What I’ve Learned from Asking 28 People about their Perfect Day

Last year I started asking friends and strangers about their perfect day. I realized 90% of my Kindle books were written by white males from western societies. The thinkers I admired shared a similar worldview. Where could I find different ideas about the good life?

I wanted to learn from a broader spectrum of lived experience. Rich or poor, young or old, accomplished or not – it didn’t matter. I wanted to listen to everyone, even that random dude across the street in Vietnam. We idolize the rich, famous and powerful. Maybe the average, everyday man and woman had something to teach me.

The interviewees were 17-69 years old and hailed from 10 countries. Most were from the US and Vietnam, not surprising given I’m an American living in Vietnam. Slightly less than half were females.

I had no expectations. If anything, I yearned to hear wildly different ideas about their perfect day. Yet after 28 interviews, I’ve found that people mostly want four things: connection, autonomy, progress and a peaceful state of mind.

Connection

Seventy percent mentioned spending time with close friends or loved ones.

Autonomy

Nearly sixty percent wanted control over their perfect day. There would be no externally imposed demands on them. My mom put it best: “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, spend whatever I want, and be with whoever I want.”

Progress

Forty percent wanted to feel like they achieved something. This deep satisfaction could come from getting better at something, doing what they love, or getting important things done.

Peaceful State of Mind

Sixty four percent wanted what I call a “peaceful” state of mind achieved by entering a flow state, or having a clear mind absent of frustration and anxiety. A few described this as feeling thankful. Peaceful seems the best word to describe this present, balanced, and grateful state of mind.

This survey is far from scientific, and maybe I can ask better questions. Still I was shocked to see these four elements appear again and again, no matter the age, sex, and nationality of my interviewees.

Self-Determination Theory

Maybe autonomy, connection, progress and a peaceful mind were deep human needs.

Researching theories of human needs, I came across Edward Deci’s and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory (SDT). 

Their theory, developed over 40 years and backed by hundreds of studies, posits that humans have an innate psychological need to be autonomous, self-determined and connected to one another.

This matched fairly well with what friends and strangers were telling me about their perfect day. They wanted:

  1. Autonomy: a sense of willingness, volition and choice
  2. Relatedness: to feel cared for by others, to care for others, to feel like they belong in various groups that are important to them
  3. Competence: to feel confident and effective in relation to what they’re doing

When these needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, performance and wellness plummet.

Takeaways

I plan to interview dozens (if not hundreds) more people, so the conclusions might change. But so far…

Perfect days are mostly within our grasp.

They are not full of expensive vacations or private yachts. In fact, they are quite simple, even mundane.

What’s stopping us?

I’m left with two questions to investigate.

How can we structure our environment to support our need for connection, autonomy, and competence? This will lead to optimal performance and wellness, and more perfect days. Is our current environment antagonistic or supportive of these needs?

Deci calls this “autonomy support”

What activities support a peaceful state of mind? Well-designed exercise, practice and work can put us into the flow state. Practicing meditation and gratitude can strengthen our ability to be present and thankful, no matter what happens to us.

I’ll be thinking a lot more about self-determination theory, autonomy support, and living in a beautiful state as I continue asking people about their perfect day.

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