Freedom of Choice, a Sense of Control, Autonomy and Happiness Are Closely Related

The founding fathers believed  that freedom was one of the three fundamental rights of God, along with life and the pursuit of happiness. These three rights are interrelated: not only does freedom, of course, depend on life, but the pursuit of happiness also depends on freedom.

In fact, it is proven that freedom and happiness are strongly correlated, and more significantly, several studies have shown that freedom causes happiness. In a famous 1976 experiment, psychologists in Connecticut gave residents on one floor of a nursing home the freedom to decide which night of the week would be “movie night,” as well as the freedom to choose and care for the plants on their floor. On another floor of the same nursing home, residents did not receive these choices and responsibilities. The first group of residents – no healthier or happier than the second when the experiment began – quickly showed greater alertness, more activity, and better mood. A year and a half later, they were still doing better, and even dying at half the rate of the residents on the other floor.

Happiness increases with freedom of choice

What does happiness research say about freedom of choice? Let’s look at the big picture first.

In a paper titled  "Development, Freedom, and Rising Happiness," published in 2008 by Ronald Inglehart & Co, the authors find that average self-reported happiness and life satisfaction (as measured by the World Values Survey) increased between 1981 and 2007 in 45 of 52 countries.

They attribute this worldwide increase in subjective well-being to people's increased sense of free choice and control over their lives, as reported on a scale of 1 to 10. Increased freedom of choice predicts increased happiness better than any other measure of happiness, such as income, democratization, social tolerance, etc.  As the authors state: "A rising sense of free choice is clearly the most significant and stable predictor of happiness and life satisfaction. It alone explains 30% of the observed changes in the subjective well-being index. The fact that people in most countries experienced a growing sense of free choice between 1981 and 2007 appears to be the key reason for the increase in subjective well-being."

Happiness grows with the perceived degree of internal control

"The locus of control" is a theory originated by Julian Rotter in 1959, which distinguishes between two types of individuals. Those who believe that control resides internally with them influenced by their own efforts and abilities, and those who believe that control resides externally with others, the situation or destiny. The former tend to be happier, more autonomous, and less stressed.

People with an internal locus  of control attribute the outcome of their choices and actions to internal factors and believe that they are the architects of their own destiny. Rotter describes the internal locus of control as follows: “The degree to which persons expect that a reinforcement or an outcome of their behavior is contingent on their own behavior or personal characteristics”

People with an external locus of control ascribe the results of their choices and actions to external factors, such as luck and fate. They tend to be more fatalistic and accepting. For Rotter, external locus of control is defined as: “The degree to which persons expect that a reinforcement or an outcome is a function of chance, luck, or fate, is under the control of powerful others, or is simply unpredictable”

Notice that the "locus of control" lies on a continuum. Both genetic factors and childhood experiences can influence a person's locus of control. In addition, it appears to evolve naturally with age. Middle-aged adults tend to have the highest internal locus of control, compared to the young and elderly.

Happiness increases with self-sufficiency

I believe that the freedom to choose our commitments – in a moral context – is essential to our happiness, as is the closely related principle of autonomy, which the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson refers to as "self-sufficiency”.

In "self-reliance", Waldo Emerson argues that polite society and its inherited obligations of obedience have a negative effect on personal growth. Instead, he believes that we should have the freedom to discover our true identity, achieve our true independence and discover our passion and purpose in life – the purpose that truly matters to us and justifies our existence.

Freedom and self-sufficiency are about the ability to exist without constant validation from others. As human beings, we’re highly impressionable. Finding opportunities to reflect will  help us discover what’s meaningful to us and prevent us from adopting someone else’s guiding principles as our own. It is dangerous to tie our sense of meaning and well-being to another person or object. When we focus on things that are beyond our control, we become restricted, dependent, and fragile.

The downside of this freedom that comes with self-sufficiency is that the full responsibility for our decisions and actions rests on our shoulders, with all the stress that this entails. The more responsibility we accept for our lives, the more control we will exercise over them and the more options we will have to choose from. Remember that mental health is a function of the alternatives available to us.

Another downside of self-sufficiency is that voluntary ordeals are often necessary. Some worthwhile endeavors are sometimes difficult, time-consuming and may not be enjoyable at all. They require sacrifice and the deferral of immediate gratification to gain a future benefit by giving up a present one of value. To succeed, we must sometimes negotiate with the future. This approach provides training ground for our minds. It builds resilience.

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