REGAIN AUTONOMY - Happiness Academy
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18 March, 2021
It has already been proven that autonomy (simply put: the freedom to make our life’s choices) is one of the most important factors for Happiness, to some extent even more important than money. What is less known is that losing the sense of autonomy has a strong psychological impact on us. If we don’t feel that we are in control of our decisions and of our deeds, we may lose also our sense of identity, meaning and purpose. For example, one of the factors that explain the constant presence of the Nordic Countries among the Happiest in the World is the high sense of autonomy and freedom that their citizens experience (World Happiness Report 2020[i]).

On a more individual level autonomy is also highly important in our daily lives.  The results of a study conducted at an old-age home[ii] showed that the participants in the study, who were given control over what kind of  plant to grow in their room and what movie to watch in weekend in the 18 month period after the study, had 2 times lower mortality rate than the other group, which did not have this choice. The reason for this is that autonomy is one of the 3 core psychological needs of people according to the Self-Determination Theory of developed by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (2017)[iii]. We need the sense of autonomy in order to be fully functioning people.

A year or so ago we were still very much in control (or so we thought) of our lives. Traveling, for work or for fun, getting together with friends, visiting concerts, going to the bar, going to work or to school and meeting new people. Then the first wave of COVID-19 crisis came and all the lock-downs and restrictions. We accepted them and dealt with them pretty well, because we thought it is going to be for a short time. And where we are now, a year later? Still locked at home (at least in many countries), still not much choice if and how we meet with people, where we can go, the world is still closed for us, the threat to our health still so ominous. Our hope still holds, but our strength to cope depletes. The main reason for this being the sense of losing control, the sense of losing autonomy.

In order to figure out how to REGAIN it let’s go back to the how we define it: “to feel that we, rather than others—are the authors of our own judgments and decisions”[iv] So let’s discuss some ways that we can claim back the authority over our own judgements and decisions. There is a long way and a short way to achieve it. The long way leads to the ultimate mastery over our sense of autonomy, but it also requires time and persistence. The short way gives us the Quick-Fixes that can give us immediate relief and results, which will provide the incentives for continuing walking the long way. So our advice: try them in combination for best results.

The Long Way: Develop Internal Control – Control over your thoughts and feelings. Here are three ways to achieving it:

  • Use emotion regulation techniques (find out more here )
  • Lead a healthy lifestyle: eat healthy, exercise more, sleep better.
  • Practice mindfulness (find out more here ) 

The Shorter Way: Regain the feeling of control over your daily life:

1.      Think about what aspects of your life you still have control over (what you eat, how you spend your free time, how much time you spend watching news or in the social media, how you dress, how much you exercise and s.o.) You will see that the list will not be so short.

2.      Make a decision, which of them you want to change for the better. For example reduce news time or Facebook time; exercise at least 20 min per day and s.o. Set 3 goals and make them SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-related). When you have achieved a goal, check it and be proud.

3.      Write weekly and daily plans of how you will spend your time: when you will wake up; when and how much you will exercise; when you will stop working. This will give you a sense of control.

4.      Dress up for the day. Every morning, instead of staying in your pajamas or slacks, get up a little earlier and dress-up. Put your make up if you are a woman or shave if you are a man. A little “Fake it till you make it” (the sense of control), won’t hurt.

5.      If you are working home office, probably you are saving some time for travel. Calculate how much it is and decide on what you want to spend it. Make it a deliberate decision, according to your principles, desires inclinations and not a decision dictated by the circumstances (ex. simply work more hours). You may decide to learn something new (a new skill, hobby, or take an online course), or to spend more time with your family. Check out every day or on a weekly basis if you have spent the designated time, the way you have decided and reward yourself at the end of each week if you have done so.

6.      Each week-end figure out at least one fun activity with other people (we cannot go to movies but we can watch a movie with our family or with friends over zoom, eat pop-corn and spicy chips as if in a movie theatre J ). Plan it like a special event and organize it. Take it as a challenge to your creativity.

7.      Last but not least draw a distinct line between work and leisure. For example: this room is for work and the rest are for leisure; or when I put on the work clothes I am working and when I get back into my slacks is time for rest. This will help you to psychologically detach from work and at the same time regain feeling of xontrol over your life.

From the following link you can download a worksheet that will help you to follow the above steps: "Regain Autonomy" Worksheet

Good luck! smile

[ii] Rodin, J., & Langer, E. J. (1977). Long-term effects of a control-relevant intervention with the institutionalized aged. Journal of personality and social psychology, 35(12), 897.
[iii] Ryan R. M., & Deci E. L. (2017). Self‐determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
[iv] Raj Raghunathan, (2016) “If You Are So Smart Why Aren’t You Happy”, Portfolio
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