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drawing of autonomy and breaking free from strings

❝You've been given a great gift, George: A chance to see what the world would be like without you.❞ -"Clarence" in It's a Wonderful Life

The movie It's a Wonderful Life is a classic and among my favorite Christmas movies. It's a story about George Bailey, a man considering suicide on Christmas Eve and is saved by his guardian angel, Clarence.

It's a movie that can be seen through a couple of different lenses.

The first is through the lens of the impact George has had in his community:

George took over the family business (a savings and loan, think of it like a bank) when his dad had a stroke so a local businessman wouldn't take over and shut the place down. He paid for his brother to go to college to train him to take over the family business. When his brother gets a job offer from his father-in-law, George stays in the family business, allowing his brother to take the other job. When there was a run on the bank, which would have put the savings and loan out of business, he used his own money to keep it afloat. He even created a community of homes that allowed people to find affordable housing in a world where the local businessman (the same one who tried to shut down his family business) overcharged and acted as a slumlord of sorts. Everybody loves George (except the greedy businessman who wants him out of business).

The second lens is the lens that George saw the world through. It's the lens of no autonomy:

George had grand plans to travel the world. These plans get put on hold after his dad has a stroke, and he has to take over the family business. The responsibilities of his new role mean that George can't go to college like he wants. He gave his tuition money to his brother, hoping that his brother would take over the savings and loan and he could go back to being an explorer. When his brother comes back from college with a different job offer, George is forced to continue running the company. After getting married, he and his wife were going to go on a long trip, but on the same day, there was a run on the bank where he had to use their honeymoon money to save the company. George never got to do anything he wanted to do; he only did things because he had to.

Of course, he realizes this, gets drunk, tries to kill himself, and is saved by Clarence, who helps him see his life through the first lens. (There are no spoiler alerts's nearly an 80-year-old movie!)

The feeling that we have agency in our lives is called autonomy, and it's the difference between getting dragged around by life and designing a meaningful life.

drawing of taking hold of life instead of letting it drag you around


Autonomy is the ability to make our own decisions. This feeling of having a sense of freedom of choice is at the core of human flourishing. In psychology, self-determination theory is the idea that humans feel motivated and determined when they have three basic psychological needs met: autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

Autonomy is the feeling of making uncoerced choices.

Relatedness, or belonging, is having healthy interpersonal relationships.

Competency is having knowledge, skills, abilities, and so on that give you a sense of mastery.

drawing of self determination theory

One of my mentors, Ted Klontz, teaches a similar model of basic human needs. In addition to autonomy, he splits relatedness into belonging (feeling like you belong to a group) and connection (having interpersonal relationships within that group). He also adds safety/security (not feeling threatened), self-expression (being able to voice your opinions), and significance (feeling like life is valuable).

drawing of klontz basic needs

It's interesting to note that autonomy is on both lists. It's difficult to feel like you're thriving if you don't feel like you are in control of your life.

drawing of autonomy and human needs

With that in mind, let's take a look at meaningful living and autonomy's role in our meaningful lives.

Meaning in life has three components: coherence, significance, and purpose.

drawing of three components of meaning in life


Having a sense of coherence means that life makes sense. Things are predictable; cause-and-effect relationships follow your intuition. Things don't have to always work out for the best, but when they don't it's easy to understand why.

When things aren't coherent, life is chaotic, and nothing makes sense. It's difficult to feel as though your life is meaningful when everything is chaotic and nothing happens the way it's "supposed to."

Think of your life as a story; The Story of You. The narratives and themes that you've built to make sense of and predict the world were based on events that have happened to you or those you know. It's based on your experiences.

drawing of you are the author of your life

Autonomy plays into the feeling of coherence when you decide to be the author of your life story. You aren't an extra, a passive role, or a non-player character (NPC). You have agency over your life.

drawing of you are the author of your life book

The Three Dimension Meaning in Life Scale assesses three dimensions of meaning in life: coherence, purpose, and significance. Coherence is the feeling that your life makes sense. Purpose is having direction in life. Significance is the belief that your life has value.


A sense of significance is a sense that life has value and is worth living. It's related to your personal values. If you feel as though you are able to express your values, life will feel more significant. If, on the other hand, you aren't able to express your values - or worse, your values aren't authentic - you'll have a harder time feeling like life has value.

One trap people fall into is adopting personal values that they think they're supposed to have. This could be because they've never taken the time to understand what's important to them, and they look around for social cues. It could also be because they don't want others to think they don't value something.

Either way, if you have personal values because you want others to know about them or because you think you're supposed to, you have extrinsic values. You don't value them for the value itself but rather because it gives you something else. It's a means to another value, perhaps.

drawing of extrinsic values

If, instead, your personal values are things you would value if you weren't able to tell anybody about them, then you've got intrinsic values. Intrinsic values add to a sense of autonomy because they are freely chosen. You choose them, not anybody else. Your values are ends themselves, not a means to another end.

drawing of intrinsic values


The third component of a meaningful life is a sense of purpose. This doesn't need to be some big, grand purpose that changes the whole world. In fact, it's probably best that it's not. A sense of purpose is having something to do with your time that matters to you and those close to you.

As with values and a sense of significance, it's easy to look around our corner of society and mimic what others are doing. Doing so is to try and keep up with the Joneses or other societal expectations.

Using your time in order to do what you think you're supposed to do is the top regret people experience at the end of their lives.

drawing of doing what you think you're supposed to do

If you're using your time to pursue someone else's purpose, you're not using your time in a way that fits with what is meaningful to you. You're not experiencing a sense of autonomy.

drawing of not aligning with your purpose

By taking ownership of your life and using your time in a way that feels meaningful to you, you'll feel a stronger sense of autonomy and, thus, meaning in life.

drawing of autonomy and purpose

Autonomy is about choosing the life you want to live. It's about living the most meaningful life possible with what you have. Freely choosing your life can feel uncomfortable at times - if we're freely choosing our actions, then we're responsible for the consequences - but by doing so, we take ownership over our life and give ourselves a life we'll look back on and say we'd do it again.

drawing of connecting your life to your values

It's hard to feel life is meaningful if you don't have a say in what you do. How might you introduce more autonomy into your life?

You get one life; live intentionally.


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About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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