As I listened to live coverage of a Palo Alto City Council meeting on the radio a while ago, I found myself riveted (no, really) by a debate about self-driving cars.
Driverless transport experiments are already a big thing around these parts, mainly thanks to Google’s interest in the matter, and it’s really not unusual to have one of their white “Waymo” vehicles pull up alongside you at a stop sign.
To be honest, people hardly give them a second glance.
Anyway, that council meeting was really the first time I’d heard self-driving cars referred to by their more precise term: autonomous vehicles.
And I’ve been reminded of this as I’ve worked on the foundations for our new SPIRIT framework for psychological well-being.
The sharp-eyed among us won’t have failed to notice that there is no “A” in SPIRIT, but you may also recall that I’m basing my research on the work of psychologist Carol Ryff, who established her own well-adopted six-factor model, albeit one that doesn’t spell out SPIRIT.
One of Carol Ryff’s dimensions was Autonomy, which I’ve tweaked into “Independence,” making up the first of two I’s in SPIRIT.
The second I stands for Interconnection, which we’ll get to in a couple of weeks’ time, but the reason I bring it up now is to address the possible concern that independence and interconnection could sound as if they’d be in conflict with one another.
So I think it’s important to make the point that my use of independence denotes independence of thought rather than some kind of aim to cut ourselves off from other people.
Over the years, psychologists have shown that a desire for autonomy may be hard-wired into us.
We love it when we have control, and we generally loathe it when we don’t.
Imagine a work situation in which a boss “micro-manages” his staff, watching their every move, allowing them to make no decisions themselves. Even tiny ones.
Contrast this with another boss who makes it her mission to support her people and, once goals have been agreed, gives them considerable autonomy.
She’s comfortable with people making mistakes, and doesn’t blame her staff if they slip up.
I don’t know about you, but I’m clear who I’d rather work for.
To a large degree, I think we can experience different degrees of independence of thought and action in various aspects of our lives.
Perhaps there are some relationships and friendships in which you feel more able to be yourself than you can in others?
Meanwhile there could be other situations in which it seems as though you have less control and influence than you might prefer.
Of course, we may also modify our behaviours because of what we believe are others’ expectations.
So, given the knowledge that having a high degree of independence/autonomy is a good thing, what can you do to increase the amount of it that you feel?
One approach I’ve found helpful is to create a mental image of a seesaw (or, as they’re often known in the US, a teeter-totter).
You know how they work.
As one and goes up, the other goes down.
On the ends of your seesaw, place the answers to two questions you ask yourself immediately before taking an action.
Question 1: How much am I doing this because it’s expected of me?
Question 2: How much am I doing this because I choose to?
As you balance the answers on opposite ends of the beam, you’ll probably visualise it settling at one end or the other.
To start with, I’d encourage you to do little more than this, actually.
Probably don’t modify what you’re about to do, and certainly not immediately.
But do, by all means, simply become more aware of who’s driving this action.
Is it you, or is it someone else?
And if it’s the latter, are other people really controlling it, or is it more a case that you think they’re controlling it?
For example, many of us – me included – still sometimes try to behave in ways we think our parents might approve of, long after we’ve grown up and left home.
But while discouraging you from making knee-jerk, immediate changes to your behaviour, I’m more than happy to encourage longer-term adjustments, when the time is right for you.
Is not always easy to act independently, but there are serious benefits in doing so.
Who’s in your driving seat?
Couldn’t it be you?