Does autonomy make you happy?

Autonomy refers to the amount of control you feel you have over your life. How much of your life are you in control of? How much are you able to change? You probably have full control over many things. For example, your living room. You can paint it and arrange it however you desire. Some say you can even use Feng Shui to channel powerful chi energies, ostensibly using only your couch and television set. How’s that for control?

Let’s try another example: how your time is spent between 9-5 each day. How much control do you have over that?

In terms of happiness, autonomy is a huge factor – one of the biggest. Some researchers studied the happiness of 900 Texan women as they went about their day. Here’s how the results roughly looked:

There’s a general upward trend, but the happiest times are clearly lunchtime and after work; the times of day when you are free to do as you please.

Autonomy might be everyone’s favourite goal. Millions of people go to work every day, dreaming of a time when they don’t have to. We’d love to win the lottery, so that we’re free to do anything. We covet retirement as the holy Mecca of freedom, and want it as early as possible.

And we’re right in pursuing this goal. A nursing home called Arden House, rated one of the best in the US, was the stage for an experiment in autonomy. One group of residents were given more autonomy – plants to water, choice over how the rooms were arranged, and a reminder of their responsibilities towards themselves. A second group was given plants that were watered by the staff, and a speech stressing the staff’s responsibilities over them. The high autonomy group then became happier than the low autonomy group. More than that, eighteen months later, the high autonomy group had more people left in it! (15% mortality versus 30% in the low autonomy group).

But there’s more to autonomy than having physical agency to do things. In Switzerland, many policy decisions are made by referendum, but some areas have greater right to demand a referendum than others. A study found a link between the extent of this right and the happiness of the people. In fact, the difference in happiness between the most autonomous area and the least was about the same as doubling a person’s income.

Speaking of income, money is the first thing to come to mind when people think of autonomy. When you think of rich people, do you think of Monaco, beaches, yachts and cocktails? Or do you think 80 hour weeks, pressure, stress and, well, cocktails again?

The potential is there, true. The more money you have, the more control you can have over your life. But autonomy and money don’t necessarily walk hand-in-hand down the beaches of Monaco. Autonomy is more important. We know this because it accounts for twenty times more of the variation in happiness than income. Not only that, but people with low income but high personal control are far happier than rich people with low personal control (statistically, the difference is 7.85 out of ten compared with 5.82).

One thing is clear from all this; if you can come up with ways to increase the control you have over your life, you’ll get happier – even if you don’t have as much money coming in. You can even become happier than you would be if you got rich, but had to work unreasonable hours to earn your money. Good news!

Now, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I have a strange urge to rearrange my living room…

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