Psychological needs: a study of what makes life satisfying.
One current influential approach in social psychology is self-determination theory (SDT; Ryan & Deci, 2000). This paper examines an early test of this theory. We elaborated on a study by Sheldon, Elliot, Kim, and Kasser (2001), in which undergraduate students were asked to identify the most satisfying event that they had experienced in the past 2 months. Their responses were coded according to the psychological needs that were met during those events. In addition to the ten needs tested by Sheldon et al., we included compassionate love. The importance and universality of the three psychological needs posited by SDT (autonomy, competence, relatedness) were supported. Compassionate love was not found to be universal in that business majors did not report its importance but psychology majors did.

Article Type:
Satisfaction (Research)
Self-determination theory (Psychology) (Analysis)
Robak, Rostyslaw W.
Nagda, Poonam R.
Pub Date:
Name: North American Journal of Psychology Publisher: North American Journal of Psychology Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 North American Journal of Psychology ISSN: 1527-7143
Date: March, 2011 Source Volume: 13 Source Issue: 1
Event Code: 310 Science & research
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number:
Full Text:
Self-determination theory (SDT) is a theory of motivation that focuses on the degree to which people are intrinsically motivated and internally regulate their behaviors and activities (Deci, Eghrari, Patrick, & Leone, 1994; Deci & Ryan, 1985). SDT is based on organismic meta-theory and assumes that individuals have an innate tendency toward growth. SDT not only helps to identify factors in the social environment that are conducive to satisfaction of the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, but also identifies the factors that are detrimental to this positive growth (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Autonomy is the need to pursue activities in which individuals are motivated internally and experience joy as a result of having personal choice (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Jang, Kim, Reeve, & Ryan, 2009; Reeve, Nix, & Hamm, 2003). Competence is the need to effectively interact with one's environment and maximize challenges, thus gaining more skills (Deci, 1975). Relatedness is the need to establish relationships in which one feels close, cared for, and secure (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Deci & Ryan, 1991).

Previous research has shown that satisfaction of two human needs competence and autonomy--relates to emotional well-being (Sheldon, Ryan, & Reis, 1996). Such research has demonstrated that the degree of satisfaction of the basic needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness determines the variations or fluctuations in daily emotional well-being (Reis, Sheldon, Gable, Roscoe, & Ryan, 2000). In a cross-cultural attempt to test the model of SDT and examine cross cultural generalizability, researchers found that Korean students function well in a social environment that encourages growth of these three psychological needs. The results of the study support the idea of the universality of these needs (Jang, et al., 2009).

Sheldon, Elliot, Kasser, and Kim (2001) created an interesting methodology for determining which psychological needs are most powerful. They asked students in introductory psychology classes at the University of Missouri (Study 1) and South Korean students at Hanyang University in South Korea (Study 2) to write down the most satisfying event that they had experienced in their lives during the last month. Next, the participants were asked to rate their responses on 30 descriptive statements of need-satisfaction on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 5 (very much). Thus, their questionnaire was composed of items that described what made the satisfying event so satisfying.

The 30 items in the Sheldon et al. (2001) study were grouped into 10 categories of needs. They were Self-Esteem, Self Actualization, Physical Thriving, and Security based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory; Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness based on Self-Determination Theory; Pleasure / Stimulation based on behaviorist general principles of reward and punishment and Epstein's cognitive-experiential self-theory (1990) which specifies pleasure as one of the four needs that all individuals must satisfy and Money and Popularity based on the evolutionary or adaptationist perspective that assumes an evolutionary advantage to individuals who achieve material dominance (Buss, 1997). The results of the Sheldon et al. (2001) study indicated that autonomy, competence, relatedness and self-esteem emerged as the top four psychological needs and were considered as most important in understanding what is so satisfying about a satisfying event.

In the present study, we tested the findings of the Sheldon et al. (2001) study. In addition, we also studied an 11th need, Compassionate Love, along with the 10 other psychological needs in the Sheldon et al. study. Sprecher and Fehr (2005) have done considerable research on compassionate love. Compassionate love is defined as an attitude toward others containing feelings, cognitions, and behaviors focused on caring, concern, tenderness, support, and helping (Sprecher & Fehr, 2005). Underwood (2009) has said that terms such as "agape" and "unconditional love" can be used to describe this kind of love. The present study included compassionate love because of its possible universal nature. Underwood asserts that it is a central feature of many religious traditions and has been studied as "agape" or "unconditional love" in the past (Post, Underwood, Schloss & Hurlbut, 2002).

