Personal Development

3 Basic Psychological Needs All Humans Share: An Overview

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you ever wondered why you do the things you do?

drives you to pursue a certain career path?

Why do
you invest in relationships?

motivates you to achieve mastery in your field of work or study?

answer is – needs.

are the driving force behind our every action and decision. Whether we’re
talking about our personal, social, or professional life, there’s always a core
psychological need that prompts us to take action and achieve the life we
believe will bring us happiness and fulfillment.

did you know there’s a psychological theory that seeks to explain human
motivation and the quest for happiness by looking at our core needs?

we’re not talking about basic needs (food, water, shelter); we’re talking about
the psychological needs that shape our personality and decisions.

When I first read about Self-Determination Theory, I felt like I discovered a lost gem of psychology. In my opinion, this theory offers a simple and elegant blueprint for authentic happiness.

What is a Need?

essence, a need refers to something that is required or wanted. In a way,
“needs” is one of those particular concepts that we’re all familiar with even
though it’s difficult to put into words. It’s something we all share and know
on a personal level, a universal human feature that defines our existence and

are behind every goal we set, every decision we make, and every action we take. 

invest in our skills because we need to feel competent, we hang out with people
because we need to feel connected, and we move out of our parents’ home because
we crave autonomy and freedom.

safety needs | physiological needs | social needs
According to psychologists, the key to emotional well being, life satisfaction, and success is the fulfillment of our psychological needs.

Psychologists believe our psychological needs hold the key to emotional well being, life satisfaction, and success. Many of the emotional difficulties we struggle with have something to do with unfulfilled needs.

self-determination theory doesn’t focus on the effects of unfulfilled needs but
rather the amazing potential that we can achieve once we dedicate our lives to
the fulfillment of our core psychological needs.

For example, one paper suggests that the fulfillment of basic psychological needs (competence, connection, and autonomy) can improve students’ subjective well-being.

what exactly happens when you decide to pursue your needs? How will your life
change once you give up on chasing other people’s dreams and prioritize your
needs, above all else?  

Needs are the Pathway to Authentic Happiness

For many of us, happiness and life satisfaction are the ultimate goals. But each person has his/her definition of happiness. Each of us knows exactly how a satisfying life should look like.

strive for professional success, while others are looking for the comfort of a
healthy family. Some wish to be the visionaries of their time while others want
to be the best parents, and some want to achieve both.

The point is, happiness comes in many shapes and sizes, but according to self-determination theory, there’s one guaranteed way to achieve it – by fulfilling three fundamental psychological needs.

fulfilling these needs isn’t a one-time job, but a lifelong journey. In other
words, our core psychological needs are the driving force behind every project,
relationship, or goal that we choose to pursue.

once the fulfillment of these goals satisfies our core needs, we experience true
happiness. The fact that we can be in control of our lives and pursue whichever
goals we believe are the right for us places happiness into our own hands – and
that’s empowering!

Long story short, needs are the pathway to authentic happiness because they’re powerful enough to inspire and motivate us, but flexible enough to allow us to find a personal version of happiness.     

Self-Determination Theory and Psychological Needs

theory revolves around three fundamental needs – competence, connection, and

According to its founders, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, human beings achieve their true potential when they fulfill these three fundamental needs. In other words, the need for competence, connection, and autonomy motivates us to change, adapt, and grow.

though we are often motivated by external factors (money, status, prizes), our
universal desire for growth is what inspires us from within. And growth can
only be achieved through our core psychological needs.

core psychological needs | maslows hierarchy of needs | esteem needs
Self-determination gives you control over your life and puts you in charge of finding authentic happiness.

What started as a theory on human motivation ended up becoming a recipe for authentic fulfillment and happiness. But as you can probably imagine, becoming self-determined takes work and a shift in mindset.

who are high in self-determination believe they are in control of their actions
and decisions, which makes them proactive. In other words, they take risks, own
their mistakes, and are confident in their ability to create the future they

know that failure is part of growth, and they don’t allow it to put an end to
their journey toward personal and professional success.

From an organizational perspective, research suggests that self-determination theory provides a framework for promoting autonomous motivation, performance, and wellness.

short, self-determination gives you control over your life and puts you in
charge of finding authentic happiness.

take a closer look at the fundamental needs we should pursue to become
self-determined individuals:

1. Competence

The need for competence refers to our abilities and skillset. Each of us strives to gain mastery in a given field of work or study; to become good at something and deliver actual results.

what happens when we invest in our skillset? We gain the confidence we need to
put our skills to good use and achieve our goals. We become competent and
motivated to pursue happiness and create the life we’ve always dreamed of

short, competence provides the tools we need to achieve personal and
professional growth.

2. Connection

know for a fact that humans are social creatures that thrive in groups. One of
the reasons why we climbed to the top of the food chain is that we were smart
enough to collaborate and evolve as a group.

As a result, each of us experiences a profound need for connection. We all wish to form attachments and experience that pleasant sense of belonging.

we’re talking about friendships, romantic relationships, or business
partnerships, every bond we forge with another human is motivated by our need
for connection.

