My work as a psychotherapist varies all the time, and it differs with every person who sits in front of me. No two individuals are the same, and even when two people experience an almost identical set of experiences and difficulties, their journey through that is unique.
For therapy to be effective then, it has to be fluid and tailored to the person. Having said that, however, there is something that I keep coming back to time and time again.
Everything we do in life is a behaviour, and all of our behaviours are motivated by one of two things. To feel good, or to avoid pain. Whether we realise it or not, to feel good we strive to satisfy the basic psychological needs that all of us have. It’s not possible to be happy unless we are satisfactorily meeting these needs.
In my experience Choice Theory has been the most effective way to help people understand what their psychological needs are. Once we understand them, we can choose to satisfy them through behaviours that are more beneficial to us in terms of creating the life we want. Choice Theory explains our psychological needs as follows.
1. Survival. Our need for survival is both psychological and physiological. It is a primal need that is hard-wired into us to ensure the continuation of the species. It is our need for food, shelter, warmth, sex for procreation, and in today’s world–money. If our need for survival is threatened (for example, by homelessness or tragedy) it takes priority over all of our needs and becomes our only concern. Once Survival is satisfied sufficiently, the rest of our needs come into consideration.
2. Freedom. This is the need to have autonomy and freedom of choice in our lives. It is our need to feel that we are in control of what we do and how we do it. We always have choices, but sometimes these choices can be severely restricted by circumstance. The more we feel trapped or powerless to choose our paths in life, the more frustrated this need becomes.
3. Power. This is our need for recognition and responsibility. Anything that helps us to feel empowered will go towards satisfying this need. In today’s world, a great many people strive to meet this need in hurtful and destructive ways. The healthy way to meet your need for Power is not by trying to control the people around you as so many of us do. It is by choosing behaviours that cause you to strengthen and grow. Behaviours and actions that cause you to become better than the person you were yesterday.
4. Love & Belonging. Outside of Survival, this could be our greatest need as human beings. We all want to feel like we belong in the world. We all need connection, intimacy, friendship and love. More of our behaviours are unconsciously driven by this need than by any of the others. No man is an island, and as human beings we need each other to thrive. Our western culture has long since moved towards independence and individualisation, and unsurprisingly we have far more mental health problems than cultures that still value community over the individual.
5. Fun. Our need for Fun is exactly as it sounds. We have a basic psychological need to have fun. Mostly we understand that fun is nice and it’s a great thing to have in our lives, but still we underestimate its importance. Rather than being a nice thing to include, if possible, once we’ve taken care of everything we that we feel we have to do, Fun is vital for our happiness. Like the other psychological needs, if our need for Fun goes unsatisfied, our happiness declines and will eventually disappear.
Now that you know the five things that you need to be happy, you are better equipped to make the right choices for you. Our feelings are a barometer that tells us how well we are meeting our needs. When we’re happy, we know our psychological needs are being met. When we’re not so happy, we now know what to look at so we can make the changes we need to make.
Photo: Flickr/ CHEZ ANDRE 1
 Glasser, William, Choice Theory – A New Psychology of Personal Freedom, Harper Perennial, 1999.