Sprecher and Fehr (2005) demonstrated that compassionate love is positively associated with prosocial behavior and that religious and spiritually-minded people had higher levels of compassionate love (Graber and Mitcham, 2009). They also found that compassionate love and empathy are relatively different from each other and that compassionate love for a person to whom one is close also means providing social support to that specific person. Another study conducted by Sprecher and Fehr (2006) hypothesized that people would experience benefit, such as a rise in self-esteem, by giving compassionate love; the results of their study supported their hypothesis.

Finally, previous research has shown that satisfaction with life is generally related to individuals' feelings of self-esteem. Diener and Diener (1995), for example, found that in their sample of over 13,000 college students across 31 nations, self-esteem and satisfaction with life were positively correlated (+.47). In the present study, we attempted to confirm (or disconfirm) this finding and also to examine what psychological needs can predict self-esteem.


In the present study, the first hypothesis was that the psychological needs of autonomy, competence, relatedness, and self-esteem would be the four most endorsed needs, as found in the study by Sheldon et al. (2001). Previous studies have indicated that experiencing compassionate love for others may lead to an increase in an individual's well-being (Fingerman, 2004). The second hypothesis was that compassionate love would be positively correlated with scores on the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS; Sprecher & Fehr, 2006). The third hypothesis was that there would be a positive correlation between self-esteem and satisfaction with life scores (Diener & Diener, 1995). Our fourth hypothesis was that, since psychological needs are supposedly universal, self-determination theory would predict that such minor differences as student's major fields of study would not affect their importance of psychological needs.



Participants were 449 undergraduate students in a mid-sized university in the New York City area. They ranged in age from 18 to 39. Women made up 64.5% of our sample. The racial/ethnic makeup was: White/Caucasian: 65%; Black/African American: 14.5%; Hispanic/ Latino(a): 9.6%; Asian: 7.3%; American Indian/Alaska Native: 0.9%; Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander: 0.4%; "Other": 2.4%. Of these students, 190 were self-reported business majors and 142 were psychology majors, 117 were other majors (of which 9 were undecided). They were relatively evenly distributed across classes (first-year: 93; sophomores: 85; juniors: 140; seniors: 122; and 9 students did not report their year in school).


Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS). This instrument is a five-item survey that asks the respondent to rate, on a 7-point Likert-type scale, how much they agree or disagree with each statement. "In most ways my life is close to my ideal" is a sample statement of this scale. The SWLS was developed to assess the respondent's overall life satisfaction and has shown strong internal reliability and moderate temporal stability (Pavot & Diener, 1993). These same authors reported a coefficient alpha of .87 for the scale and a 2-month test-retest stability coefficient of .82.

Most Satisfying Event Measure. At the beginning of the questionnaire, participants read the following:

"Consider the past two months of your life. Think back to the important occurrences of this period of time. What I want you to do is bring to mind the single most personally satisfying event that you experienced during the last two months. I am being vague about the definition of "satisfying event" on purpose, because I want you to use your own definition. Think of "satisfying" in whatever way makes sense to you. Take a couple of minutes to be sure to come up with a very impactful experience and write it down below:"

A few samples of events that participants came up with were: "Ending the relationship with my significant other;" "being accepted into college with a scholarship," and "volunteered services at a children's hospital with my older sister."

Participants were next asked to make ratings about the event i.e. need-satisfaction items using Likert-type rating scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (very much) scale. All descriptions began with the same stem: "During this event I felt ..."

Demographic questionnaire. Five questions constituted the demographic questionnaire. These were: gender, age, student status (year in college/graduate school), undergraduate major (business, psychology, other, and undecided), racial and ethnic self-identification.


Prospective participants were recruited in various course sections of psychology courses, business and other courses during the Fall 2009 and Spring 2010 semesters. All such groups were asked by a trained research assistant to complete a packet of questionnaires for a research study of satisfying events in life. Participants were administered the questionnaires in group (class) sessions of 20-25 participants each. The experimenter explained that she would be handing out a packet of brief surveys consisting of demographic information and two short questionnaires.

Informed consent was given and it was explained that participation would be voluntary and would take no more than 15 minutes. There were no penalties for declining to participate and no rewards for participating. Volunteers were treated in accordance with the "Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct" (American Psychological Association, 2002, 2010).


