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How Self Determination Theory aids during uncertain times

This article analyzes how the positive psychology principle of Self- Determination Theory by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan- aids in endurance during the pandemic or even, some other unavoidable situations. This theory relates strongly with positive psychology.

Application of theory can stretch to:

  • Coping during the pandemic, home-quarantine and/or precaution taking.
  • Attending online classes.
  • That dreaded get together
  • Or literally, almost any situation/event that is unavoidable.

Coping in the pandemic

While many of us find comfort during this pandemic by engaging with our families, working from home, being productive and so on, other individuals have been victims to negative mental health. The stressors brought by the pandemic can lead to depression, insomnia, emotional exhaustion and many other responses. ‘Part of this reason is likely because the 3 main components for positive metal health are not satisfied.’ With regard to what makes life worth living and satisfying is to have meaning and purpose in any engagement, that is, a strong sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness to others.


Individuals are usually seen as social creatures and disruption in routine and isolation for even a short amount time may decline mental health but not everyone elicits these reactions. As hard as it may sound to some, if an individual chooses to accept and behave in a volitional/ autonomous manner during this lockdown, this would increase their sense of agency and reduce helplessness.

Research evidence, study conducted by Chua and Koestner (2008) proves that autonomous behavior reported lower level of loneliness and higher level of well-being. An individual can gain a feeling of autonomy by:

  • Accepting and acknowledging emotional exhaustion or boredom.
  • Look for ways to create routine and find a sense of control by adhering to it.
  • Adults should try to find defining boundaries between work and home, that is, scheduled time or separate rooms.
  • As for developing a feeling of autonomy within children, collaborate with them to create a schedule filled with their interests.


The motivation and persistence during this standstill and despair comes mainly from intrinsic motives but the tendencies of autonomy, mastery and growth, require social supports and cannot operate individually.

Relatedness is the ability to feel related with others and have a sense of belonging. “Each of us needs other people to some degree.”

Tips: While virtual tools somewhat connect individuals, it does not compare to human interaction in real space. Never the less, these tips can benefit to a great extent :

  • Setting up virtual play dates.
  • Face-timing and maintaining social ties.
  • Finding support groups.


A person feels competent when they feel effective in what they do. To gain mastery in task:

  • Excising daily
  • Maybe, engaging in new hobbies, or any challenges you find meaningful.

Additional tips to protect mental health during pandemic/ other events that are unavoidable:

  • Have a fixed sleep schedule and a pre-planned day’s routine.
  • Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults.
  • Be intentional about how you spend your week. Many of you will find our self-drifting through the week. Engage and Set smart goals, with regard to exercise or other activities. These goals should be realistic and specific.
  • Do not spend too much time on social media. This will not feed your need for connectiveness. In fact, it leeches off time, making you feel low in all 3 aspects.

Writers experience

The most important part of positive psychology emphasizes on resilience is the ability to ‘anchor yourself, within yourself,’ through adversities and life challenges. I trying doing so by using this theory.

(a) Autonomy- As disruption in routine and isolation for many months made me uncomfortable, I realized that the best way to escape the unease is to accept and behave in an autonomous manner by taking responsibility of lives would increase my sense of agency and reduce helplessness. With this mindset, I was ready to take up challenges and busy my-self within the restrictions. So, I created routine and found a sense of control by adhering to it.

(b) Relatedness- my motivation and persistence during this standstill comes mainly from social supports. Virtual tools somewhat helped in connectivity. Apps like zoom aided in religious connectivity, maintaining social ties with family and friends, as it helped me still feel connected to the outside world. Protective factors within my friends were my main coping resources as we have a close relationship, it is more rewarding to accomplish goals together.

(c) Competence- competent is ensured when a person feels effective in what they do. So, to follow this, my found benefit by excising daily and trying to engage in many new interests and challenges which I usually over looked before the pandemic. For example, working in the field, writing articles, cooking and so on.

I believe this is also a part of meaning-making, that is, making sense of the event and finding positive outcomes that eventually lead to personal growth.


self determination theoryTo summaries, the positive psychology concepts of resilience bring into light that character strengths, protective factors within the family and constructive social relationships that helps an individual bounce back relatively quicker from adversity and setbacks. When the above 3 needs are supported, research proves that people will function better and will be more resilient to stress.


Cherry, Kendra. (2018, 26 October). What is Self-Determination Theory. Retrieved from

Chua, S. N., & Koestner, R. (2008). A Self-Determination Theory Perspective on the Role of Autonomy in Solitary Behavior. The Journal of Social Psychology, 148(5), 645-648.

What do you think?

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Written by Leanne Rebelo

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Riya Rajkotiya

Well Written

Riya Rajkotiya

Gud peice of work

Jigyasa vashistha

that a wonderful article i must say…

Radhika Saini

Dear Leanne
A beautiful article with practical solutions!

I would like to give some suggestions if it’s okay.

  1. The article has been divided into 3 main components (the basic human needs) which is quite helpful but provides limited data and that makes it seem too short to read.
  2. The article is no doubt extremely informational but may give a monotonous feel so if you could use some catchy phrases or idioms, it would really make the article more interesting.

I hope you find my suggestions helpful! I apologise if you find any of my suggestions hurtful
Thank you

Radhika Saini

Best of luck!


This is very interesting. The outlook of how to cope in pandemic is well written with personal experience.

Sahana Rajeev

Very informative article…
You could have added some quotes related self determination or positive psychology