The Hierarchy of Needs developed by Abraham H. Maslow provides an understanding about the motivation of human nature and the desire for personal growth in a simplistic way.
When we have nothing to eat, our first impulse is not to go to an art gallery and enjoy the beauty of the artistic drawings, but all we crave for in that moment is food to feed our empty stomachs.
The Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a simple categorization of human needs, where our basic biological needs are located at the bottom and the more psychological related needs are located at the top. This hierarchy expresses that human beings strive towards fulfillment of Deficiencies Needs first before we devote ourselves to fulfilling the Being Needs. Identification with the highest needs, however, can be found in any person, especially in virtuous people with character strength, even when their deficiencies needs are not fulfilled completely.
Maslow stated that “‘highest’ [need] means also weakest, most expendable, least urgent, least conscious, most easily repressed.” That means that we spent more time on fulfilling the basic needs and the likelihood of reaching the stage of self-actualization or even self-transcendence is lower, at least it was at the time when Maslow published ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ in 1943. In the current developed Western world with social systems in place, we do not have to worry about food or shelter and can freely choose our belonging to diverse interest groups. Instead we put more emphasis on psychological health and the Being Needs.
The hierarchy of needs visualizes that we are naturally drawn to reaching the highest possible state that can be; a state that Maslow described as reaching our full humanness. He speaks about mental health and that it is our nature to be an explorer, to be a choosing, seeking and deciding animal. In every child there is an intrinsic own impulse towards growth and self-actualization.
“It is reasonable to assume in practically every human being, and certainly in almost every newborn baby, that there is an active will toward health, an impulse toward growth, on toward the actualization of human potentialities.”
Responsibility of life in own hands
In order to reach the stage of self-actualization, where we make so called ‘peak experiences’ or are in flow, it requires knowledge of self.
“Knowledge of one’s own deep nature is also simultaneously knowledge of human nature in general.”
Every healthy human being has the potential to reach that state of a self-directed life, as he expressed in for that time common male dominant style:
“Yes, man is in a way his own project and he does make himself. But also there are limits upon what he can make himself into. The project is predetermined biologically for all men; it is to become a man.”
Fear of own greatness
What is hindering us from self-actualization, from expressing truly who we are and finding our own way, is the fear of our own potential. We are searching for truth, but at the same time are afraid of it.
“If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.”
Maslow also states that the socio-economic-political environment we are in is having an influence on our ability to reach the top of the hierarchy of needs. At a time of raising Artificial Intelligence (AI) it might be necessary to highlight the importance of the technological environment as well. Maslow asks if we generally believe in the goodness of humans, why are so many doing ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ things? Could the environment we are in be the problem? He emphasizes that it is our responsibility to create environments that nudge people into a healthier state, so that more people are doing good. Maslow defines good “as the degree to which an object fulfills its definition or concept.”
“Self-interest is the basis of all human nature, but not a sufficient description of all human motives.”
The stage of self-actualization in the hierarchy of needs is not meant in the literal way in which it is nowadays often referred to. It does not simply mean reaching one’s own highest potential at the cost of others. Maslow stresses that, “fulfillment of basic needs can only take place by and through other human beings.” He speaks of a strategy of compassion and values empathy towards other humans.
Self-actualization is bringing out the full human potential of a human being by working on something that is outside of one self. The B-Values as Maslow calls them. By being in peak experiences the self or ego is actually reduced. This mindfulness of knowing one self and accepting all aspects seeks out what the situation at hand demands. Ideally a synergistic state is reached.
“[Synergetic environments] are social institutional conditions which fuse selfishness and unselfishness, by arranging it so that when I pursue ‘selfish gratifications’, I automatically help others, and when I try to be altruistic, I automatically reward and gratify myself also.”
“One’s ideal and perception of self come closer together to permit self-respect and self-love.”
In the stage of self-transcendence there is a total loss of self-consciousness. The goal and the process become the same, expectations come closer to actuality, work and play transcend. There is a natural fit between the person and the job, where internal and external requiredness meets. The reward of doing work is reward in itself. Means are turned into an end. Self-transcendence means getting to the essence of things or persons. The objectification of things and people robes the personal relation or meaning.
“If you are unhappy with your work, you have lost one of the most important means of self-fulfillment.”
The metamotivation of everything we do is based on Being-Values (B-Values). Maslow describes the highest and most pleasurable need satisfaction we humans admire as the transcendence between one self and these B-Values. The B-Values are:
- Truth / honesty
- Goodness / justice / rightness
- Beauty (form / perfection / simplicity / uniqueness)
- Wholeness (unity / integration / inter-connectedness / oneness)
- Aliveness (process / spontaneity / expression of itself)
- Uniqueness / individuality
- Perfection (nothing lacking)
- Completion (finality / fulfillment of destiny)
- Justice / Fairness
- Simplicity (only that which is necessary)
- Richness (differentiation / everything is equally important)
- Effortlessness (ease)
- Playfulness (fun / joy)
- Self-sufficiency (autonomy / independence / self-determining / identity)
For example in a self-transcended state a lie told to a stranger is also hurting me when I value truth. Ultimately, what we do is an expression of these incarnated intrinsic values. We do love our job or identify with our work, because the tasks we do embody these values. If I am a lawyer I enjoy what I do on a daily basis because it gives me the opportunity to achieve justice. Every single task is important to achieve justice with it now and in the future. The goal and the process have melted, our jobs and the B-Values transcend.
The importance and preference of the individual values are based on the individual’s talents and skills. What is interesting is that monetary motivation does not play a role at this stage anymore, if our basic needs are covered. We also need to bear in mind that the B-Values represent ideals that might never be reached. Nevertheless, it helps us understand that it is our human nature to strive towards them as close as possible.
How to self-actualize?
How can we get to the stage of self-actualization in the Hierarchy of Needs after our Deficiencies Needs are fulfilled? Maslow presents eight possibilities:
- Get into peak experiences or flow
- Make the growth choice instead the fear choice
- Listen to inner voice
- When in doubt, be honest and take responsibility
- Be courageous to be unpopular or different
- Do what we are good at, at any time (see also next point)
- Learning what we are good at and what not and using this knowledge to set up environments as well as communicating it to others
- Identifying defenses and giving them up (A helpful tool is reflection)
What Need or B-Value are you striving for currently?
This article is based on Maslow’s book ‘The farther reaches of human nature’.