How Autonomy Will Help You Flourish
Your sense of control in your life can make or break everything.
Why it matters: Autonomy—acting with a full sense of volition and choice—is one of our core psychological needs (read more). Lose your sense of autonomy, increase your chance of depression, anxiety, anger issues, substance abuse, and other negative outcomes.
But if you increase your sense of control and choice, you'll be more motivated, more successful, healthier, and generally better off. (See more in my review of The Self-Driven Child).
The context: How autonomy works
Autonomy is a sense of volition—the feeling that you have agency in the world, that you're keeping your integrity when you act, that you're choosing.
The opposite of autonomy is feeling controlled or compelled.
In more detail: To be clear, I do not mean autonomy in the sense of independence. Acting autonomously does not mean acting without consequences or without reference to others; you can act autonomously within a highly interdependent community or system.
Autonomy is the sense that you can act on the world and cause effects. It builds your sense of self: you are an agent in the world, not a subject; you can act. Autonomy is the feeling of controlling your own actions and moving of your own volition in the world. (Read more about self-determination theory and autonomy.)
The sense of control is one of the existential feelings that philosopher Matthew Ratcliffe proposes is key to our experience of being in the world. These feelings affect our sense of self and our sense of agency. Critically, Ratcliffe links existential feelings, especially the feeling of agency and autonomy, to depression and other mental health issues.
The bottom line up front: Lack of autonomy is a huge problem. Most people don't have enough autonomy. To improve wellbeing, increase autonomy.
How do you enable autonomy?
I see several avenues by which you can support or enable greater autonomy for yourself or for your children. These are:
- Increase intrinsic motivation
- Give space
- Allow failure
- Play more
- Align work with vocation and values
Increase intrinsic motivation
When you act autonomously, you are often acting on intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is when you're doing things you want to do, things you find rewarding in themselves, that give you joy, build relationships, or contribute to something you value. (Read more about motivation.)
If you increase your intrinsic motivation through other means—when you practice being intrinsically motivated—you can increase your perceived (and actual) autonomy. My article about procrastination explains some ways to increase your intrinsic motivation for specific activities.
Pay attention to the pain points and stressors that you experience. These are often indicators that something in your life needs to change. Maybe they are places where you feel controlled and need more autonomy (but not necessarily); regardless, when you notice stressors, you can use my iterative, incremental method to improve the situation.
Give space (critical for children's autonomy!)
To act with any amount of autonomy, you need space. You need to not feel controlled. You need room to take actions, try things, explore.
Michaeleen Doucleff, in her book Hunt, Gather, Parent (read my review), explains how humans in traditional cultures have supported children's autonomy. The Hadzabe, for instance, trust children with responsibilities and allow them to explore and learn for themselves. Parents keep an eye on children from afar, just in case there's real danger, while keeping commands and interference to a minimum. They teach children early and often about how to avoid or handle potential dangers, like knives or hot things, rather than removing them all from the child's space. They adjust their own behavior and the child's environment instead of attempting to control the child's behavior.
The main takeaways from Doucleff's research: Give children space. Bite your tongue. Don't hover—but be the invisible safety net. All of this allows the child to keep a sense of autonomy.
Regrettably, in modern American society, giving children no autonomy is normal. Parents who allow their 13-year-olds to stay home by themselves for a few hours, or let their 9-year-olds to ride the subway alone, are shamed as neglectful. Lenore Skenazy, co-founder of Let Grow and a proponent of the free-range kids movement, was named "the world's worst mom" for this!
The free-range kids movement calls for renewed freedom for young people. Instead of condemning parents who allow their children to experience a quarter of the independence children had a few decades ago, this movement follows the science and wisdom of autonomy. Give children space. Let them do things on their own—even if sometimes, they fail. Help them learn how to navigate the world, and then as they develop competence, let them roam.
Our adolescents aren't getting this experience. Instead, they are being given experiences of being controlled. They have few chances to make real decisions - ones where they might get it wrong. They aren't allowed to set their own goals, adults tell them what to do. 8/— Naomi Fisher (@naomicfisher) July 8, 2022
As an adult, you may experience control in your workplace or from other adults concerned about your capabilities. Try asking for space—and explain why it will improve your performance. If you're in a position where you manage others, give them space. Few people appreciate micromanagement.
Failure is crucial for learning. When you can try, fail, and try again.
Stixrud and Johnson, in their book The Self-Driven Child (read my review), explain why children ought to be responsible for more than most parents would be comfortable with, and why children ought not be protected from failure. Namely: step back, so children will step up.
If you're not allowed to fail, you don't develop responsibility.
To have a full sense of autonomy, you have to know that your actions have impact—and that means natural consequences. You can't have someone else intervening every time you act, because that undermines your sense of control.
Some helicopter parents don't allow their children to fail. They rightly want to protect thei children from the bad things in the world—but they take that instinct too far. Children, even teenagers, are not allowed the opportunity to try for themselves and learn to deal with the natural consequences, good or bad. They don't develop a sense of responsibility or control.
Give others the opportunity to be responsible for themselves—whether it's children being in charge of packing and remembering their own lunches, or employees in results-only work environments with the freedom to do their jobs however they want, so long as the job gets done (discussed by Daniel Pink in Drive, read my review). They will learn to act with autonomy.
The pursuit of play is a demonstration of autonomy. Play consists of activities that you are intrinsically motivated to do, that you engage in for the experience, that have the paradox of play in that you self impose a set of rules that you follow so that you can keep playing. You cannot force play; play must always be chosen of your own volition—otherwise, it's not play.
