Self-determination theory and how to be more satisfied with life

Photo by  Rémi Walle  on  Unsplash

Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

Happiness is subjective.

But I think overall life satisfaction is less so. There are needs that humans have at a fundamental level, and if we don’t have that, I notice that we become very depressed and anxious.

According to self-determination theory, the three basic human needs are:

  1. A sense of autonomy
  2. A sense of competence
  3. A sense of relatedness

Now let’s explain what each of those means.


To have complete autonomy over your life means to understand that you are responsible for your own actions. It means you get to decide what foods you will eat, what sports you get to play, what music you get to listen to, etc.

That’s why you see so many teens rebelling at their age; they want to gain back a sense of autonomy for themselves. That’s why punk rock, metal, and alternative music became their own little niches. They’re safe havens for teens who wanted to carve out their own identity.

So many people feel that external influences on their lives impact them — the opinions of their parents, their friends, women, men — but by seeking to appease these outside forces, they reduce the chance of being happy with themselves. The more you seek to please other people, the less you’re taking your own preferences seriously.

In order to feel satisfied with your autonomy, you must respect your thoughts, your choices, and your feelings.


No one likes being the last person picked during gym time in elementary school.

Unfortunately this feeling follows us as we go into grownup life.

Many of us battle with Imposter Syndrome, the feeling that we’re not good enough and that we somehow bamboozled others to get where we are. And so we have a really low feeling of competence at all times, which is a terrible hit to our psyche.

We often don’t get told how amazing we are, by either others or our selves, and so we never develop our confidence in our competence. In school, we often feel like we’re playing catch up and that others are having an easier time than us. At work, we may feel like we’re not that good at our job, but that HR keeps us around because it’s too expensive to fire us.

In order to feel satisfied with your competence, you have to work hard and only seek to be better than the person you were yesterday — but you also must acknowledge your own greatness.


I don’t care whether you consider yourself a loner, or an introvert.

All humans have an innate desire for relationships and connection. We all want someone who just gets us. The person who says to you, “Oh I thought I was the only one!” as you laugh, cry, and vent.

Since the beginning of time, humans have seemed out tribes as a means of survival. In modern times, it stays the same. When we don’t have those meaningful connections in our lives, it becomes so easy to fall into a depression.

In order to feel satisfied with your relatedness, you must love others, and in doing so, you will receive love from others. Now love may be in the form of giving others a sense of autonomy or competence. And although you may receive love in disproportionate ways (ie you give more love than you receive) you must learn to appreciate and focus on the ones who gave you love vs those who didn’t.


When we work towards fulfilling each of these needs, I believe that we’ll become more satisfied with our lives.

Maybe it won’t be happiness, but it’ll be pretty damn close.