The 3 Psychological Needs We All Share (And How They Relate to Happiness) (2023)

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Haveyou ever wondered why you do the things you do?

Whatdrives you to pursue a certain career path?

Why doyou invest in relationships?

Whatmotivates you to achieve mastery in your field of work or study?

Theanswer is – needs.

Needsare the driving force behind our every action and decision. Whether we’retalking about our personal, social, or professional life, there’s always a corepsychological need that prompts us to take action and achieve the life webelieve will bring us happiness and fulfillment.

Butdid you know there’s a psychological theory that seeks to explain humanmotivation and the quest for happiness by looking at our core needs?

Andwe’re not talking about basic needs (food, water, shelter); we’re talking aboutthe psychological needs that shape our personality and decisions.

When I first read about Self-Determination Theory, I felt like I discovered a lost gem of psychology. In my opinion, this theory offers a simple and elegant blueprint for authentic happiness.

Table of Contents

What is a Need?

Inessence, a need refers to something that is required or wanted. In a way,“needs” is one of those particular concepts that we’re all familiar with eventhough it’s difficult to put into words. It’s something we all share and knowon a personal level, a universal human feature that defines our existence andpurpose.

Needsare behind every goal we set, every decision we make, and every action we take.

Weinvest in our skills because we need to feel competent, we hang out with peoplebecause we need to feel connected, and we move out of our parents’ home becausewe crave autonomy and freedom.

The 3 Psychological Needs We All Share (And How They Relate to Happiness) (1)
(Video) Helping others makes us happier -- but it matters how we do it | Elizabeth Dunn

Psychologists believe our psychological needs hold the key to emotional well being, life satisfaction, and success. Many of the emotional difficulties we struggle with have something to do with unfulfilled needs.

Butself-determination theory doesn’t focus on the effects of unfulfilled needs butrather the amazing potential that we can achieve once we dedicate our lives tothe fulfillment of our core psychological needs.

For example, one paper suggests that the fulfillment of basic psychological needs (competence, connection, and autonomy) can improve students’ subjective well-being.

So,what exactly happens when you decide to pursue your needs? How will your lifechange once you give up on chasing other people’s dreams and prioritize yourneeds, above all else?

Needs Are the Pathway to Authentic Happiness

Formany of us, happiness and life satisfaction are the ultimate goals. But eachperson has his/her definition of happiness. Each of us knows exactly how asatisfying life should look like.

Somestrive for professional success, while others are looking for the comfort of ahealthy family. Some wish to be the visionaries of their time while others wantto be the best parents, and some want to achieve both.

The point is, happiness comes in many shapes and sizes, but according to self-determination theory, there’s one guaranteed way to achieve it – by fulfilling three fundamental psychological needs.

Butfulfilling these needs isn’t a one-time job, but a lifelong journey. In otherwords, our core psychological needs are the driving force behind every project,relationship, or goal that we choose to pursue.

Andonce the fulfillment of these goals satisfies our core needs, we experience truehappiness. The fact that we can be in control of our lives and pursue whichevergoals we believe are the right for us places happiness into our own hands – andthat’s empowering!

Longstory short, needs are the pathway to authentic happiness because they’repowerful enough to inspire and motivate us, but flexible enough to allow us tofind a personal version of happiness.

Self-determination Theory and Psychological Needs

Self-determinationtheory revolves around three fundamental needs – competence, connection, andautonomy.

According to its founders, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, human beings achieve their true potential when they fulfill these three fundamental needs. In other words, the need for competence, connection, and autonomy motivates us to change, adapt, and grow.

Eventhough we are often motivated by external factors (money, status, prizes), ouruniversal desire for growth is what inspires us from within. And growth canonly be achieved through our core psychological needs.

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Whatstarted as a theory on human motivation ended up becoming a recipe forauthentic fulfillment and happiness. But as you can probably imagine, becomingself-determined takes work and a shift in mindset.

Peoplewho are high in self-determination believe they are in control of their actionsand decisions, which makes them proactive. In other words, they take risks, owntheir mistakes, and are confident in their ability to create the future theyenvision.

Theyknow that failure is part of growth, and they don’t allow it to put an end totheir journey toward personal and professional success.

(Video) A Valuable Lesson For A Happier Life

From an organizational perspective, research suggests that self-determination theory provides a framework for promoting autonomous motivation, performance, and wellness.

Inshort, self-determination gives you control over your life and puts you incharge of finding authentic happiness.

Let’stake a closer look at the fundamental needs we should pursue to becomeself-determined individuals:

1. Competence

Theneed for competence refers to our abilities and skillset. Each of us strives togain mastery in a given field of work or study; to become good at something anddeliver actual results.

Andwhat happens when we invest in our skillset? We gain the confidence we need toput our skills to good use and achieve our goals. We become competent andmotivated to pursue happiness and create the life we’ve always dreamed ofhaving.

Inshort, competence provides the tools we need to achieve personal andprofessional growth.

2. Connection

Weknow for a fact that humans are social creatures that thrive in groups. One ofthe reasons why we climbed to the top of the food chain is that we were smartenough to collaborate and evolve as a group.

As aresult, each of us experiences a profound need for connection. We all wish toform attachments and experience that pleasant sense of belonging.

Whetherwe’re talking about friendships, romantic relationships, or businesspartnerships, every bond we forge with another human is motivated by our needfor connection.

3. Autonomy

The needfor autonomy reflects our desire for freedom. The kind of freedom that makes usfeel in control of our actions, decisions, and behaviors.

