarded they were no longer controlling their choices, and their motivation declined. We are more motivated by an ability to choose then by extrinsic rewards. In our jobs we want to focus on the outcomes or results rather than being told how to do something. Most of us want to understand why we are doing something and how it fits into the big picture, rather than simply being given a task with no additional information. We want our leaders to provide a vision of where to go, but we want to decide how we will get there.

Now that we understand how Autonomy connects to happiness, here are a few activities to help you gain a feeling of autonomy.


  1.  Build an autonomy list – What things in your life do you get to choose?
  2. Paint your calendar green – color all times on your calendar where you have some form of autonomy green.
  3. Choose what gets done – Pick three small things you can accomplish today.

Accomplishment of even the smallest things will help you feel in control and happier about yourself.


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My Passion is helping people become successful and happy. I have found that many people want to be successful but just don’t know how. More importantly, people want to be successful because they feel that reaching some success pinnacle will result in them becoming happy. The research and my experience has shown that just the opposite is the case. Success does not lead to happiness. Happiness leads to success.

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