The Three Pillars of a Fulfilling Life (at Work and at Home)

October 26, 2018 | motivationWorks | HCI
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If you’re like most people, you aren’t fully engaged at work. Not in the way you’d love to be. A 2016 study by Gallup shows that only 4 percent of the world’s adult working population believes they have a great job.

Maybe you feel like you’re just given orders from above. Perhaps you can’t see the value in what you do. Maybe you feel stagnated in your professional growth. Or most of your co-workers are jerks. Or perhaps you’re ready to shout, “All of the above!” It’s tragic that these kinds of problems are so common. You deserve better.

We All Want to Thrive and Be Happy

Over the last few decades, while business leaders have continued to spend and struggle, futilely trying to move the needle on employee engagement, behavioral scientists have been studying the specific experiences that cause people to thrive and love what they do. We figured it out. And it can be put to work for you.

Research on Self-Determination Theory — the psychological framework we founded almost 50 years ago that has now grown into the world’s leading framework for understanding motivation, engagement, and well-being — shows that there are three key experiences that bring fulfillment to our work and empower us to thrive in everything we do.

Three Core Psychological Needs

Across thousands of empirical studies, three core psychological needs consistently emerge as universal and powerful drivers of personal fulfillment, engagement, and performance.


Autonomy is our core need to truly value what we’re doing. To be happy at work, we need to feel like we are working toward goals we believe in — even when the tasks involved aren’t terribly exciting. By contrast, when we feel pressured, controlled, or manipulated, our autonomy sags and happiness declines.


Relatedness is our core need to feel that we truly matter to those around us, and that they matter to us. When we aren’t connected to others in this way, we feel alienated and less fulfilled.


Mastery is our core need to feel successful and effective in the things we do. It’s fulfilled when we feel like we’re growing in our skills, ability, and knowledge. But when we feel like we’re ineffective or stuck, we disengage and feel deflated.

These needs aren’t just a “millennial thing.” They’re a human thing. We all share these needs, and the evidence shows that just like physical needs of hunger and thirst, we all have these three basic psychological needs, regardless of age, race, gender, or class. When these needs are fulfilled, we thrive. But when they’re deprived or thwarted, we suffer.

See an infographic of the three needs.

Fulfilling These Needs Leads to Fulfillment at Work

Because fulfillment of these needs is a deep and intrinsic satisfaction, they are the key to awesome, thriving, and engaged company cultures. And because this is a science, supporting employees’ basic psychological needs is not simply an aspirational idea: We have abundant evidence demonstrating you can measure and positively impact these experiences, thereby deepening engagement and performance. A recent study showed that within 72 workplace studies across seven countries, support for employees’ core need fulfillment positively drives employee engagement, performance, well-being, and retention.

Simply put, by using a psychological framework to understand basic psychological needs, to measure them in your organization, and to deploy evidence-based initiatives to support them, you can finally increase employee engagement and unlock a happier, more productive workforce.

As in Work, Also in Life

Not only does fulfilling these needs lead to more success and fulfillment at work, but also in life. Hundreds of studies on Self-Determination Theory demonstrate benefits in areas like:

  • Greater enjoyment of sports, exercise, and leisure
  • Deeper learning
  • More fulfilling relationships
  • Greater physical and mental health

In other words, it’s a model for living that keeps on giving — both inside and outside the workplace. And because everyone in the world wants a job they love, by emphasizing these core psychological needs as the heart of your culture, you’ll be laying a proven foundation to build upon.

Using a Psychological Framework

You don’t have to become a behavioral scientist to put all of this to work. We created Self-Determination Theory and the need fulfillment framework almost 50 years ago. Now we’ve created motivationWorks to empower everyone in your organization to experience greater core need fulfillment at work. It measures what matters and provides each person customized insights and effective actions that create awesome experiences.

Contact motivationWorks to learn more.