What Drives Happiness and Fulfillment

What Drives Happiness and Fulfillment

We all want to thrive and be happy. Agreed?

So, what can we do to be happier?

Well, one theory that touches on this is called Self-Determination Theory. SDT has become the world’s leading model on personal growth and development because it has some great answers to the question “what drives happiness and fulfillment?”. And the answer is that it comes down to basic human needs.

We mostly all understand that there are basic human needs for water, food, shelter (physiological needs) to survive. But we do not all understand that we also have 3 basic psychological needs. And when these needs are being met, we thrive. When they are not, we flounder… or at best just survive.

50 years of research demonstrates that these 3 needs have emerged as the most universal and powerful ones for the fulfillment of individuals. And when individuals’ needs are being met at these levels, not only do they thrive, but so do their organizations.

So what are they?

Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence. These three core universal needs have been demonstrated to be the key driver across all gender, social, environmental and country factors.

Need #1.


An understanding that our life is a product of our own choices. To be happy, we need to feel like we are working towards goals that are meaningful to us, even if the tasks involved are not always fun.

In contrast, when we feel pressured, controlled, forced, or coerced, then our autonomy is not supported and our well-being declines.

Need #2


We are capable of changing, of doing, of being whatever it is we set out to be. Our need for competence is fulfilled when we are growing as individuals in terms of skills, abilities and knowledge.

In contrast, when we feel stuck or like we will not be able to achieve a certain goal or get out from under a pile of work, then we naturally disengage and feel down.

Need #3.


This is the understanding that everything is connected. And that we need relationships that support our own autonomy and competence. It is the need to feel that we truly matter to those around us and they matter to us.

In contrast, when we do not feel connected to others in this way, we may feel outcasted, alienated and less fulfilled.

Example: A client who loves to jump in and help her colleagues and family (relatedness and competence supported). She is a helpful, caring individual, right? Well, when emotions of anger and resentment start to build up, it becomes clear that not all of her needs are being supported. In this case, it was autonomy. The expectation and sense that she could not say ‘no’, strangles her need for autonomy.

Now as the above example demonstrates, how we go about fulfilling these basic needs can create conflict, part of me wants to say no and a part of me wants to say yes. This is natural. Well, what can we do?

Here’s an experiment: identify one area of your life that is challenging at the moment; where there is conflict, and you are feeling frustration, anger, sadness, or loneliness.

  • Go through each of the three needs and ask, how well are you being supported 0-10?
  • Take the lowest fulfilled need and create an experiment to support that need.
    1. For example, an individual who is looking to support their autonomy, might want to practice saying ‘no’ to non-critical requests.
    2. A goal may be to say ‘no’ 2-3 times daily (again, non-critical)
  • Journal these occurrences. What emotions were present, how did you feel before and after?
  • After 3-5 days of the experiment, check in on your levels of fulfillment around those 3 core needs and that area of life.

What you will find is that by supporting your basic human needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence (while not shaming or dismissing others), that your overall well-being and fulfillment can increase quite rapidly.

Lastly… this human experience is a bit of a dance. We are constantly being asked to adjust to new people, new rhythms, new opportunities and challenges. Checking in with how your basic needs are being supported is one tool to help navigate through what can often be the turbulent waters of change.


Kevin McGovern, Coach & Alternative Therapist


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