Freedom Within: Embracing the Power of Self-Determination

My work focuses on the self-stated personal goals that people report—that is, the broad objectives they are pursuing in life, from what career they’ll try to enter and what values they’ll uphold to what exercise targets they’ll try to hit. My work also focuses on happiness and how we can achieve it.

What I’ve found is that setting new goals—and then achieving them—is one of the very best paths to happiness and well-being. At any moment, we can decide to adopt a new purpose, course, or aim, and these decisions can potentially change everything, leading to major improvements in our lives.

Of course, not all our goals are portentous and life changing. Nor are we always successful at achieving them. No matter: the point is that moment to moment, we’re constantly selecting just one of the many possibilities in front of us, taking actions that divert the universe into a particular course that never would have happened otherwise. Making choices between imagined alternatives might even be the most profound capacity of human brains—the one that continually “collapses the wave function” of quantum indeterminacy, by launching our physical bodies in one direction or another.

My research on the goals people set for themselves is a big part of my broader quest to understand what I call “optimal human being”: how we should live in order to maximize our potentials for love, success, creativity, and fulfillment. In pursuing this quest, I’ve studied many interrelated questions in psychology, including the meaning of freedom, responsibility, and authenticity; how we form intentions, set goals, and develop values; how we can become more integrated and self-actualized individuals; and how all of this affects our personal happiness and sense of well-being.

In doing so, I’ve drawn on approaches from many subdisciplines within psychology, including motivation psychology, positive psychology, personality psychology, social psychology, and decision psychology. Although all these disciplines explore somewhat different issues and use different methods, they are all interested in “optimal functioning.” Motivation psychology tries to help people get what they want, putting them more in charge of their own destinies. Positive psychology tries to advise people, via experimental research, about activities and practices that could help them grow in beneficial ways. Personality psychology tries to help people become more self-aware and improve the internal coordination of the many cognitive and emotional systems that make up a whole individual. Social psychology tries to tell people how to improve communication with others, how to persuade people to their views, and how to watch out for social pitfalls. Decision psychology tries to help people think more rationally about the choices in front of them, thereby improving the “utility” of their decisions.

Despite the wide variety of approaches among these disciplines, there is one assumption that they all hold in common: that humans are constantly making choices, for better or worse. We can’t help it—even waiting to choose, or not choosing at all, are choices. These fields also assume that people can learn to make better choices over time—by trying to gather more information, by attending mindfully to their inner states, by noticing and attempting to correct for their biases, by analyzing their strategic mistakes, and much more. When researchers in these fields succeed in their jobs, people gain new tools for improving their lives—and they are better able to take control of them.

This observation leads to a fascinating fact: that all major theories of personality development, from Sigmund Freud to Carl Jung to Abraham Maslow to most of my colleagues today, emphasize the importance of becoming more autonomous over time—of developing a stronger sense of being a choice-making agent, a stronger sense of being self-determined, a stronger sense of exercising free will. We’ll talk more about these theories later, but what this commonality shows is that the question of “whether we have free will” isn’t just a matter for the philosophy seminar room. It’s a profoundly personal issue that’s important for each of us as individuals—because a belief in our own capacity to make free choices, and to learn to make better choices over time, is necessary to become a fully functioning human being.

Why is autonomy—that is, the sense of acting freely—the primary driver of personal growth? In the simplest terms: because autonomy helps us, as symbolic selves, to run our lives better. Psychological autonomy helps us recognize what we really want, and then to go after it. But at the same time, it helps us to regulate and control ourselves, and even, when necessary, to get ourselves to do things we hate doing. Psychological autonomy helps us to communicate effectively with others, so that they will help and support us. But at the same time, it helps us to care about other people, because it helps us to recognize ourselves in them. In psychologist Roy Baumeister’s words, psychological autonomy helps people pursue their “enlightened self-interest” while at the same time adopting (and adapting to) the values and norms of the broader culture.

It has become fashionable for some psychologists to downplay the role of the conscious self, describing it as powerless or clueless. They try to tell us that we’re just passive voices in our own heads, only commenting after the fact, with no real power to affect anything. Or that we’re easily manipulated and controlled by the social forces around us, in many cases without our awareness. Or that our pretensions to morality are just that—pretensions, easily punctured. Or that we suffer from an inflated sense of self-importance and are afflicted with countless self-serving biases.

These four statements are often true, but so is this: that as symbolic selves we are “driving the car” despite all our flaws and foibles. Human brain functioning is the most complex process in the known universe, and it’s the process that we, as symbolic selves, are orchestrating—we are deciding “on the fly”; we continually choose our own way forward despite sometimes grave levels of ignorance; and we do this in ways that no scientific theory, data, or statistical model could ever predict in advance, no matter how sophisticated. We need to educate and strengthen our symbolic selves, not undermine, or banish them. They are all that we have.

