The Biggest Contributor To Happiness Might Surprise You

Psychology Says This is the Top Contributor to Happiness -- And here's how to foster it

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

According to a report by The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the number-one contributor to happiness in life is not money, popularity, good looks, or even a good sex life (too many…jokes…can’t pick…just…one).

It’s autonomy.

The report defines autonomy as: “the feeling that your life, its activities and habits, are self-chosen and self-endorsed.”

A University of Michigan study found that empowered employees report a high level of job satisfaction and organizational commitment, lower turnover, increased performance effectiveness, and increased motivation.

Relatedly, supervisors who reported higher levels of empowerment were seen by their subordinates as more innovative, upward influencing, and inspirational.

It just makes sense, doesn’t it? Think of how you feel when you’re experiencing the opposite — being micro-managed. You probably don’t need research to tell you that being empowered is crazy energizing.

But it takes work to give away work. Here are eight ways to grant autonomy intelligently:

  • Fulfill the foundational requirements

Ensure a baseline of trust, a practice of information sharing, and a willingness to delegate growth work, not just grunt work. Employees have to feel stretched and feel the influence they have to truly feel empowered.

It might feel scary to give autonomy on critical work. Do it anyway.

  • Craft an agreement for autonomy

It helps to formalize the rules of engagement and operation in the handover of power. The agreement should include a basic set of expectations for the work, a definition of what falls under the umbrella of autonomy, and clear success criteria.

  • Facilitate recipient readiness

Just because employees are empowered doesn’t mean they’re set up to succeed. They may have difficulty accepting the new responsibilities for fear they’ll be overmatched or because they view the new responsibilities as an unwanted added burden.

So ensure your employees are ready to accept the responsibility. Provide training and resources and discuss the benefits of their newfound autonomy. Ease the fears of accountability that can come with empowerment by ensuring they’re set up to win — and confident that they will.

  • Provide intrinsic and extrinsic reward

More work without more reward is rarely welcome. And even if the work must be done, the motivation might not exist to do it. So ensure that there are intrinsic and extrinsic rewards baked into the new work.

Good ol’ fashioned rewards and recognition for the added responsibility can serve as the extrinsic motivator. Intrinsic rewards might include helping the employee see how they can use the the newly transferred power to develop their leadership skills and decision-making capabilities.

  • Facilitate by assisting success versus avoiding failure

Mistakes will be made when employees are given autonomy — and then learning happens. So don’t react poorly to their mistakes. Act as a facilitator, not a fixer, and allow delegated decisions to stick.

Avoid incessant oversight. The minute you start acting like you want people to avoid any miscues, the empowerment itself has failed.

Instead, shift to a mindset of assisting success. Help your empowered employees move quickly past mistakes as needed, and then turn your energy back to finding ways to help them succeed.

  • Construct communication loops

Breakdowns in communication can mean a breakdown in trust between you and the empowered employee. Autonomous employees shouldn’t go off the grid, but instead should find ways to report back regularly on progress.

Checkpoints should be established to provide updates, encouragement, help, training in teachable moments, and to avoid operational drift whereby work migrates away from previously aligned objectives and parameters.

Those working autonomously can’t forget to check in. You can’t just delegate and check out, either. Communication needs to remain a two-way street.

  • Covet communication loops

Communicate with your empowered employees in a manner such that they actually come to covet the communication loops in place over time, viewing them as helpful and rewarding.

Inquires? Sure. Inquisitions? No.

  • Tie a measurement tether

Periodically review progress on success criteria. It will keep you informed and the empowered motivated as they have tangible evidence they’re on track to hitting their goal.

    Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

    You might also like...


    What Psychology Says Contributes to a Person’s Happiness

    by Jason Aaron Bragg
    Courtesy of 
jayk7 / Getty Images
    Beating Burnout//

    Research Shows Managers Are at an Increased Risk of Stress and Burnout — Here’s How to Fight Back

    by Jessica Hicks
    Courtesy of Kotenko Oleksandr / Shutterstock

    What We Can Learn About Happiness from Iceland

    by Jill Suttie, Psy.D.

    Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

    Thrive Global
    People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.


    We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.