What is the one human capacity that is the source of all motivation, meaning and satisfaction in our lives? It is the component that allows us to live rich and full lives and enables us to fulfill in actuality all that we are potentially.
Choice. The freedom to choose, to make decisions, to be responsible, to have agency and control over our life and destiny.
In the late 70’s Judith Rodin and Ellen Langer explored the effects of decision-making and responsibility on residents in a nursing home. In the experimental group residents were encouraged to make meaningful decisions including when and where to receive visitors and watch films, as well as being given a houseplant to take care of. A comparison group was also given a plant but were told that the nurses would take care of it and were not encouraged to make decisions for themselves.
The results of the experiment were quite dramatic. The group given the extra responsibility showed dramatic improvements in health, happiness, longevity and vitality. In effect those given more responsibility were found to live fuller lives for longer time as a result of increased choice and decision-making as well as being given something new to look after. The results of the study have been confirmed by much research since then.
The opportunity to make choices increases our motivation. One of the techniques that the researchers used was to get participants to reflect on the choices they made by considering the ones they didn’t make, the other options. This makes choice more meaningful as the individual becomes more aware of the options that were open to them but that they chose not to take. By reflecting on this we become more aware of how we are shaping our days and hence gives a greater feeling of ownership over our lives.
In another experiment conducted by Langer in which participants monitored their choices in various ways, the group which had to make more decisions and had more control were found to become less depressed, more independent and confident, and more alert and differentiated in their choices.
Langer noted much resistance amongst staff and family to giving residents more control and responsibility which highlights the common and well-intentioned trend of ‘protecting’ people by doing things for them, while in reality undermining their independence and autonomy, disempowering them and making them dependent.
These findings really bring home for us the important role that control, responsibility and decision-making play in human affairs.
It is this freedom that is the source of human growth. Growth comes about when we have the freedom to choose different courses of action in feeling, thought, and action.
When it comes to meaningful human activities we have a need for autonomy – to choose and direct our own activities; Mastery – the chance to develop our competence and become good at something; and purpose – to feel like what we do is important, that it matters, that it has meaning.
Unfortunately, when people are denied or abdicate responsibility for their choices and decisions it stunts their growth and they stagnate. To exert control, to take responsibility for our decisions and make conscious choices is fundamental to our well-being.
If as a society we want to create a culture in which humans can flourish we need to make sure that in our schools, workplaces, nursing homes and all our institutions that people are afforded the freedom to take responsibility for their choices and decisions and the opportunity to direct their own activities.
Equally in our personal lives each one of us needs to deeply reflect on the choices that create our lives and take responsibility for the freedom we have to choose our own path in life. Many of us, even though we have more freedom that patients in a nursing home, abdicate responsibility or make choices in our lives that are not in keeping with our highest potential for growth and self-actualisation.
It is imperative that we practice creatively engaging with our lives and opening to all the possibilities present to us to create and live a life of deep meaning and fulfilment.