Genevieve Douglass, MAPP '10, is a positive psychology coach living in New York City. She considers her work to be helping individuals find their authentic selves. Read more on her web site. Full bio.
One of the things that most of us look for in life is a feeling of energy. We spend our time with people we like, for reasons that we may not overtly know. We tend to steer clear of people who drain or deplete us. The sense of vitality is important to us. It lets us know that something is right.
“[Exuberance] … is kinetic and unrestrained, joyful, irrepressible. It is not happiness, although they share a border. It is instead, at its core, a more restless, billowing state. Certainly it is no lulling sense of contentment: exuberance leaps, bubbles, and overflows, propels its energy through troop and tribe.” Jamison, 2004, p. 4.
But what exactly gives us vigor?
To help answer this, let’s look at when we know things are NOT right – when we feel fatigued. For the past two decades, Roy Baumeister and his lab have been looking at a phenomenon he calls ego depletion. Basically, this is the experience of feeling mentally drained, and Baumeister suggests that it comes from using self-control. Here are a few examples of exerting self-control:
- abstaining from eating cookies when hungry
- trying not to think about a white bear
- maintaining visual focus on something despite peripheral distractions
- tamping down emotional reactions in response to a funny video
Baumeister has found that, after doing these types of activities, people do worse on subsequent self-control tasks. For instance, in a 2006 paper, he and colleagues showed that participants who were told to suppress reactions to evocative, sad, or humorous films performed worse on following anagram and hand-grip self-control tasks. Thus self-control seems like a set capacity of energy that we use use up during our activities.
However, perhaps its not as simple as that. Ryan and Deci have outlined various levels of motivation. They have also studied how the different levels affect self-control. You can feel completely unwilling to do something (controlled motivation), you can do it out of guilt or fear (introjected), or you can do something because you know it’s going to be useful (identified). You can also do something because you really believe it is important, though it may not be fun or interesting (integrated). But, we experience the most volition for activities that we are interested in doing for their own sakes (intrinsic). According to Nix and colleagues, it turns out that feeling free in what you do (or don’t do) maintains vitality, whereas the less intrinsic the motivation, the more depleted you feel following an activity.In line with this finding, studies have found that behaviors driven by autonomous motivation (identified, integrated, or intrinsic) are less ego-depleting than controlled behaviors. Muraven and colleagues asked participants to do a physical grip task to assess baseline levels of self-control. Participants were then asked not to eat cookies that had been placed in front of then and were then reassessed with the physical grip task. To gauge their autonomy, Muraven then asked them for their reasons for resisting the cookies. Those who had their own reasons for resisting the cookies did not show ego depletion, whereas those who had controlled reasons (e.g. “because you told me not to”) did worse on the physical grip task, indicating depletion.
According to Ryan and Deci, there are 3 major ‘nutriments’ that support autonomous motivation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In order to feel strongly motivated, we need to feel that we have choice, meaningful rationale, and empathy from others. For example, if your spouse asks you to pick up a jacket from the store, it might help if you could choose the store. It would also probably be useful to know why the jacket is needed, so you feel competent to select the jacket and decide how much money to spend. Lastly, knowing that your spouse will be understanding will help you feel safe in making a decision that is your own, even if it turns out not to be exactly right.Competence is knowing that you are gaining mastery or achieving the goals of the task you are attempting. Having ways of knowing that you are competent is important. This basically comes down to having metrics. How do you know if you’re succeeding? You need to have clarity about what success is and a way of monitoring your progress. My goal is to write an article that’s not too long or too short, so I know my goal is around 700 words. My word processor conveniently tells me I’m at 765, so I know I need to tie this up pretty soon!
Lastly, relatedness is feeling a sense of connection to others. Feeling that what you do matters to others is important to motivation and helps create a sense of purpose. Beyond this, it is important to feel accepted by others and to feel that it’s okay to be yourself.
Gagne, Ryan, and Bargmann studied elite female gymnasts over several weeks. Self-reports of vitality were gathered before and after their practice along with measures of the experience of the three basic needs. The gymnasts felt more energy at the end of practice on days when they experienced autonomy, competence, and relatedness, despite engaging in a physically demanding activity for hours on end.
Finding Vitality from Within
Mindfulness is another route to autonomous motivation. In a nutshell, mindfulness is a quality of consciousness in which there is a receptive attention to and awareness of present events and experiences, according to Brown and Ryan. This isn’t something confined to monks sitting on mountaintops. It’s a basic human capacity.
Part of autonomous motivation comes from acting in alignment with our values. Often, these values may live below the level of consciousness, showing up in visceral reactions. For example, seeing someone do a good deed may give us chills, even if we aren’t specifically thinking about their deed being something we value.
Mindfulness may be a way of gaining more awareness of our values, so that we can better act in alignment with them. Additionally, being mindful causes us to slow down and realize that we might be doing something habitually. That awareness may give us the time to choose new ways of acting that are more aligned with our values.
To sum all of this up in another way, when you act autonomously, you are really acting authentically. Authentic self-expression depends on relatedness – feeling valued and accepted by others. It depends on feeling competent and capable. It depends on feeling that you have choice. Practicing a mindful state of awareness may be one way to act more authentically and to have a more vibrant life.
Baard, P. P. (2002). Intrinsic need satisfaction in organizations: A motivational basis of success in for-profit and not-for-profit settings. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.) Handbook of self-determination research (pp. 255-275). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M. (2004). Fostering health self-regulation from within and without: A self-determination theory perspective. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 105-124). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 396-403.
Jamison, K. R. (2004). Exuberance: The Passion for Life. New York: Vintage Books, Random House.
Muraven, M. (2008). Autonomous self-control is less depleting. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(3), 763-770.
Muraven, M., Gagne, M., & Rosman, H. (2008). Helpful self-control: Autonomy support, vitality, and depletion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 573-585.
Muraven, M., Rosman, H., & Gagne, M. (2007). Lack of autonomy and self-control: Performance contingent rewards lead to greater depletion. Motivation and Emotion, 31, 322-330.
Neff, K. D., & Harter, S. (2002). The authenticity of conflict resolutions among adult couples: Does women’s other- oriented behavior reflect their true selves? Sex Roles, 47, 403–417.
Nix, G., Ryan, R. M., Manly, J. B. & Deci, E. L. (1999). Revitalization through self-regulation: The effects of autonomous versus controlled motivation on happiness and vitality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 266-284. Abstract.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. Abstract.