If free will is real—and even inescapable—then why do we sometimes feel so unfree? That is, why do we so often feel pushed around by the stress of work, the press of relationships, the strain of discrimination, the mess of politics, and much more? Today, the world seems caught in an escalating psychological crisis: we don’t know what’s true anymore, we hate people of opposite political stripes, and our towns are burning or flooding as the climate heats up. Are all these problems due merely to our failure to believe that we’re free? Of course not—obviously, these are objective problems, over which we (individually) have little or no control; and, just as obviously, we are entangled in many other such problems besides, both in our own lives and in the world at large.

Nevertheless, we often fail to recognize how much choice we actually do have, despite all the problems. Thus, we may dither and procrastinate, or fail to make decisions altogether. And as a result, we may fail to solve the problems—and fail to turn them into opportunities.

There are many reasons we may not take full advantage of our free will, reasons why we may settle for less than what is possible. Perhaps we have been used and abused by authorities in our lives who have convinced us that they, not we, are in charge. Perhaps our beliefs about ourselves or the world—or even a belief in determinism—block our view forward. Or maybe we live in crushing poverty, or we’re part of a minority, discriminated against by the majority. Maybe we live in a society plagued by corruption, strife, and disorder—an increasingly common circumstance in the world today.

But there’s another barrier to acting autonomously that shouldn’t escape us: sometimes, we may give up our free will on purpose. We try to avoid choosing, or we procrastinate. Or, we make excuses for our failures, to try to avoid accepting blame for our choices. In these cases, maybe our problem isn’t that we have too little freedom, but that we have too much—so much that it is scary. What if we choose wrongly, and get into trouble, or have regrets? We are held responsible for our choices (with some legal and medical exceptions), and those choices have the potential to cause suffering, for ourselves or others, or to elicit blame from others. And we might not be able to achieve our cherished goals and end up feeling bitter disappointment.

Consider a new college student who feels daunted by the dozens of possible academic majors (or friends, or suitors) from which to choose—knowing that these choices may strongly influence the future course of her life. She also must make her selections with far too little knowledge of herself—she’s only eighteen. How can she know if she’ll still want to be a doctor when she’s 40, rather than a dentist, or a designer? Maybe it’s easier to just “fall in with the crowd,” and do what other people are doing.

This cautious attitude makes a certain degree of sense. People are generally unaware of their own nonconscious motivations, and often bad at forecasting how they’ll feel about their choices (or non-choices) down the road. And they often must make decisions without knowing what obstacles and difficulties they will face en route to achieving their selected goals. Perhaps it is better not to have tried, than to have tried and failed.

Because of such dilemmas, people may try to “escape from freedom,” to borrow a phrase from the twentieth-century psychiatrist Erich Fromm, whose book by that title explored the psychosocial conditions that enabled the rise of Nazism. Chief among these was the fear of freedom, which contemporaneous existential philosophers singled out as perhaps the most important problem for human beings. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that we are radically free and “doomed to choose” (and to thereby define ourselves), whether we like it or not. Some people don’t like this very much at all, and so they look for something, anything, to feel determined by—including rigid and unbreakable routines, harsh authoritarian leaders, and perhaps theories that deny their free will. But again, even choosing not to choose is a choice, according to Sartre’s existential perspective. So is choosing not to believe in choice at all.

In my book Freely Determined, I argue that we always have free will, at least in the sense that philosopher Christian List proposed, in his 2019 book Why Free Will Is Real: we’re free to conjure up multiple alternatives, choose one of them, and start moving. In a similar vein, Viktor Frankl, a Nazi prison camp survivor and psychiatrist, felt deeply that we always have the capacity to choose our response to circumstances, no matter how bad they are (and for Frankl, who barely survived his captivity, they were horrendous). In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Yet even those of us who face more mundane challenges than Frankl’s may not yet be mature enough, brave enough, or insightful or strong enough to grasp this freedom. Thus, the more complicated answer to the question of whether we have free will is that we’re only as free as we think we are. We can limit our own freedom by believing that we have no freedom—that we have no choice in what we do—and, as we’ll see, such beliefs tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies. But tendencies are not certainties: prophecies can fail, and pressures can be resisted. Frankl argued that, as we can’t avoid choosing, we might as well find the courage to choose what is important and meaningful.

This essay is excerpted with permission from Ken Sheldon’s new book, “Freely Determined: What the New Psychology of the Self Teaches Us About How to Live,” which is available to order here.

Ken Sheldon
Ken Sheldon
Ken Sheldon, PhD, is a Curator’s Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Missouri and a founder of the positive psychology movement. His latest book is “Freely Determined: What the New Psychology of the Self Teaches Us About How to Live.”
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