Knowingthat you have control over who you are and who you want to become is a powerfulfeeling that cultivates optimism and motivates us to pursue our goals.

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Whenyou feel like you have autonomy over your happiness and well-being, you gain asense of clarity. In other words, you know exactly which path will take you toa happier life.

Longstory short, each of us has an innate desire (or need) to be free and exploreall sorts of possibilities. It’s part of the reason why we’ve grown anddeveloped as a society.

Ways to Fulfill Your Need for Competence

Invest in your skills

Investingin your skills is one of the fundamental ways in which you can satisfy yourneed for competence.

Bytaking the time to sharpen your skills or develop new ones, you make the firststep towards becoming a competent individual. And I’m not just talking aboutwork or school.

Theidea is to get to a point where you feel competent at something. For example,you can satisfy your need for competence by being a good cook for your family,even though you’re not a chef.

(Video) There's more to life than being happy | Emily Esfahani Smith

But beforeyou can prove your competence, you must be patient and determined enough to dothe hard work – to read, study, exercise, and train.

Take risks

Justbecause you’ve sharpened your skills doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly feelcompetent. As I said earlier, competence is built on both theory andpractice.

But puttingyour skills to use involves a certain amount of risk, and that can generate anxiety.It’s one of the reasons why you might refuse an opportunity even though youmight be competent enough to handle it.

Theonly way to know – and succeed in satisfying your need for competence – is byputting your skills to the test.

Learn how to handle failure

So,what happens when you test your skills and realize you might not be competentenough?

Ithink knowing how to handle failure is just as important as having the courage to takerisks. Just because you failed at something you thought you were good at,doesn’t mean you can label yourself as incompetent.

Keepin mind that fulfilling your need for competence is about learning, trying,failing, and repeating this cycle until you succeed. And that’s when you’llexperience authentic happiness.

Ways to Fulfill Your Need for Connection

Practice empathy

Empathyis one of the foundations of authentic human connections and healthyrelationships. This ability help you understand what the person in front of youis going through, thus allowing you to come us with an appropriate reaction.

Whenit comes to fulfilling your need for connection, you need empathy is you wish to forge meaningful interactions with thepeople around you.

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Nexttime you have a conversation with a friend or family member, try to look beyondwords and discover the emotion that the other person is looking to share withyou.

Be a good listener

Beinga good listener means being an empathic listener. In other words, you listenbecause you wish to understand, not just to have something to say when it’syour turn to speak.

If youoffer an empathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on, others will trust you enoughto ‘open up’ and invite you into their words. And that’s the moment when youcan establisha real connection with them.

Be curious

Theeare many ways in which we can fulfill our need for connection – fromstrengthening the relationships you already enjoy to cultivating new ones.

Curiosityplays a significant role when it comes to expanding your social circles andsatisfying your need for connection. It’s what prompts you to engage inconversations when you’re at a party.

Furthermore,curiosity motivates you to ask the right questions not because you’re lookingfor something specific, but because you’re interested in knowing the person infront of you.

Ways to Fulfill Your Need for Autonomy

Do what you’re passionate about

As Isaid before, autonomy means freedom, the freedom to do whatever you’repassionate about (if it doesn’t negatively impact others!).

(Video) Robert Waldinger: What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness | TED

Thesimplest way to fulfill your need for autonomy is by pursuing a job, hobby, oractivity that you’re genuinely interested in.

Whenyou invest your time and energy in somethingthat you’re passionate about, goodresults will soon follow. That will give you a sense of confidence and controlthat motivates you to do more and become more.

Don’t be afraid to explore

Onceagain, curiosity proves to be a valuable tool when it comes to pursuing ourcore psychological needs and, ultimately, a happier life.

Byexploring new opportunities – both in your personal and professional life – youtest your boundaries and limits. In other words, you understand yourself betterby understanding what is within your control and what’s not.

Make yourself a priority

Lastly,always remember to make yourself a priority. And not just for the sake ofsatisfying your need for autonomy.

Puttingyourself first helps you prioritize your needs and goals above everything else.Only when you will have fulfilled your core needs will you be mentally andemotionally strong enough to help others.

Autonomygives you the power to shape your future and discover your version of a happylife.


Longstory short, self-determination theory offers an interesting perspective on humanmotivation and personal development.

It’san elegant system to revolves around our three fundamental needs – competence,connection, and autonomy.

If youfocus your personal and professional endeavors on fulfilling these needs, youcan make happiness last for a lifetime.

For more tips on how to cultivate a happier life, check out Happier Human: 53 Science-Backed Habits to Increase Your Happiness.

Remember,even though we all share three core psychological needs, each of us has theirway of pursuing them. That means there’s one path to happiness for every personon this planet.

Haveyou found yours?

The 3 Psychological Needs We All Share (And How They Relate to Happiness) (5)
The 3 Psychological Needs We All Share (And How They Relate to Happiness) (6)

Alexander Draghici is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, CBT practitioner, and content writer for various mental health websites. His work focuses mainly on strategies designed to help people manage and prevent two of the most common emotional problems – anxiety and depression.


1. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
2. Start with why -- how great leaders inspire action | Simon Sinek | TEDxPugetSound
(TEDx Talks)
3. Why Having Fun Is the Secret to a Healthier Life | Catherine Price | TED
4. Emotion, Stress, and Health: Crash Course Psychology #26
5. How to stay calm when you know you'll be stressed | Daniel Levitin
6. My philosophy for a happy life | Sam Berns | TEDxMidAtlantic
(TEDx Talks)


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