February 11, 2001

What Makes People the Happiest? Researchers Say It's Not Money or Popularity

Study finds autonomy, competence, relatedness and self-esteem at top of list of psychological needs

WASHIGNTON - Attaining popularity or influence and money or luxury is not what makes people the happiest and is at the bottom of the list of psychological needs, according to a new study. Topping the list of needs that appear to bring happiness are autonomy (feeling that your activities are self-chosen and self-endorsed), competence (feeling that you are effective in your activities), relatedness (feeling a sense of closeness with others) and self-esteem. The findings appear in the February issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

These findings are important, say the study authors, because once identified, "psychological needs can be targeted to enhance personal thriving, in the same way that the organic needs of plants, once identified, can be targeted to maximize thriving in the plant."

In the study, psychologist Kennon M. Sheldon, Ph.D., of the University of Missouri-Columbia, and co-authors conducted three studies with different groups of college students in the United States to determine which of 10 basic psychological feelings humans find most fundamental. One of the studies included college students from South Korea to see if the results could be replicated in those from a more group- and tradition-centered culture. The first study asked participants to identify what was the single most personally satisfying event they experienced during the last month. The second study asked the same question, but the participants were told to consider just the most satisfying event from the past week. The final study examined the most satisfying event of the semester and also asked participants to describe the most unsatisfying event they experienced during the semester.

The researchers found relatively consistent results across the three different time frames and across the two different cultures, with autonomy, competence, relatedness and self-esteem emerging as the most important psychological needs.

When asked about their most unsatisfying event, the participants' responses revealed that the lack of the top four needs (autonomy, competence, relatedness and self-esteem) were the most important factors. The lack of security also emerged as a fifth prominent feature of unsatisfying events. "It appears that when things go wrong, people may strongly wish for the safety and predictability that they often take for granted," said the authors.

If one were to pick a single need that is most important to satisfy in the United States, the current research suggests it would be self-esteem, which was at the top of the list in all three U.S. samples. Relatedness, however, was at the top of the list within the South Korean sample. The authors say this may be because of the nature of Korean culture, but more research is needed to be sure.

Further research is also needed, say the authors, to find out if the most satisfying needs of the young and relatively affluent participants in the current studies are any different from those of older adults or people from more impoverished areas. If the same findings hold true across all types of people and cultures, that will provide strong evidence for the existence of universal needs which evolved, in part, "to help individuals find conducive social and vocational niches and to motivate them to develop their skills further within those niches," said the researchers.

Article: "What Is Satisfying About Satisfying Events? Testing 10 Candidate Psychological Needs," Kennon M. Sheldon, Ph.D., University of Missouri-Columbia; Andrew J. Elliot, Ph.D., and Youngmee Kim, Ph.D., University of Rochester; and Tim Kasser, Ph.D., Knox College; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 80, No. 2.

Lead author Kennon M. Sheldon, Ph.D., can be reached at (573) 884-1547.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.