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Making the Right Choices

written by Seph Fontane Pennock 7 July 2014

Seph Fontane Pennock is a Netherlands-based positive psychology practitioner. He founded the Positive Psychology Program, which aims to facilitate integration of the scientific and practical sides of positive psychology. Full bio.

Seph's articles are here.

Being able to choose the food we eat, buy the clothes we like, and pursue a professional career of our interest is perceived by many as a core ingredient of autonomy, which has been linked to greater psychological well-being across cultures. Ryan and La Guardia show that autonomy is related to greater persistence and effectiveness. In contrast, Amabile and colleagues have found that external factors that restrict personal choice such as deadlines, surveillance, and control, tend to decrease intrinsic motivation.

Today’s Western society is characterized by an abundance of choice. According to Cross, more than 20,000 new products are introduced each year in a typical American supermarket. Low cost airlines have made traveling easier than ever, and online education has opened the academic gates for virtually everyone. As a result of technical developments, many choices are just a few clicks away. At first sight, these opportunities may seem very positive, but at the same time they pose a serious challenge: How to make the right choice? If the number of choices increases, so does the possibility of making the wrong choice. Various insights from positive psychology may help us increase the chance of making the right choices.


According to self-determination theory, an influential framework in positive psychology, the consequences of making choices are strongly influenced by the reasons for making those choices, such as avoidance of punishment or developing personal mastery. The key word here is autonomy. If people experience little or no personal involvement in or control over the choices they make, the choices are unlikely to increase well-being.

An employee who chooses to follow a certain educational program because he fears that he will otherwise get fired is unlikely to enjoy this program as much as an employee who chooses this program freely because of personal interest.

Likewise, choosing to lose weight because one is afraid of being judged negatively by others is less likely to result in personal well-being and success than losing weight because one considers personal health an important value. Even better is losing weight by taking on a vigorous activity that one loves to do for its own sake.

Indeed, research by Kasser and colleagues has revealed that making autonomous choices is likely to have a positive effect on well-being and vice versa.

A powerful way to get insight in the true reasons behind choices is by asking yourself: If money, approval, admiration, praise, fear, guilt or shame were no object, would I still make this choice or not?


People differ greatly in many respects. Consequently, what may be the right choice for person A, may be the worst choice for person B.

In an attempt to address interpersonal differences from a positive perspective, positive psychology research has revealed associations between using strengths and subjective well-being. According to Linley, a strength is “a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking or feeling that is authentic, energizing to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance.” Examples of strengths include social intelligence, gratitude, love of learning, and leadership.

When making choices, self-knowledge in terms of strengths can be a crucial skill. Imagine a person who scores very high on social intelligence and teamwork. If this person chooses a job in which he spends most of his time in isolation behind his computer, he is very unlikely to experience happiness and a sense of satisfaction.

Likewise, a person who is highly creative is more likely to experience long lasting joy from buying a (dynamic) product like a piano which enables him to express his creativity, compared to a (static) product that will not allow him to interact creatively, such as a television.

In support of this notion, several researchers have found that strength use is related to employee satisfaction, higher levels of self-esteem, more positive emotions, more vitality, and less stress.

When making choices, it is important to consider the extent to which various options match your personal configuration in terms of your strengths. There are many ways to get more insight into your personal strengths. You can take the Values in Action questionnaire online for free. You can ask others to select the top strengths that they believe characterize you. Don’t forget to ask why they chose those strengths. You could also reflect on questions such as

  • “When were you at your best?”
  • “When do you feel the most authentic?”
  • “What are things that you pick up quickly, requiring almost no effort to learn them?”
  • “When did you feel most energized by what you were doing?


Perhaps the above insights can be summarized briefly: When making choices, the right answers are more likely to be found by looking inside, rather than outside. Good choices benefit from honest self-reflection. Instead of primarily focusing on other’s values, take some time to reflect on your own values. According to the commercial world, extrinsic and materialistic values such as money, wealth, and admiration are highly important. But what do you consider to be important in life? Are those the things that will really matter when your life is almost over and you look back?

Mindfulness, the ability to keep one’s complete attention to the present moment in an open and non-judgmental way, can be a valuable tool when it comes to accurate self-reflection. Instead of building and protecting mental stories about who you are or should be (“I am intelligent, I am outgoing, I am introvert.”), mindfulness cultivates a focus on the experience of the present moment. In other words, mindfulness promotes self-knowledge derived from personal observation, rather than from constructed mental stories.

By directing attention to the present moment, one becomes aware of emotions and body reactions that provide valuable feedback about the rightness of your choices. How do you feel when you perform behavior X? Do you feel energized or drained? Are you losing track of time or are you forcing yourself to continue?

