What drives us, what makes us tick? Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs represents a theory of motivation that attempts to explain basic human nature by dividing and ordering people’s needs in five distinct categories. It is one of the most influential models in psychology.
Due to its hierarchical structure, Maslow’s model of needs often depicted as a pyramid. Lower rungs on the pyramid represent the needs that need to be satisfied first– the basic physiological needs. The highest level on Maslow’s pyramid of needs is occupied by the need for self-actualization which stands for a person’s need to achieve their highest personal potential.
The needs which Maslow describes are: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.
Even though not all later evidence supports Maslow’s concept of a hierarchy of needs, his theory has been immensely influential and has been fundamental to the field of positive psychology.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – The Pyramid
Maslow acknowledged that before fulfilling their full personal potential, people would first invest their energy in resolving their more fundamental needs. This is where the Maslovian pyramid of needs originates. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs includes:
Physiological NeedsThe lowest level in the hierarchy of needs involves satisfying the need for food, drink, sleep, shelter, air, homeostasis, and sex. These are the basic biological necessities that an organism needs to meet in order to be able to function. If these physiological needs are not addressed, the person feels instinctual displeasure, which deepens with increased deprivation. These needs lay the foundation for human motivation and override all others until they are met.
Safety NeedsThe next level in the hierarchy of needs involves physiological safety and security, being unafraid about one’s physical well-being. Moving higher up Maslow’s pyramid of needs makes the needs more complex and more dependent on external determinants.
Personal safety, for example, depends on a web of societal factors. The affordability of housing, societal attitudes towards violence, whether it’s democratic or not, for instance, can all contribute to one’s perception of security. War, xenophobia, homophobia, institutional racism, childhood abuse can also profoundly affect a person’s perception of safety.
Children are particularly sensitive to a lack of safety.
Social Needs for Love and BelongingThe third level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs involves the need to be part of something bigger than oneself and to be accepted unconditionally– to love, be loved and to belong. It is what motivates social behavior and relationships, friendship, kinship, intimacy, giving and accepting love.
People’s social needs have led to the development of sports and church groups, of team-building events, national holidays, the strong cohesion within minority groups and more. Not meeting one’s social needs can cause loneliness, anxiety and clinical depression.
Need for Self-EsteemBelow the peak of the pyramid of needs is the need for respect for oneself, one’s achievements and abilities and recognition from others. Meeting our needs for healthy self-esteem, recognition and status allows us to feel more confident in our abilities and to navigate the world with more pleasure. This is why people may engage passionately with their jobs and hobbies and find a sense of accomplishment through them.
If the need for self-esteem and status is not met, it could significantly hamper one’s ability to function according to their highest potential. People whose needs for esteem are not met could feel inferior and in more severe cases may develop an inferiority complex. This may prompt them to try to overcompensate through the search for fame or glory and the development of an unrealistic self-ideal.
According to Maslow, the need for recognition and reputation is more salient before reaching adulthood. (We cannot help but think of high school cool kids’ politics and adolescent gangs in conflict over respect.) Conversely, adults tend to care more about their own perception of themselves. They invest more energy to fulfill their need for mastery, self-confidence, and independence.
Need for Self-ActualizationAccording to Maslow, the highest need is to be fully in command of one’s abilities and to fulfill one’s potential fully. This represents the felt necessity to use and expand all of one’s resources, capabilities and talents to fulfill a goal that is usually value-based.
Multi-Motivated Behavior in the Hierarchy of Needs
Importantly, most behavior is motivated by more than one need. Taking up a job, for example, and dedicating oneself to it will often be motivated by:
- Physiological needs: we earn through work which allows us to satisfy our necessity for food and shelter.
- Social needs: through our jobs, we often become part of a team and experience some form of belonging to our group. In addition, the money we earn allows us to engage in other social activities with friends and family.
- Esteem needs: Engagement with challenges allows us to build a better appreciation of our abilities. Through problem-solving, we build esteem for our mastery and independence and receive recognition from others.
- Self-actualization: When our work coincides with the field where we can fully expand our potential, it can allow us to reach the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Deficiency Needs and Growth Needs
Maslow’s theory classifies the above five needs into two categories: deficiency needs (D-needs) and being needs (B-needs). According to Maslow, the lower four needs in the hierarchy are all D-needs while the need to achieve one’s full potential is a B-need.
What separates the two is the mechanism through which they motivate a person.
Deficiency needs grow stronger when unsatisfied. For example, the need for food (hunger) is virtually gone after a thorough meal but the more we remain without food, the more pronounced it becomes. And the more likely that it would guide our behavior. In D-needs there is a lack, an unmet that requires to be filled for the individual to feel release.
When this deficit has been met, it dissipates and people’s behavior shifts towards the next level in the hierarchy. These needs then become the most pressing ones.
Let’s illustrate this movement from one level of psychological need to the next. Imagine you have a project due and you have been working on it for some time. You are beginning to feel tired and this feeling deepens the more you continue working.
But you have a cup of coffee, your mental fatigue subsides and you are better equipped to carry on with your work. The cup of coffee you made resolves your physiological need for sleep and allows you to work in order to meet your need for self-esteem, achievement, and mastery (a level four need on Maslow’s pyramid).
Being needs, on the other hand, are felt more strongly the more we feed them. These are the needs for growth and people are more motivated to achieve them when they engage with them. Eventually, they begin to guide their view of the world and of themselves. They alter their behavior toward self-actualization.
The Pyramid of Needs: Moving between the Levels
As stated by Maslow in 1943, meeting lower needs allows the pursuit of higher ones. Much like in a video game, the individual needs to complete the lower levels to be able to move further up.
And while everyone has the potential to move up Maslow’s hierarchy and pursue self-actualization, the progress of many would be obstructed by their inability to meet their lower-level needs.