We rank ordered the mean scores of the 11 psychological needs from most strongly endorsed to least. Differences between these means were measured using paired-sample t-tests. The need that was most strongly endorsed as being associated with satisfying events in people's lives was compassionate love. Relatedness and self-esteem were tied for second place. The third highest endorsed need was autonomy; fourth was competence. The least endorsed need was that for money. The Pearson product-moment correlation between scores on compassionate love and relatedness was +.32 (p < .001). While this correlation is highly significant, it represents only a small amount of shared variance between the two variables and thus these can be seen as separate needs. Table 1 presents the rank-ordered means (and standard deviations) for all of the 11 psychological needs.

To test our second hypothesis that compassionate love is related to satisfaction with life, we calculated Pearson product-moment correlations (two-tailed, significance at .01 level) between the participants' 11 psychological needs and their Satisfaction With Life (SWL) scores. Table 2 shows these correlations. Although there is a significant positive correlation between compassionate love and SWL, this was, in fact, the lowest correlation of all. The strongest correlation was found between SWL scores and self-esteem.

An interesting set of strong correlations is evident between the need for Meaning / Self-Actualization and all of the other needs. Meaning is significantly positively correlated with all the other psychological needs. These correlations are presented in Table 3. The lowest correlation is that between the need for meaning/self-actualization and that for money.

We addressed our fourth hypothesis (possible differences between business majors and psychology majors) by performing a multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) with undergraduate majors (business and psychology) as the independent variable and each of the needs as the dependent variables. If psychological needs are universal, then belonging to one group (psychology major) or another (business major or "other" major) should not make a difference in their importance.

The MANOVA showed that there was an overall group difference (Wilks' [LAMBDA] = .88, F (22, 808) = 2.37, p < .001). The multivariate if was .06. Analyses of variances (ANOVA) on each of the eleven dependent variables (needs) were conducted as follow-up tests to the MANOVA. Using the Bonferroni method, each ANOVA was tested at the .005 level in order to adjust for Type I error, given the large number of dependent variables. Only the ANOVAs on the meaning/self-actualization and compassionate love scores were significant (meaning: F (2, 414) = 5.60, p = .004, [[eta].sup.2] = .03; compassionate love: F (2, 414) = 7.01, p < .001, [[eta].sup.2] = .03.

Post-hoc analyses to the ANOVAs for meaning and compassionate love consisted of conducting pair-wise comparisons to find which group differences (psychology versus business or psychology versus "other" majors) affected the scores most strongly. The differences between psychology majors and both business and other majors were significant for compassionate love and for meaning (see Table 4).

Given the surprising top ranking of compassionate love (see Table 1) and the strong correlation of self-esteem with SWL, we conducted two further analyses. First, we performed a median-split of the compassionate love scores. This allowed us to analyze differences between high compassionate love scorers and low compassionate love scorers on satisfaction with life and on the other need scores.

We performed a MANOVA with the two levels of compassionate love as the independent variable and SWLS scores and each of the other needs' scores as the dependent variables. The MANOVA showed that there was an overall group difference (Wilks' [LAMBDA] = .80, F (11, 402) = 9.12, p < .001). The multivariate [[eta].sup.2] was .20. Analyses of variances (ANOVA) on each of the 11 dependent variables were conducted as follow-up tests to the MANOVA. Each ANOVA was tested at the .005 level. The ANOVAs on the following were significant: autonomy, competence, relatedness, meaning, security, self-esteem, and influence (autonomy: F (1, 412) = 9.33, p + .002; competence: F (1, 412) = 16.14, p = .001; relatedness: F (1, 412) = 17.77, p = .001; meaning: F (1, 412) = 41.21, p = .001; security: F (1, 412) = 17.74 , p = .001; self-esteem: F (1, 412) = 43.96, p = .001; influence: F (1, 412) = 70.00, p = .001). Table 5 contains the means and standard deviations of scores on each of the needs that were significantly different for high and low compassionate love scorers.

Finally, we performed a stepwise multiple regression analysis to evaluate how well the other need measures predicted self-esteem. The predictors were the other ten needs scores, and the criterion variable was self-esteem. The linear combination of five need measures was significantly related to the self-esteem measure, F (1, 411) = 9.79, p = .002. A five-factor model accounted for 41% of the variance of the self esteem scores. Those five factors were: meaning (23.5%), autonomy (8.3%), influence (6.9%), physical thriving (1.5%), and compassionate love (1.4%). Table 6 presents the stepwise multiple regression model summary.