“There is no reason to believe any longer that only irrelevant ‘play’ can be enjoyed, while the serious business of life must be borne as a burdensome cross. Once we realize that the boundaries between work and play are artificial, we can take matters in hand and begin the difficult task of making life more livable.” —Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Daniel H. Pink, in his book Drive (read my review), writes that children pursue play and flow in their lives "with the inevitability of a natural law." Children play by default. Why are adults any different? Pink doesn't speculate on that, but I suspect that by adulthood, most people have been conditioned out of it through long periods of time spent in school and workplace environments, with too many extrinsic motivators and not enough autonomy.
Ayelet Fishbach, in her book Get It Done (read my review), explains a study performed by psychologist Csikzentmihalyi in which people were told not to do anything that might be considered play or might bring on flow experiences. Within two days, everyone was feeling sluggish, sleepy, agitated, and tense.
The key message: When people lacked flow and feelings of autonomy and purpose, they got irritable, restless, anxious, and tense. Thus: Play more. Pursue hobbies for the joy of doing them. Pick activities that bring you into flow and build your sense of autonomy.
An aside: Deschooling in developing autonomy
The conventional schooling system zaps motivation. If you attended a conventional school, whether public or private, you feel that many of the activities associated with school are no longer enjoyable—reading, math, writing, even sports or art. You may not know what hobbies or activities to pursue, because you don't know which ones you truly find interesting. You may feel like you don't know how to pursue something that interests you, because there's no teacher or curriculum showing you how to learn it.
Developing autonomy means taking responsibility for your own life.
This is where the process of deschooling comes in. Deschooling just means moving away from the "schooling" mindset. It means discovering that you don't need permission to learn. You don't need someone to tell you that you're qualified to pursue an activity. You can just go for it! You can try things, fail, make messes, try again. You can sign up for classes if you want, watch tutorial videos online, read books or blogs—or not!
Deschooling means realizing that you can pursue activities without need for grades, degrees, assessments, or any other quantification of "progress" or "learning" save for the joy you get from the activity. You can figure out how to spend your own time, without waiting for someone to tell you what to do.
Focus on what interests you. If you don't know—try things. Build autonomy by following your sense of wonder. Explore when you're bored. Reconsider who is in charge of your day.
Align work with vocation and values
Work is one area where people frequently feel a lack of autonomy. Micromanagement and mismanagement can make it seem like you have no control over your work. If your work isn't aligned with your values, it can feel like you're selling your soul to the corporate overlords.
Wendell Berry discusses the nature of work, and what makes work good or not. Here is his description of work that is not good, work that deprives you of autonomy:
"Work that is done on too large a scale and that goes on the same, day after day for too long a time, work in which the worker makes only a part and not the whole of a made thing, work that is poorly compensated and unthanked, work for the benefit only of strangers, work that does harm to the world and other creatures, work that is done too fast and is poorly done, work that is ugly in the doing and in the result, work that one does only because one is obliged or compelled to do it, or that one must do because it is the only work available—such work may properly be thought a curse, and may receive curses in response. Such work may cause people to think slave thoughts and adopt slave ways. "Thank God it's Friday" is a slave thought." —Wendell Berry, The Need To Be Whole, p377
"Thank God it's Friday" is a slave thought.
But what's the alternative?
I recently found this quote from Ananda Coomaraswarmy on vocation, from an address "Education in Art" presented at Harvard in 1947, as quoted by Wendell Berry (The Need To Be Whole, p378):
"In a truly civilized society men should be able to earn their living by doing such work as they would rather be doing than anything else in the world. It is only where, as Plato says, a man's vocation is also his means of livelihood, that "more will be done, and better done, and more easily than in any other way." This I have seen with my own eyes in India where men are proud of their hereditary vocations, whatever these may be; under these conditions, hours of labor have no meaning, since one is naturally inclined to do as much as one can; the labourer is worthy of his hire, but he is not working for hire, and would often rather work than play or eat."
The alternative is work aligned with your vocation and values.
The key message: Work supports autonomy—but not just any work!
"[T]here may be something redemptive, some power to keep us whole and sane, in work itself." —Wendell Berry, The Need To Be Whole, p310
To support autonomy, you need to work—important work, work with your hands, work in daily life, work that matters to you. Work that improves your life, sometimes simply by its nature of being work.
Here's an example of mundane but meaningful work. Have you ever gone on a cleaning spree? You looked around your house, saw the dirt, dust, ans countless objects scattered on countless surfaces, and decided to do something about it. Maybe it was a spring cleaning—pulling every last thing out of your closets, dumping it all on the living room floor, sorting and tossing and keeping and donating. This work feels meaningful because you're actively improving your home. There's a direct connection between the work and something that matters to you.
Physical work and work with your hands can often feel more meaningful than other work—baking, knitting, carpentry, gardening, building a wall, chopping wood, fixing a car, and so on. It gives us a sense of satisfaction. We're building, making, doing. Something about our embodiment, using our bodies, being, moving, and acting in the world, builds our sense of control and autonomy.
If you're feeling a lack of autonomy, try doing physical work in your downtime. Pick up a hobby that involves making or building. If you want to reconsider your job or your career, I highly recommend the book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (read my review). Although Burnett and Evans don't use the word "vocation," their book is a guide to vocation. Their aim is to remind you that not only what work you do matters, but also why you work. You need to integrate your work into your bigger vision for your life and connect your values with your actions. Burnett and Evans write:
"A coherent life is one lived in such a way that you can clearly connect to the dots between three things:
- Who you are
- What you believe
- What you are doing"
With increased coherency comes an increased sense of self and meaning, greater satisfaction, and a greater sense of autonomy.