Self-determination theory is concerned with the social and other conditions that facilitate or hinder human wellness, well-being, and flourishing. While much of the theory focuses on the basic needs, motivational states, and other factors that bring forth well-being, it is important to turn the lens also on the outcome: What is well-being for human beings?

While the most common conceptualization of well-being within psychological research is arguably subjective well-being, comprised of positive and negative affect as well as life satisfaction, SDT has argued that it doesn’t capture the whole spectrum of well-being but we need a richer understanding of the nature of well-being. Psychological wellness is about both feeling good and functioning well. 

One important dimension of wellness that SDT has concentrated on is subjective vitality, defined as the experience of feeling alive, vigorous, and energetic. Vitality is about energy that is available to the self, and that can be used in volitional activity. Having such vitality is thus important to both feeling well and being able to function well. Research has shown that basic need satisfaction, and exposure to nature, are sources of vitality for people.

Another dimension of wellness particularly close to SDT is eudaimonia, a concept derived originally from ancient Greece, that have resurrected in modern psychological discussions about well-being. In it’s original, Aristotelian sense it was about a life well lived, and focused more on how one lived and behaved rather than on how one felt. In contemporary discussions it has been often used to describe dimensions of well-being that go beyond mere pleasure and pain, and that are in accordance with our basic human nature. Thus research within SDT argues that motives and behaviors such as pursuing intrinsic goals, regulating behavior autonomously, living in a reflective and mindful way, and having one’s needs satisfied are all key aspects of a well-lived life and thus key components of an eudaimonic way of living.

Finally, meaning in life and meaningfulness has also received increased research attention within psychology in general and by SDT scholars in particular as an important dimension of a life well lived. It has been argued that the satisfaction of the basic psychological needs could play a key role in making life feel meaningful, and research has thus examined meaning in life as an important and valuable outcome of need satisfaction. 

In practice

Finding out what are the constituting elements of human wellness and worthwhile human ends more generally, is – already according to Aristotle – of great practical importance: Equipped with this knowledge ”would we not, like archers in possession of a target, better hit on what is needed?” By having a better understanding of what makes human life good we can use that knowledge to evaluate and compare various societies, organizations, institutions, lifestyles, and even cultures, to see how well they support a possibility to live a good life. 

While a unidimensional measure of well-being such as positive affect doesn’t tell anything about what has caused high or low affect, knowing that a particular basic psychological need is low already gives much more actionable recommendations of how to improve the situation. Thus measuring basic needs alongside more general well-being measures allows one to gain a richer understanding of the wellness of those studied.

Thus, whatever more particular topic you are examining, be that schools, teachers, organizational leadership, political systems or whatever, the measures you use as outcomes and as criteria matter. Choosing the right well-being indicators, and a rich enough set of such indicators, allows you to make more relevant and interesting conclusions about the state of well-being and human wellness in your target group, and design more effective ways to improve well-being.  


  • SDT argues that well-being as such must be understood as a richer notion than mere hedonic balance between pleasure and pain. In its broadest form, human wellness covers all dimensions that make human life good and worthwhile. 
  • Vitality is about feeling alive, vigorous, and having energy available to the self.
  • Eudaimonia is about a life well lived. Thus, rather than being a particular type of experience, it is more about ways of living and behaving that are intrinsically worthy and in accordance with our human nature.
  • Meaning in life is the subjective sense that life is valuable and worth living, and basic psychological needs could play a key role in making life feel meaningful.
  • In many context, especially those where a subject’s active participation is required, such as sports, schools, or workplaces, vitality might be more relevant outcome variable to measure than mere life satisfaction or positive affect. 
  • By measuring basic psychological needs, one can gain a more detailed understanding of human wellness than what any unidimensional well-being measure can give, which also allows one to make more actionable recommendations about how to improve well-being.
  • In evaluating the goodness of societies, organizations, or institutions, we should not only measure positive affect and/or life satisfaction but – in order to gain a richer picture of wellness – also factors such as basic need satisfaction, vitality, and meaningfulness. 

Featured / Suggested

Martela, F., Ryan, R. M. (2021) . , If giving money to Red Cross increases well-being, does taking money from the Red Cross increase ill-being? – Evidence from three experiments Journal of Research in Personality, Advance online publication

Ryan, R. M., Frederick, C. (1997) . , On energy, personality and health: Subjective vitality as a dynamic reflection of well-being Journal of Personality, 65(3) ,529-565

Weinstein, N.Ryan, R. M.Deci, E. L. (2012) Motivation, meaning and wellness: A self-determination perspective on the creation and internalization of personal meanings and life goals. In P. T. P. Wang (Ed.), . , The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (pp. 81-106) New York: Routledge Publishers. doi: 10.4324/9780203146286

Ryan, R. M., Martela, F. (2016) Eudaimonia as a way of living: Connecting Aristotle with self-determination theory. In J. Vittersø (Ed.), . , Handbook of eudaimonic well-being (pp. 109 - 122) New York, NY: Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-42445-3_7

Martela, F., Sheldon, K. M. (2019) . , Clarifying the concept of well-being: Psychological need-satisfaction as the common core connecting eudaimonic and subjective well-being Review of General Psychology, 23(4) ,458-474