Societal issues like low access to education and health and more personal life events like sudden unemployment or a divorce may prevent people from moving up the ladder and from achieving their full personal potential and self-fulfillment.
However, Maslow later noted that lower needs could be partially satisfied for someone to move on to the next need in the hierarchy.
So, in theory one could attempt to pursue needs in all five of the above categories. A few examples may help with this point.
Viktor Frankl, an immensely influential psychologist himself and the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, was a Holocaust survivor, who despite the horrors and deprivations of life in a Nazi concentration camp did not lose sight of his higher purpose. There are many other examples. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, for instance, were in similarly life-threatening circumstances as Frankl but their higher level needs for justice and love were not affected.
Maslow too was intrigued by the seeming contradiction of pursuing higher-order needs before lower ones. He proposed that a creative drive for self-expression or the pursuit of social values may come prior to lower-level needs for some individuals. Maslow famously said: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be.”
Maslow’s Expanded Hierarchy of Needs
After the statement of his initial theory of human motivation in Psychological Review in 1943, Maslow continued to work and expand his model. Thus, he later included cognitive and aesthetic needs as well as the need for transcendence among his original five human necessities.
His expanded eight-stage hierarchy of needs would thus look something like this:
- Physiological Necessities:
The basic physiological needs for air, food, drink, sleep, sex, and shelter
- Safety Needs:
Physiological safety and security, being unafraid about one’s physical well-being
- Social Needs for Love and Belonging
The need for friendship, familial bonds, feelings of intimacy and love
- Need for Self-esteem
The necessity for self-esteem and peer recognition
- Cognitive Needs
The need for knowledge, exploration, and meaning. Curiosity is a major driving force in satisfying this need.
- Aesthetic Needs
The motivation to look for beauty, harmony, synergy, and balance.
- Need for self-actualization:
The need for self-fulfillment and personal growth
- Transcendence Needs
According to Maslow’s later work, the fullest realization of a person is in dedicating oneself to something beyond themselves. He proposes that this highest level of need can be achieved through altruism, spirituality and the pursuit of science or art.
His updated model suggests that the D-needs are: physiological, safety, social and esteem needs. The growth (or B-needs) are cognitive, aesthetic, self-actualization and transcendence needs.
The Self Actualization Definition According to Maslow
Maslow defined self-actualization as the desire and the process through which a person becomes everything they are capable of becoming. And because of their variety of motivations and personalities, self-actualization will represent very different outcomes for different people. Some will reach for their highest needs through artistic self-expression, others through parenting or politics, engineering or something else.
As stated earlier, according to Maslow’s hierarchy model, the highest need, the need for self-actualization is a growth need. Thus, when pursuing it, and as they move further and further along, people are in a state of constant ‘becoming’. They grow and develop.
This is markedly different from the steadiness (but also grounding, achievement of homeostasis) of the state granted by meeting the D-needs. Unlike being satiated or safe, where there is a ceiling of how deeply they can be met, self-actualization is a moving target. This is why, for self-actualized people, being becomes becoming.
To complete his theory of self-actualization, Maslow studied historical figures in an attempt to find the aspects that self-actualized people possessed. Among these figures were Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Addams, William James, Albert Schweitzer, Aldous Huxley, and Baruch Spinoza.
Traits of Self-Actualized People
And while the final manifestations of self-actualization might differ, Maslow believed that self-actualizers shared a few traits in common.
These are intense moments of emotion or transcendence. Anyone could have these experiences, but Maslow notes that they tend to be experienced much more often by self-actualized people.The essence of peak experiences is notoriously difficult to describe. Maslow called them “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.” In addition, all of the different elements of a peak experience are perceived together, holistically. (This might explain part of the difficulty of attempting to communicate their experience.)
In addition, the self-actualizing individual may experience a profound sense of harmony and of using all their capabilities with effortlessness. One of the reasons for this is that due to the lack of self-consciousness, the experiencer would not have doubts, fears, inhibition or self-criticism. And they are fully mindful of the present.
And while it can manifest itself in times of intense events, it could also be experienced while performing simple tasks.
- Flow is the full immersion of the individual in their current task. In contrast to peak experiences, who seem to happen to the experiencer, flow occurs internally.
- Efficient perception of reality and tolerance towards uncertainty.
- A problem-centered, objective approach to life
- Highly creative and engaged
- Capacity for profound positive interpersonal relationships
- Societal concern and democratic attitudes guided by strong ethical standards
- An unusually sharp sense of humor
- Necessity for privacy
Self-actualization theory: Becoming self-actualized
Walking the path to self-actualization is where things may become tricky. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, only about two percent of people self-actualize. Maslow thought that the behavior which leads to achieving our highest needs and mental health involved:
- Involvement and absorption, experiencing life ‘as a child’
- Flexibility, exposing oneself to new experiences and letting go of internal defense mechanisms
- Being true to oneself and honest to others, including listening to own feelings and being prepared to be unpopular
- Taking responsibility and working hard
Maslow’s Theory of Motivation: Conclusions
To Abraham Maslow, when we operate at a level beneath our full potential, we aim to address and satiate deficiencies. Once these needs, the physiological, safety, social and esteem needs, are more or less met, we are ready to experience life to the fullest and live within the full scale of our being. We become self-actualized.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs does not tell us that everyone will or even can become self-actualized in due time. He acknowledges the many circumstantial variables that will aid or prevent us in achieving our true potential and growing further.
But we should likely strive regardless. After all, peak experiences do sound very fun. And if we never reach the highest level of Maslow’s pyramid, we would likely enjoy having self-esteem, enjoying, loving music and art.
Providing ourselves with a little more self-care. Which is a form of growth in itself.