The present results replicate the findings of Sheldon et al. (2001) to a large extent. We found that the three psychological needs, autonomy, competence, and relatedness defined by self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), are clearly in the top four needs that are met during the satisfying events in life. Additionally, the need for self-esteem is in these top four, as Sheldon et al. had found.

A surprising finding was that the need for expressing compassionate love was the most important need met during the most satisfying events in people's lives. This is startling, given the range of needs that can be addressed during one's satisfying and happy moments. It is even more striking when one considers the concurrent finding that the need for money is at the bottom of the list, at least for our present sample. Our sample was made up of college students. Perhaps this finding is a function of the idealism of students and might not be replicated if we were to do this study with a sample of older adults.

We had expected that expressing compassionate love would be strongly related to overall satisfaction with life. Satisfaction with one's life in general has often been associated with happiness (Diener & Diener, 1995). We did, indeed, find a significant positive correlation between these two variables. In general, as people's expressions of love increased so did their life satisfaction. However, although this correlation was statistically significant, it was not high. Instead, we found that other factors were all the more strongly related to life satisfaction. In other words, our first two findings, taken together, seem to indicate that while compassionate love may be one of the top needs that are met during satisfying events, it is not as strongly related to overall life satisfaction and happiness.

Another interesting set of correlations has to do with meaning/self-actualization. We found that this variable is highly correlated with most of the other needs. Money and physical thriving had no meaningful significance. Such high correlations with other variables often indicate that this particular variable is really a part of many of the others.

We had hypothesized that the psychological needs we studied would be universal. They would be important for people regardless of such things as their majors in college. Self-determination theory, in particular, states that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are universal needs.

Although our findings did confirm this hypothesis for most needs, we found significant differences between business majors and psychology majors in the importance of compassionate love and meaning. Psychology majors reported that these needs were a part of the satisfying events in their lives much more often than did business majors. These findings seem to indicate that compassionate love and meaning may not be universal needs but may be much more indicative of specific styles of life. For example, do people in specific areas of psychology like counseling tend to have a greater need to express compassionate love? Further research will have to be done in order to answer such questions as gender and ethnic differences.

We wanted to know how individuals who had a high level of compassionate love differ from those who scored low on this need. When we transformed this variable into a dichotomous one, we found that high compassionate love scorers tended to derive satisfaction from events that involved their self-determination needs as well as their self-esteem, meaning, influence, and security needs.

Finally, our findings were also similar to Sheldon et al. (2001) in that self-esteem seemed to be an important factor in satisfying events. It was highly positively correlated with both satisfaction with life and with meaning. A considerable body of literature has accrued about the constituents and bases of self-esteem (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 1995; Ryan & Brown, 2003). Our multiple regression analysis pointed out that the three factors of meaning, autonomy, and influence accounted for almost 40% of the variance of self-esteem scores. As a whole, our findings show the importance of self-esteem needs in the satisfying events in life and the centrality of meaning/self-actualization needs in many of the other significant psychological needs, especially self-esteem.

In summary, the present study has found that self-determination needs seem to be among the most important psychological needs among college-aged adults. They also seem to be universal. Compassionate love appears to be a very important need in people's lives. In our sample, it was the most important, but it did not appear to be universal. It may be much more important for people who choose altruistic styles of life such as might be found in clinical psychology and counseling professions. Finally, the need for meaning may be a significant component of many other psychological needs and should be further studied. While the present study generally confirmed the importance of self-determination theory-based needs, a significant limitation was the lack of differentiation between the two types of high self-esteem (authentic and defensive) as noted by Ryan & Brown (2003).

Additional work in this field is needed. The same study should be done with older adults. Furthermore, it would be instructive to examine the relative importance of these needs within such clinical populations as recovering alcoholics and addicts and within such DSM populations as the clinically depressed, and individuals identified with anxiety disorders.