Not only can this type of self-reflection provide useful self-knowledge about strength use, but it may also shed light on the choices that contribute to happiness. Shapiro points out that the insight that stems from these observations is not the result of a fixed set of beliefs or rules, but the direct consequence of present moment experience. However, sometimes these observations may conflict with existing beliefs about yourself or be in contrast with the expectancies held by others. Just like making good choices, honest self-reflection is not always an easy job!


Amabile, T. M., DeJong, W., & Lepper, M. (1976). Effects of externally imposed deadlines on subsequent intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 92-98. Abstract.

Britton, K. H. (2007). On Making a Choice. Positive Psychology News.

Cross, G. (2000). An All-Consuming Century. New York: Columbia University Press.

Govindji, R., & Linley, P.A. (2007). Strengths use, self-concordance and well-being: Implications for strengths, coaching and coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review, 2, 143–153. Abstract.

Hanley, A., Garland, E., Canto, A., Warner, A., Hanley, R., Dehili, V. & Proctor, A. (2013). Dispositional Mindfulness and Bias in Self-theories. Mindfulness, 1-6. Page 1

Linley, P. A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press. Quotation from page 9.

Linley, P. A., Nielsen, K. M., Gillett, R., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Using signature strengths in pursuit of goals: Effects on goal progress, need satisfaction, and well-being, and implications for coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review, 5, 6–15.

Littman-Ovadia, H., & Davidovitch, N. (2010). Effects of congruence and character-strength deployment on work adjustment and well-being. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 1, 138–146.

Littman-Ovadia, H., & Steger, M. (2010). Character strengths and well-being among volunteers and employees: Toward an integrative model. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 419–430. Abstract.

Marlatt, G. A., & Kristeller, J.L. (1999). Mindfulness and meditation. In W.R. Miller (Ed.), Integrating Spirituality Into Treatment: Resources for Practitioners (pp. 67-84). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 23, 603–619.

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.

Ryan, R. M., & La Guardia, J. G. (2000). What is being optimized? Self-determination theory and basic psychological needs. In S. H. Qualls & N. Abeles (Eds.), Psychology and the Aging Revolution: How We Adapt to Longer Life (pp. 145–172). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Abstract.

Shapiro, S.L., & Carlson, L.E. (2009). How is Mindfulness helpful? Mechanisms of Action. In S.L. Shapiro & L.E. Carlson (Eds.), The Art and Science of Mindfulness: Integrating Mindfulness into Psychology and the Helping Professions. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Silberman, J. (2007). Barry Schwartz meets the Buddha: How Mindfulness may Resolve the Paradox of Choice. Positive Psychology News.

Teixeira, P. J., Going, S. B., Houtkooper, L. B., Cussler, E. C., Metcalfe, L. L., Blew, R. M., Sardinha, L. B., Lohman, T. G. (2006). Exercise motivation, eating, and body image variables as predictors of weight control. Medicine and Science in Sports And Exercise, 38, 179-188. doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000180906.10445.8d Abstract.

Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Kashdan, T. B., & Hurling, R. (2011). Using personal and psychological strengths leads to increases in well-being over time: A longitudinal study and the development of the strengths use questionnaire. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 15–19

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons Licences

Supermarket choices courtesy of Tim McFarlane
Love to dance courtesy of AhmadHashim
Playing piano courtesy of Tekke
Temple of Apollo at Delphi from Wikimedia

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Judy Krings 8 July 2014 - 9:05 am

Great food for thought, Seph. A metaphor popped up after I read and re-read your timely article. How social and emotional intelligence rings true here,too. Be AWARE of YOU as well as YOU with others. To be in the NOW means standing still with yourself, looking into the mirror of your life and asking yourself what is your relationship with yourself. What rings true and what is not authentic you.

I really enjoyed the Apollo slide, too. “know yourself.” Small sentence with huge meaning.

Many thanks!

Gary 13 July 2014 - 1:56 pm

On the subject of autonomy, even though a person’s options and choices are limited, being able to make the choice to how you will react and manage the environment thrust upon you can be empowering and keep you moving forward. Victor Frankl demonstrates this concept in his reflections and theory based on the appalling conditions he survived in concentrations camps. In part he owes much of his survival to his own responsive choices he made upon his environment.

Judy Krings 14 July 2014 - 9:05 am

How astute, Gary. Thanks for your reminder of the truly remarkable, inspiring, resilient man. PP in action before there was PP. Beautiful. My dad was in the army when Dachau was freed, so your comment really resonates with me.

Seph Fontane Pennock 19 July 2014 - 5:12 am

Thank you Judy and Gary for your valuable comments!

Funny that you mention it Gary. ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ is one of my favourite books and forms a large part of the basis of my personal philosophy.

Here’s a must-see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fD1512_XJEw

Right now, science is backing up observations that Frankl made from personal experience decades ago. He surely is one of the founding fathers of pp, along with Rogers and Maslow.

Judy Krings 19 July 2014 - 5:41 am

Really enjoyed this video, Seph. Big thanks! How lovely to step back in time and see what still rings true.


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