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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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Rostyslaw W. Robak
Poonam R. Nagda
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
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
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
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
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