In Brief

These are the questions a research team led by Ken Sheldon, PhD, of the University of Missouri­Columbia, answered in a study of three groups of college students--two comprised solely of Americans, and one including subjects from South Korea to gauge non-Western, collectivist cultures. The participants were asked to describe the most satisfying events of the past week, month and semester.

The results indicate that autonomy, competence, relatedness and self-esteem are virtually universal roots of happiness. Conversely, disappointment transpires when those needs are not fulfilled. Satisfying events are self-selected activities consistent with our interests and values, that we do well and that permit us to both bond with others and appreciate our own worth. Feelings of popularity, luxury, security, pleasure and physical health are apparently less important than once thought.

"I believe humans are self-organizing, living systems who need to have the freedom to find their own solutions to problems," says Sheldon, noting that "autonomy was among the most important needs in both an individualistic and a collectivist nation."

The data also show, however, that relatedness may be slightly more important in communal societies, which, according to Sheldon, is consistent with other recent cross-cultural findings.

"Thus, it appears that psychologists who emphasize universal needs and those who emphasize cultural specificity may both be correct," he says.

The results could have an impact on many psychological applications. "For a clinical psychologist, they provide a potential guide to the different kinds of activities a client might engage in to be a happy, fulfilled person," suggests Sheldon. For researchers, these findings exemplify "positive psychology's concern with the nature of optimal experience and personhood."

Further research across a broader scope of people and cultures will help determine whether the study provides evidence of universal human needs. The authors plan to investigate why the South Korean samples chose relatedness as the most important need to satisfy, whereas the subjects of U.S. origin selected self-esteem.

As for the insights they have already extracted, the authors say their findings are important because "psychological needs can be targeted to enhance personal thriving." And while there is no quick-fix method to turn an unsatisfying incident right-side up, an unhappy person can make time each day to "do something that you really want that also makes some contribution to others," recommends Sheldon.

The study, "What is satisfying about satisfying events? Testing 10 candidates' psychological needs," appeared in the February issue of APA's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.