Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Find Your Life’s Fulfillment in Love and Work

New motivational psychology research shows the pathway to authenticity.

Key points

  • Adult life involves inevitable obligations but also presents opportunity for growth through work and family.
  • A new study uses self-determination theory to understand what keeps people motivated despite these challenges.
  • By staying true to our authentic motivation, we can manage the seemingly impossible work-life balancing act.
Source: Mimage/Shutterstock

The daily life of most adults is an ever-changing mix of joy and strain. There can be moments of happiness when everything clicks into place and the joyful feelings rush in, only to be followed (maybe soon) by it all crashing down. What makes the difference between happiness and misery? Often it can be something as seemingly incidental as a look down at your calendar. Just when you thought you’d have a few hours to do something you greatly enjoy about your work, you’re reminded that you have to take a break to drive a family member to the dentist.

The highs and lows of everyday life in adulthood are often regulated by factors external to your own wishes and desires. To be sure, work doesn’t always serve as a source of extreme pleasure, but it can. Family life, similarly, has its own great moments, but not usually when it entails time spent in an unpleasant but necessary task. Given that these are all inevitabilities, what can you do to ride a more even tide?

Self-Determination Theory and the Work-Family Conundrum

Researchers who study the ways that adults balance their competing roles divide into two camps. The inevitable conflict camp proposes that whatever resources you pour into work, emotional and otherwise, will drain you of any remaining energy to devote to family or other nonwork exploits. The enrichment camp proposes the opposite, that work and family commitments reverberate in such a way that they can each benefit the other. You learn to organize your time at work, for example, and this makes you a better “project manager” at home.

Evidence piling up along each side of this empirical question has, until now, focused more on roles than on the inner mechanisms that drive behavior. According to Virginia Tech’s Marla White and colleagues (2024), this is a mistake. In the words of the research team: “theories of motivation are an underutilized perspective in the work–family literature.” If people are behaving in ways consistent with their values, they can put up with a fair degree of discomfort, inconvenience, and even stress. It is in those moments of “authenticity” that people are acting in ways true to the self, and therefore most likely to experience well-being.

Using the widely accepted motivational theory known as Self-Determination Theory (SDT), White et al. propose that authenticity occurs when you simultaneously meet the basic needs for competence (doing your job well), autonomy (feeling in control of your actions), and relatedness (having closeness to others). At this magic moment, you will be “motivated to invest time, energy, and attention in … an internally directed way.” Work may be tough, and family life may be tough, but if you value both of these, you’ll be able to look past those occasional dental appointments or whatever else gets in the way of your flow at work.

Putting Self-Determination Theory to the Empirical Test

You may be thinking that this seems a bit too idealistic an approach to apply to the exigencies of daily life. It’s all very well and good to theorize about authenticity, but could there be validity to this idea?

The sample of 220 online participants, all of whom worked at least 36 hours a week, completed two sets of questionnaires three months apart. This allowed the research team to study the lagged effect of motivation on life satisfaction rather than just relying on correlational data. The prediction model underlying the study was quite simple. In one pathway, SDT motives at work were used to predict job satisfaction, which in the second wave of testing, was used to predict life satisfaction. A similar pathway traced SDT family motivation through to the same life satisfaction outcome.

The measures used in the study give you a chance to practice on yourself to see how you would score (use 1-to-5 ratings for each):

Work items:

Autonomy: I am free to express my ideas and opinions on the job.

Relatedness: People at work care about me.

Competence: Most days, I feel a sense of accomplishment from working.

Family items:

Autonomy: When I am with my family, I have a say in what happens.

Relatedness: When I am with my family, I feel loved and cared about.

Competence: When I am with my family, I feel like a competent person.

To test your authenticity, answer these items:

The time I spend working is consistent with my values.

The attention I give to my family/personal life is what I think it should be based on my life priorities.

Turning to the findings, these were more in support of SDT’s predictions in the work than in the family domain. In the workplace, however, the motivation through-line to life satisfaction was almost entirely supported by the data. Workers who had their SDT needs met indeed felt more authentic and, in turn, more satisfied both with their jobs and with life.

Although need satisfaction was more strongly related to autonomous motivation (feeling in control), this did not predict life satisfaction. However, family authenticity and satisfaction with family did predict overall life satisfaction. Returning to the example of the dental appointment, you may not feel that you have a choice, but you can still feel “authentic” in that you’re doing something for someone you love.

Finding Authenticity in Your Own Work-Family Balance

Teasing apart the motivation you feel at work from the motivation you feel in your home/personal life can provide important insights into how you are able to gain the feelings of authenticity that give your life meaning. Although you may feel your days are dictated at the behest of others, the authors suggest that their findings are important because they recognize “that humans are not just passive recipients of their environments but make choices about how to behave within them.”

It's also important to acknowledge the limits of autonomous motivation in your home and family life. The authors note that when job demands are unduly heavy, your sense of authenticity will become thwarted. It is at those moments when you can remind yourself about the big picture, perhaps by focusing not on time but on the quality of your interactions with family members.

To sum up, it is possible to find satisfaction in areas of life that may not always seem that enthralling, particularly when adult demands pile up. Identifying what will allow you to feel authentic will give you the fulfillment to carry on even when those demands seem insurmountable.

Facebook image: Ivanko80/Shutterstock


White, M. L., Wayne, J. H., Casper, W. J., Matthews, R. A., Odle‐Dusseau, H., & Jean, E. L. (2024). The authentic self in work and family roles and well‐being: A test of self‐determination theory. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 97(1), 321–341.

More from Susan Krauss Whitbourne PhD, ABPP
More from Psychology Today