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Rostyslaw W. Robak


Poonam R. Nagda

Pace University

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Rostyslaw W. Robak, Department of Psychology, Pace University, 861 Bedford Road, Pleasantville, NY, 10570
TABLE 1 Means and Standard Deviations of 11 Psychological Needs

Variables                         M          SD

Compassionate Love            12.72 (a)     2.40
Relatedness                   12.38 (b)     3.58
Self Esteem                   12.31 (b)     2.30
Autonomy                      11.99 (c)     2.20
Competence                    11.63 (d)     2.50
Meaning/self actualization    11.13 (e)     2.79
Influence/Popularity          11.03 (e)     2.63
Pleasure/Stimulation          10.27 (f)     2.92
Security                       9.97 (f)     2.70
Physical Thriving              9.56 (g)     3.29
Money                          9.23 (g)     3.61

Note. Means not sharing subscripts are significantly different from
each other at p <.05.

TABLE 2 Correlations Between Psychological Needs and Satisfaction
With Life

Variables                         SWL

Self-esteem                      .51 *
Autonomy                         .38 *
Security                         .37 *
Competence                       .32 *
Money                            .31 *
Meaning/Self-actualization       .30 *
Physical Thriving                .29 *
Pleasure/Stimulation             .29 *
Influence/Popularity             .26 *
Relatedness                      .22 *
Compassionate Love               .22 *

* p < .01

TABLE 3 Correlations Between Meaning/Self Actualization and Other
Psychological Needs

                         Need for Meaning/
Variables               Self Actualization

Self-esteem                    .48 *
Autonomy                       .46 *
Competence                     .41 *
Influence/Popularity           .39 *
Relatedness                    .36 *
Pleasure/Stimulation           .36 *
Compassionate Love             .35 *
Security                       .34 *
Physical Thriving              .21 *
Money                          .18 *

* p < .01

TABLE 4 Means and Standard Deviations of 11 Psychological Needs
for the Three Undergraduate Majors

                    Psychology           Business

Variables          M        SD         M        SD

Comp.Love *      13.42     2.01      12.47     2.48
Relatedness      12.91     5.18      12.17     2.51
Self-esteem      12.41     2.31      12.54     2.08
Autonomy         11.90     2.20      12.14     2.08
Competence       11.70     2.40      11.65     2.68
Meaning *        11.83     2.60      11.01     2.57
Influence        11.41     2.60      11.21     2.64
Pleasure         10.00     2.87      10.62     2.87
Security         10.07     2.59      10.00     2.66
Thriving          9.16     3.38      10.05     3.22
Money             8.98     2.98       9.45     4.13


Variables          M        SD

Comp.Love *      12.53     2.59
Relatedness      12.24     2.94
Self-esteem      11.98     2.56
Autonomy         11.96     2.50
Competence       11.62     2.46
Meaning *        10.70     3.21
Influence        10.50     2.73
Pleasure         10.09     3.19
Security          9.79     3.04
Thriving          9.43     3.34
Money             9.31     3.66

* differences between psychology and both others are significant
(p < .005)

TABLE 5 Means and Standard Deviations of Scores for Psychological
Needs and SWL: High and Low Compassionate Love Scorers

                    High              Low
               Compassionate     Compassionate

Variables       M        SD       M        SD     ANOVA

Influence     12.16     2.43    10.12     2.52    F(1,412)=70.00 **
Meaning       12.07     2.60    10.37     2.77    F(1,412)=41.21 **
Relatedness   13.21     2.07    11.71     4.58    F(1,412)=17.77 **
Self Esteem   13.09     1.90    11.66     2.43    F(1,412)=43.96 **
Security      10.55     2.77     9.44     2.61    F(1,412)=17.74 **
Competence    12.16     2.53    11.18     2.46    F(1,412)=16.14 **
Autonomy      12.36     2.24    11.69     2.18    F(1,412)=9.33 *
SWLS          25.96     5.49    24.96     5.53    F(1,412)=7.62
Pleasure      10.69     2.94     9.90     2.95    F(1,412)=7.32
Thriving       9.89     3.35     9.30     3.28    F(1,412)=3.26
Money          9.70     3.40     8.86     3.87    F(1,412)=5.46

* significant at p < .002 ** significant at p < .001

TABLE 6 Multiple Regression Model Summary for Predictors of

Variables        B        SE      [beta]    [R.sup.2]

Meaning       .16 *      .04       .20        .24
Autonomy      .29 *      .04       .28        .08
Influence     .1         .04       .21        .07
Thriving      .09        .03       .13        .02
Comp.Love     .13 **     .04       .14        .01

* p < .001 ** p < .002
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