Symbolic meaning of ‘Autonomy’: Symbolizes a sense of independence and self-reliance in thoughts and in actions; resisting external pressures

Material possessions can have a symbolic meaning of autonomy, because they support physical autonomy, or they allow and represent the expression of authenticity, etc. Material possessions with this symbolic meaning provide a contribution to subjective well-being because they support a sense of independence and self-reliance in thoughts and in actions, and assist in resisting external pressures.

An example of a material possession with the symbolic meaning of autonomy is a blood measuring device which makes the owner feel capable of taking care of themselves, independent and autonomous.




To help designers use the six happiness-related symbolic meanings, we developed 16 specific design directions. These are the ones most related to autonomy:

Destigmatize, by enhancing the aesthetic qualities of physically enabling products.

Think about…
…what products enable your user and support his/ her autonomy?
…which (physical) characteristics of those products make your user feel self-conscious?

Design for mindfulness, by slowing down processes or disclosing mechanisms behind products to promote a mindful living.

Think about…
…how can your user have more control over his/ her context (think of small everyday things)?

Redirect the user’s attention, by design an intervention that requires attention form the user to distract from negative situations.

Think about…
…to what negative situations is your user exposed to?
…how do these limit your user’s autonomy?

In addition, designers and design researchers helped us select some product examples to illustrate this symbolic meaning:

No Country for Old Men by Lanzavecchia and Wai is a collection of comfortable walking aids for a modern living. It relates to the symbolic meaning of autonomy because it empowers users with reduced mobility to feel supported with aesthetically pleasing and modern-looking assistive products.


The Standard Table Lamp from The Standard Collection by Knauf and Brown needs to be manually placed into a low-voltage copper wire to complete an electric circuit. It relates to the symbolic meaning of autonomy because it slows down certain everyday actions, like turning on or off a lamp. This results in the empowerment of the user, which not only understands the mechanisms that make products work, but becomes more mindful of these ‘automatic’ actions.


Liv by TU Delft is an interactive creature for hospitalized children. It needs movement and social attention to stay “healthy” and asks to interact with other Livs (and other children) through noise and light. It relates to the symbolic meaning of autonomy because redirects the user’s attention to something that needs caretaking, which gives the user a feeling of being capable. This is especially interesting if the user is in a negative or fragile circumstance.