Paule Miquelon and Robert J. Vallerand

The Big Idea

The good news coming out of the general field of psychology since the beginning of the 21st Century is what is called positive psychology. Instead of primary preoccupation with the pathology of mental illness, understanding human well-being and happiness is attracting increasing numbers of scholars and practitioners. In particular, and related directly to this research paper, there is continuing empirical interest in learning more about the relationship between various psychological factors and improvements in physical health.

In the background of this paper is the self-determination theory of motivation. The possibility of learning in general, for example, is heavily influenced by the motivations of the learner. Whether such motivations are largely self-chosen or imposed will have significant influence on the relative success of learning the task at issue.

This review of the ways in which goal motives, well-being, and physical health are interconnected do verify a couple of things. First, if you want to inspire both the pursuit of happiness and self-realisation then by all means invest in autonomous goals (self-chosen) since controlled goals (imposed) frustrate both forms of well-being. Second, it is self-realisation that promotes physical health, not happiness.


  • Gone are the days when physical health was perceived to be largely irrelevant to individual and social development.
  • Now are the days when the field of psychology is celebrating the myriad ways in which optimal psychological functioning and experience (well-being) can make contributions to physical health.
  • Which is really odd that it has taken so long for the field of psychology to notice. After all, for how many generations have psychologists been treating the deteriorating physical symptoms of mental illness? Why shouldn’t the opposite be obvious; that physical health can result from well-being.
  • Given that the opposite is attracting researchers and research dollars for studies and interventions, and given that such studies are only about a decade old, be prepared for complicated research reports. Like this one.
  • In this paper we learn that positive physical health (well-being) is impacted by happiness and self-realization.
  • By extension, we also learn that in the sport-form of physical health, our players and teams are more likely to thrive if they have relative autonomy as opposed to feeling continuously coerced.
  • And finally it may be the case that happiness might have far less go-juice than self-realisation when it comes to what powers a meaningful life.

The Research

These researchers are proposing an integrative model of goal motives, well-being, and physical health. The need for this model is justified by their research question regarding a newish issue of how two different forms of well-being—happiness and self-realisation—relate to physical health. Previous research does demonstrate that happiness and self-realisation are positively associated with good physical health, but have negative associations with poor physical health. It is suggested then that self-realisation should lead to greater health benefits than happiness because self-realisation is by definition a more active, challenge-based, and boot-strap process than simply being in states of contentment and happiness.

In a previous publication these researchers reported on three empirical studies supporting their integrative model. All three studies were questionnaire-based and used undergraduate students.

  • Study 1 supported the hypothesis that to pursue goals for autonomous motives (by choice, eagerness, voluntary) would be positively associated with happiness and self-realisation. A second hypothesis was that using the integrative model would predict that when happiness and self-realisation were used in the same model that the positive relationship between well-being and physical health would take place through self-realisation. These hypotheses were supported.
  • Study 2 concerned a finding in Study 1 showing that self-realisation was found to be negatively linked with physical symptoms. It turned out that that self-realisation negatively predicted academic stress, which in turn positively predicted physical symptoms and negatively predicted self-rated health. Yet happiness was not related to academic stress. Thus the negative relationship found in Study 1 between self-realisation and physical health symptoms was partly explained through academic stress.
  • Study 3 examined coping strategies in the academic context. Coping was considered to be protective role in the well-being, stress, and health outcomes sequence. Self-realisation was a stronger predictor of both kinds of coping—for both vigilant and avoidant forms—than happiness was.

In their discussion, the authors do make the claim that their integrative model does provide support for the general idea that only the pursuit of autonomous goals will enhance well-being.

But they also remind their readers that the relationship between self-realisation and physical health is complicated. One look at the diagram of their model, for instance, depicts connected pathways of various kinds between both autonomous and controlled goals, through self-realisation and happiness, then on to vigilant or avoidant coping, through stress, and finally—at the other end—physical health.

Given this complexity, they encourage follow-up studies into the subtle inter-relationships between happiness and well-being, between goal motives and well-being, and between well-being and physical health.

The contribution of this paper is to add to what we know about well-being and one’s physical health. It suggests that there is good sense to see the power of self-realisation as a more meaningful experience for improved physical health than just the presence of happiness alone. This role of accepting the challenges of life-in-general increases the flexibility of our adaptive coping abilities. The other conclusion of this research review is the manner in which autonomous and controlled motivations can impact so heavily the relationship between self-realisation and physical health.

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