Mental Health 5 MIN READ

Self-Determination: A Global Theory To What Drives Us

What drives us? Where do we find the motivation to do anything in life? Is it pleasure? or perhaps success? How do we even standardize the definition of such terms when their meanings vary across the spectrum of people experiencing them.

Written by Team Ultrahuman

Jun 28, 2021
self determination cover

What drives us? Where do we find the motivation to do anything in life? Is it pleasure? or perhaps success? How do we even standardize the definition of such terms when their meanings vary across the spectrum of people experiencing them.

This is the first of a three-part series on motivation and sport about a race called The Speed Project, a 344-mile relay from Santa Monica, CA to Las Vegas, NV. More specifically, this series will focus on the motivations from members of Team Satisfy Running, a diverse group of 6 runners and 6 crew or support team on their journey up to the start of the race and past the finish line.

I talked with my teammates a bit about what drives them both in relation to, and apart from sport and while their answers were varied, there was a common thread of unifying characteristics.

They were motivated by a desire to learn new skills, sharing them with others and exploration. They were driven by competition and honesty in their endeavours. They were motivated to show up and support friends and their interests. We all wanted new experiences and to have an impact. Taking all this into consideration, what exactly is motivation?

The Oxford dictionary defines motivation as “the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.”

Further, you still have external or extrinsic motivation, which suggests justification to reward or avoid punishment. It can be a motivation of vanity, money, praise or fame. And there is also Internal or intrinsic motivation that comes from within. It is doing something because of the inherent enjoyment of the activity itself or because it plays an important role in our development and actualization across life.

global theory sd

So which is better? That might not be the right question to ask. But rather, which form of motivation leads to the realization of one’s goals with greater consistency? It should be fairly clear, but let’s take a look at the concept of a “new year resolution.” Most people begin January with a commitment to going to the gym, losing x amount of pounds, eating better for no other reason than “this is going to be the year.” It is a pursuit of vanity.

Now, there is NOTHING wrong with those goals. So then why do so many people quit? Studies show that 68-80% of Americans give up on their resolutions by February 1. When it takes 40 days to form a habit, it’s no wonder new lifestyle changes don’t stick. It’s why bribing children with toys and treats to instil good behaviour only works for a one-off and not in the long term. 

Circling back to the answers given by my friends and teammates they stem more from the heart than external pursuits. As a trainer, I not only ask my clients what their goals are but also what new skill they would like to learn and their motivation for training. I find this question often gives a lot of people pause–even myself–as we don’t often differentiate between the two.

Just because we have a goal (or an expectation) does not necessarily mean we are driven to achieve it. But that’s not to say that we can’t take external motivators and internalize them to find forward and ongoing purpose. 

Self Determination Theory, developed by psychologists Edward L Deci and Richard Ryan, speaks to a broad overarching theory of motivation without external factors based on the Organismic Dialectical perspective. The latter states, “People are actively growing, striving to overcome challenges, and creating new experiences. While endeavouring to become unified from within, individuals also become part of social structures.”  Self Determination Theory (SDT) also infers that there are universal essential nutrients required for a person’s growth, integrity and wellness and that it is these three basic psychological needs–autonomy, competence and relatedness–which drive motivation.

Autonomy supports one’s volition–to make choices that are essential to directing or influencing one’s own life. Not to be confused with independence, to be autonomous means to have a choice–to have the ability to express their free will. Choosing how you get to spend your free time is more likely to lead to enjoyment than being told what to do even if it is an activity that person would normally enjoy. 

Competence reflects the need to experience mastery or fulfilment in the control over an outcome. Take a daily crossword: the progress in difficulty throughout the week challenging the player which might lead in a failure to solve as the clues get harder nearing the week’s end but are simultaneously easier to facilitate on a Monday but not so simple to decipher one loses interest. You also see the same concept applied in game theory and is the reason why video games are often addicting.

self determination theory

xRelatedness rounds out the achievement of psychological wellness by speaking to the connection to others–the desire to connect and be part of a community. We all crave–especially after this past year of imposed isolation–human interaction.

When looking back on each participant’s reasons for general motivation while they seem varied in explanation they all are representative of each of the three micro-theories (autonomy, competence and relatedness) of SDT. So why The Speed Project?

Let’s start with autonomy. Initial conversations occurred with prospective runners and crew members where they were asked if they would like to be a part of the team. No one was told they had to be a part of this activation, there were no obvious incentives offered other than they would not have to worry about covering the cost of the adventure (thus eliminating financial barriers that actually cause undue stress and detract from a person’s overall wellness) So right away, the ability to choose whether or not to be a part of the team set the stage for the excitement of everything else to come.

Relatedness support is self-explanatory: a team of runners supported by a team of the crew. What was not expected, and which will be discussed later in the series, is the urgency of belonging to one another that was developed and how virtual strangers became family.

Rounding out the triad is competence. This is not as obvious to decipher. All six of us runners were exactly that, runners. Runners of varying levels of performance and experience, but all of whom were not new to the idea of pushing the body to one’s limits and charting into the unknown.

We generally knew we could run fast and most likely maintain a top-end speed over short but varied time intervals. We all generally knew that it was going to be a rough go on little sleep in uncomfortable situations, drastic climates and difficult terrain. Only two of us had raced this event before, some of us had never considered the distance, while others either were uncomfortable high temperatures, hills or running off-road. Everyone wanted to test their limits–to push their bodies to overcome the unfamiliar and thus Team Satisfy was born.

Here are the next-parts of the article:

Self-Determination Theory: Part Two
Self-Determination Theory: Part Three

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