If you’re feeling the weight of today’s pressures and responsibilities on your mind, you’re not alone. According to the latest reports, there’s been an increase in mental health challenges in the last decade (Stats Canada 2023 report, American Psychological Association 2023 article). It appears that more people are experiencing problems such as stress, anxiety, depression, chronic illness, and financial issues. Poor mental health and stress can cast a shadow over every area of our lives, which is why it’s essential to prioritize and address it.
Having good mental well-being empowers us to face life’s challenges and responsibilities more effectively. It allows us to enjoy more of our lives while we work towards improving problem-areas.
In this blog post, we’ll explore three core mental requirements that are essential for your mental well-being. These needs are grounded in evidence-based research and are universally required to have good mental health and to thrive in life. We’ll go over them one by one along with an action-step so that you can start to gain the benefits.
What are Basic Psychological Needs?
It’s common knowledge that our body has basic physical needs (for example, oxygen, food, water) to function and be healthy. However, not many people know that we also have basic psychological needs for our mind to function and be healthy.
Basic psychological needs are fundamental to our well-being and adjustment in life. Our emotions and behaviours are significantly driven and impacted by our basic psychological needs. They can pose some of the biggest challenges in mental health, but also be powerful in helping your mind function optimally.
According to Self-Determination Theory, the most evidence-based theories of human motivation and personality (Deci & Ryan 2000, 2017), as human-beings we all have 3 Basic Psychological Needs. This is the need for Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence.
There’s been over 100,000 scientific studies to date showing the robust effects of these needs in nearly every area of our lives including:
- Daily and domain well-being (e.g. Reis, Sheldon, Gable, Roscoe, & Ryan, 2000; Milyavskaya & Koestner, 2011)
- Sleep quality, fatigue, and stress (e.g. Campbell et al., 2017)
- Elevated cortisol (e.g. Reeve, J., & Tseng, C.-M. 2011)
- Effective work performance and psychological adjustment (e.g. Baard, Deci, & Ryan, 2004),
- Task engagement and task performance (e.g. Reeve, 2009; Earl et al., 2017).
In developing secure relationship attachments (e.g. La Guardia, Ryan, Couchman, & Deci, 2000)
These are just a few examples of the significant role of basic psychological needs in important areas of our lives.
In the next sections, we’ll go over each one of your basic psychological needs, and suggest a practical step you can take to improve it.
1. The Need for Autonomy: Freedom and Control
Having a basic psychological need for Autonomy is about feeling in control of your life and actions. It translates to having a sense of freedom to choose and to do things that are in line with your values and interests. When we have this kind of agency in our lives (as opposed to feeling controlled and at the mercy of other people or our situation), we experience better outcomes in our mental health and overall functioning.
Action step: To nurture more autonomy in your life, do at least one thing that brings you joy in your day. It can be small or big. The point is to deliberately take action towards things that interest you and are in line with your values. For example, if you love to read, carve out time to read. If you value spending time with your family, prioritize family time as part of your to-do-list. It’s about taking steps (however small) towards things that are important to you.
2. The Need for Relatedness: Building Meaningful Connections
Your psychological need for Relatedness refers to your inherent need for social connections. In daily life, it involves cultivating strong relationships with those that you care about. This can include your family, friends, colleagues, clients, mentors, and anyone who’s important to you. The point is to create an authentic, supportive and caring environment around you. This not only helps to improve your overall mental health, but it can also buffer you against the negative effects of stress.
Action step: To start cultivating more meaningful connections, prioritize quality time and interactions over superficial ones. A simple way to make this practical is to do small acts of kindness for the people around you (ex: appreciation text, practice active listening, acknowledging the efforts of others). This can also look like scheduling quality time with loved ones with your undivided attention (putting away your phone/distractions). Replacing superficial interactions with meaningful ones is not about spending more time, but rather focusing on the quality of the time spent together. Think quality over quantity here.
3. The Need for Competence: Confidence and Effectiveness
Competence is the desire to feel capable and effective in the things that are important to you. This includes your ability to perform well, reach your goals, and master skills. When we feel ineffective or incapable, this can take a major toll on our mental health and overall functioning in that area. On the contrary, when we feel competent in our roles, we gain a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.
Action step: To develop more confidence in your abilities, acknowledge your efforts and small wins. You can even write down an accomplishment list to see how far you’ve come. Many of us wait for big wins, or worse, other people to make us feel confident in ourselves. Celebrating your successes along the way will give you the mental boost you need to feel better and perform better. For more difficult areas, try approaching mistakes and shortcomings with curiosity and an opportunity to learn. Know that cheering yourself on will serve you much more than beating yourself up.
Basic Psychological Need for Novelty: Embracing Growth and Change
Recently Dr. Milyavksaya and I proposed novelty as a new basic psychological need within Self-Determination Theory. Since the publication in 2020, there’s been numerous studies in different disciplines, including psychology, business, fitness, and technology and innovations, showing significant results in improving well-being and performance outcomes.
As human beings, we all have an innate need to grow and expand in life. The need for novelty is about switching things up once in a while and experiencing new things. It’s about learning and growing in life. Decades worth of research shows that novelty is important for:
- Mental well-being and life satisfaction (Bagheri, Milyavskaya, 2020; Buchanan & Bardi, 2010).
- Brain function including attention, memory and intelligence (i.e., Eaves & Glen, 1996; Friedman, 1979).
- Learning at school and creativity at work Schweizer, 2006; Herrmann & Felfe, 2013)
- Long-term maintenance of mental well-being (Sheldon, Boehm, and Lyubomirsky, 2012)
- Exercise adherence and performance (Sylvester et al., 2016; Juvancic-Heltzel et al., 2013)
- Relationship satisfaction and quality (Aron et al., 2000).
These are just some of the important implications of novelty on our psychological health and functioning.
Action step: Pinpoint what area of your life you feel stagnant and see how you can do things differently. Ask yourself how you can incorporate something new or something different in that area. This can be as simple as rearranging your furniture, taking a new route on your daily walk, or taking on a new hobby or a project.
Basic psychological needs are fundamental to your well-being and adjustment in life. They can pose some of the biggest challenges in your mental health when left unchecked, but can also be powerful ways to boost your well-being and have you thrive in life. According to Self-Determination Theory, by understanding and nurturing your basic psychological need of autonomy, relatedness, competence, and novelty you can begin to cultivate an internal environment that is more fulfilling and conducive to your overall mental well-being. They can help you feel happier, be more productive, and thrive in nearly every area of your life.