The Self-Determination Theory: Can It Help Improve Your Life?

By Krista


Last Updated: December 24, 2021

If you struggle with motivation, you aren’t alone.

Many of us can attest to moments in our lives when we’ve lacked the sufficient motivation to do something — whether that meant we left the dishes until the next morning or we failed to study adequately for that important test. We’ve all been there!

Yet, motivation is the basis behind many of our behaviors. And understanding these motivations can help set you up for success, as well as enhance your overall well-being. In fact, the self-determination theory of motivation lays this all out in a really easy and simple way to understand.

So, what is the self-determination theory? How can you use it to better your life?


What is the Self-Determination Theory?

The self-determination theory outlines how external and intrinsic motivation lies on a continuum.

More specifically, this theory analyzes how intrinsic motivation leads to intrinsic regulation, which leads to a higher level of satisfaction and enjoyment overall. 

The other end of the continuum involves external motivation, guided by rewards, punishments, and other external factors, where satisfaction and well-being are often much lower.

This theory originally derived from the work by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. These two psychologists determined that motivation within individuals tends to be driven by a person’s innate need to grow and for fulfillment.

In other words, the self-determination theory suggests that internal motivation actually leads to greater fulfilment and happiness in life. And people are able to become self-determined when they feel competent, connected, and autonomic. 

Breaking this down even further, for self-determination to occur, a person needs:

  • Autonomy - This refers to the feeling someone has of being in control of their life and their life choices. 
  • Connectedness - For intrinsic motivation, a person needs to have a strong sense of connection or relatedness to others.
  • Competence - A person further needs the skills necessary to help them achieve success, which then drives them to make the choices and take the actions to go after their goals.

For example, if a person failed a test but was high in self-determination, they would likely examine where they went wrong, accept what they did that contributed to the failure, then analyze how they can fix it and take action to do so. 

On the other hand, someone low in self-determination will likely look for an external source to blame for their failure, such as their spouse distracting them from studying. They won’t acknowledge the role they played, and are less likely to try to fix the problem or feel as though they can do anything to fix the problem.

Digging Deeper: Self Determination Meaning

Surprisingly, your ability to be self-determined is significantly influenced by the social situation in which you grew up. At the same time, this doesn’t mean you can’t become more self-determined. Yet, it does require some work and effort on your part to improve and sustain.

For instance, positive praises and feedback on work can help a person feel intrinsically motivated by re-affirming their competency, which is one of the three key parts of the self-determination theory. 

Yet, offering external rewards for intrinsically motivated actions can lead to decreased autonomy, which can lower self-determination. This further leads to a person feeling less in control of their own life and more controlled by external forces.

Related Article: 40 Inspiring Journal Prompts to Guide Your Deep & Personal Journey


How Self-Determination Can Improve Your Life

Becoming more intrinsically motivated has many benefits. It can make you feel more passionate, interested, committed, and fulfilled in various aspects of your life. In turn, this can significantly improve your mental health and overall life satisfaction.

All in all, it means you make the choices involved in your life and you accept them, understanding that your decisions lead to certain outcomes. 

Increasing Your Self-Determination

Improving your self-determination doesn’t have to be overly complex. In fact, it all comes down to practicing taking responsibility for your actions and finding intrinsic motivations to drive you.

When you lack motivation, ask yourself why you would want to do the task at hand. For example, why would you want to go to the gym? Some individuals would say to look better so others accept them. However, this is externally motivated. 

Instead, you might answer more intrinsically by saying you want to feel better and get healthier, so that you can truly enjoy your life to the fullest.

Other factors that can help you increase your self-determination include:

  • Using your intrinsic goals and values to motivate you to act.
  • Take responsibility for your actions and behaviors.
  • Avoid reliance on external rewards and start looking inward, as outlined above.
  • Firmly believe that you have control of your life. (In many cases, daily affirmations, such as “I am in control of my life,” can help your mind grasp this concept better.) 
  • Find community and social support that align with your goals. 
  • Practice the skills you need or gain the skills you need to become competent so you can be successful.

Related Article: How to Gain Back Control with CBT: The Incredible Power of Your Thoughts


You Are In Control

The self-determination theory can help you understand better how to get what you want out of life. What factors can you improve upon? What are you missing in your life that you need to become self-determined? 

When it comes down to it, you are in the driver’s seat. You have more control than you might think. Avoid getting lost in the chaos of external drivers and tune into yourself so that you can achieve your fullest potential and greatest fulfillment possible.

Homer Rice, a former American football player and coach, said,

“You can motivate by fear, and you can motivate by reward. But both these methods are only temporary. The only lasting thing is self motivation.”

Related Article: How To Be Patient When Things Aren’t In Your Control

Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash


3 comments on “The Self-Determination Theory: Can It Help Improve Your Life?”

  1. Krysta
    You are doing a wonderful job of educating and Motivating the Reader to move himself/herself to be a better person or to push oneself to achieve a better version of their present self to see and show one have many facets of himself and which he/she may not be aware of.....
    The only item that is missing from these writings is one has to involve their HEART - this is the main Organ to activate to bring about any (kind of) CHANGE in the life of the Human.
    Anyway, I wish you and all the writers everyone here a Merry Christmas and a warm prosperous and healthy New Year of 2022.
    Thanks for the great readings!

  2. Really this site has motivated and inspired me real good I have high esteem to be the person I needed to be but persons around no nice words from them but since I found this site and receive daily mails I can see changes
    Kind Regards

  3. I read these essays and musings daily. It assists in positive thinking and a positive attitude. Which helps with many things on a daily basis. And that helps with the daily motivation

    Thanks for the great essays and musings. Keel ‘em coming!

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