Running with the Ball: Autonomy and Happiness
Friday, February 12, 2016
Throughout childhood the human brain explodes with new synaptic connections and an increasing mastery over the movements of the body, and the way the multitude of sensory stimuli get organized. We turn this multiplicity into words and specific impressions, into likes and dislikes, into comforts and scares, into food and not-food. Sitting upright, pincer grasp, and every other maneuver is practiced and practiced as finer connections get made and operations get synaptic linkages forged. Finally mastery. And mastery upon mastery—tying shoes, riding a bicycle, describing an experience, applying a math formula to a problem, making a deal—strengthens our autonomy, all the I-can-do-it-myself business.
Developmentally we strive for autonomy, for the ability, in a nutshell, to keep ourselves alive. Our wiring directs us to continue to strive for higher levels of autonomous behavior with its attendant rewards of experiencing ourselves as masterful, as skilled, as independent, as contributors. The happiness of producing by one’s own hands an apple pie, a complex puzzle, a bookshelf, or more complicated things, is matched by our joy in thinking new thoughts, creating more efficient processes by which to accomplish something, and so forth. In couples, families, communities and workplaces, most human beings of any age feel happiest, I wager, in settings where both cooperation and team work get balanced by having one’s own voice valued and incorporated.
If we view autonomy as embedded within a matrix of associations, then notions of trust, competence, and respect come into play. We like to feel that our competencies have garnered the recognition of our families and our supervisors and managers so that we can take our assignments and run with them, suggest and make changes to processes or outcomes within reason, and have the trust of others that we will do our part. Virtually no one likes a micro-manager because micro-managers suffocate their reports, and seize opportunities for those reports to flex their muscles and their autonomy. Children who can already tie their shoes do not appreciate parents tying them instead. Autonomy implies the power to do things by ourselves, without close supervision. And managers who see the strengths of their reports, and empower them to do their jobs with some imagination and an eye toward improvement, will garner more respect from their reports than will managers who imply, by heavy handed management, a lack of faith in the abilities of their reports.
Difficult moments in life–divorces, job loss, death, etc.—often prompt us to develop additional autonomous behaviors. A widow learns to pay the bills or mow the lawn; a son learns to change a tire or run a load of laundry, a new home owner learns how to replace a toilet (not that these jobs are gender specific; just examples). Curiosity also propels us toward new learning, new acquisition of skills, and autonomy with regard to the operation of things such as new technological wizardry.
In his book, ‘The Power of Habit,’ Charles Duhigg quotes a researcher on will-power: “When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons–if they feel like it’s a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else–it’s much less taxing. If they feel like that have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster. In both cases, people ignored the cookies (this refers to the experiment). But when the students were treated like cogs, rather than people, it took a lot more willpower.” (page 151)
Autonomy connects us to our energy sources, as in the above paragraph, and connects us to our environment, the little and the larger moving parts. Without autonomy we find ourselves disconnected, unplugged from how things work, and unplugged from imagining how new things might work.
I distinguish autonomy from counter-dependence. Autonomy does not mean that we have to do everything ourselves. We require the flexibility to ask for help and to give it when needed. We want to comfortably depend on others and offer our dependability to them. Even if your partner drives, it affords more security if you can drive too. Autonomy implies making choices and energizing ourselves to muscle up for the follow-through.
Guest saddle: Where in your life could you operate more autonomously? Where have you neglected to give someone else enough room to develop their own autonomy?