3. Autonomy

The need
for autonomy reflects our desire for freedom. The kind of freedom that makes us
feel in control of our actions, decisions, and behaviors.

Knowing that you have control over who you are and who you want to become is a powerful feeling that cultivates optimism and motivates us to pursue our goals.

what is the definition of psychological needs | what are the six psychological needs | what are the 5 basic needs
Having autonomy over your happiness and well-being can help you gain a sense of clarity. Which means that you know exactly which path will take you to a happier life.

you feel like you have autonomy over your happiness and well-being, you gain a
sense of clarity. In other words, you know exactly which path will take you to
a happier life.

story short, each of us has an innate desire (or need) to be free and explore
all sorts of possibilities. It’s part of the reason why we’ve grown and
developed as a society.

Ways to Fulfill Your Need for Competence

Invest in your skills

Investing in your skills is one of the fundamental ways in which you can satisfy your need for competence.

taking the time to sharpen your skills or develop new ones, you make the first
step towards becoming a competent individual. And I’m not just talking about
work or school.

idea is to get to a point where you feel competent at something. For example,
you can satisfy your need for competence by being a good cook for your family,
even though you’re not a chef.

But before
you can prove your competence, you must be patient and determined enough to do
the hard work – to read, study, exercise, and train.

Take risks

because you’ve sharpened your skills doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly feel
competent. As I said earlier, competence is built on both theory and

But putting
your skills to use involves a certain amount of risk, and that can generate anxiety.
It’s one of the reasons why you might refuse an opportunity even though you
might be competent enough to handle it.

only way to know – and succeed in satisfying your need for competence – is by
putting your skills to the test.

Learn how to handle failure

what happens when you test your skills and realize you might not be competent

I think knowing how to handle failure is just as important as having the courage to take risks. Just because you failed at something you thought you were good at, doesn’t mean you can label yourself as incompetent.

in mind that fulfilling your need for competence is about learning, trying,
failing, and repeating this cycle until you succeed. And that’s when you’ll
experience authentic happiness.

Ways to Fulfill Your Need for Connection

Practice empathy

is one of the foundations of authentic human connections and healthy
relationships. This ability help you understand what the person in front of you
is going through, thus allowing you to come us with an appropriate reaction.

When it comes to fulfilling your need for connection, you need empathy is you wish to forge meaningful interactions with the people around you.

core psychological needs | psychological needs pdf | psychological needs of a patient
One of the foundations of authentic human connections and healthy relationships is empathy.

Next time you have a conversation with a friend or family member, try to look beyond words and discover the emotion that the other person is looking to share with you.

Be a good listener

Being a good listener means being an empathic listener. In other words, you listen because you wish to understand, not just to have something to say when it’s your turn to speak.

If you
offer an empathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on, others will trust you enough
to ‘open up’ and invite you into their words. And that’s the moment when you
can establish
a real connection
with them.

Be curious

are many ways in which we can fulfill our need for connection – from
strengthening the relationships you already enjoy to cultivating new ones.

plays a significant role when it comes to expanding your social circles and
satisfying your need for connection. It’s what prompts you to engage in
conversations when you’re at a party.

curiosity motivates you to ask the right questions not because you’re looking
for something specific, but because you’re interested in knowing the person in
front of you.

Ways to Fulfill Your Need for Autonomy

Do what you’re passionate about

As I
said before, autonomy means freedom, the freedom to do whatever you’re
passionate about (if it doesn’t negatively impact others!).

simplest way to fulfill your need for autonomy is by pursuing a job, hobby, or
activity that you’re genuinely interested in.

you invest your time and energy in something
that you’re passionate about
, good
results will soon follow. That will give you a sense of confidence and control
that motivates you to do more and become more.

Don’t be afraid to explore

again, curiosity proves to be a valuable tool when it comes to pursuing our
core psychological needs and, ultimately, a happier life.

exploring new opportunities – both in your personal and professional life – you
test your boundaries and limits. In other words, you understand yourself better
by understanding what is within your control and what’s not.

Make yourself a priority

Lastly, always remember to make yourself a priority. And not just for the sake of satisfying your need for autonomy.

yourself first helps you prioritize your needs and goals above everything else.
Only when you will have fulfilled your core needs will you be mentally and
emotionally strong enough to help others.

gives you the power to shape your future and discover your version of a happy

Final Thoughts on Psychological Needs

story short, self-determination theory offers an interesting perspective on human
motivation and personal development.

an elegant system to revolves around our three fundamental needs – competence,
connection, and autonomy.

If you
focus your personal and professional endeavors on fulfilling these needs, you
can make happiness last for a lifetime.

For more tips on how to cultivate a happier life, check out Happier Human: 53 Science-Backed Habits to Increase Your Happiness.

even though we all share three core psychological needs, each of us has their
way of pursuing them. That means there’s one path to happiness for every person
on this planet.

Have you found yours? If you need some help finding your purpose, start with these posts:

what are psychological needs | 3 basic psychological needs | importance of psychological needs

Alexander Draghici is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, CBT practitioner, and content writer for various mental health websites. His work focuses mainly on strategies designed to help people manage and prevent two of the most common emotional problems – anxiety and depression.

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