Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

A very important step in our own personal evolution from the person we were programmed to be to the person we desire to be is to figure out just how did we get here?

At some point in our life we left childhood behind and charged into adulthood down a path that was laid out for us whether we realized it or not. Once we were out on our own, free from the control and safety of our parents, we realized that life was a little more difficult than we were led to believe.

Our path was littered with hurdles and roadblocks, each of which being a detour off the path that was to lead us to the good life and the happiness that it would provide for us. And while these hurdles seemed like obstacles thrown in our way by external forces, upon reflection, we need to realize that they were actually choices and decisions that we made that seemed to make sense to our past self, but now our present self has to deal with the consequences.

The irony is that most of those choices we made probably resulted in a “successful” outcome and not the dreaded failure that we were afraid of. But after some time, after getting what we wanted, we realized that that didn’t lead to the long term result that we anticipated. The problem wasn’t that we were not getting what we wanted, we were getting what we thought we wanted, what we were conditioned to want, but we were not getting what we needed. Actually, we were satisfying needs, they just weren’t the ones that we thought they were.

Without realizing it, we were on the treadmill!

“Man is a perpetually wanting animal”

What Is Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?
In the first half of the 20th century, psychologist Abraham Maslow, worked to combine the insights of earlier psychologists such as Freud and Skinner (who focused on the darker, more basic human instincts) and the more upbeat work of Jung and Fromm (who insisted that the desire for happiness is equally worthy of attention).

Instead of focusing on the worst parts of human psychology, Maslow directed his attention to the most positive aspects of what humans are capable of. He focused on what the most psychologically healthy were doing instead of the most ill.

He determined that humans are primarily motivated by a prioritized organization of innate and subconscious set of needs. We are driven to satisfy these needs and driven even harder by the needs that go unsatisfied. These needs are instinctual and basically out of our control, but what is in our control is how we recognizing them and the way that we gratify them.

If we examine the average desires that we have in daily life, we find that they have at least one important characteristic, that they are usually means to an end rather than an end themselves.

Our Basic Needs
The organism is dominated and its behavior organized only by unsatisfied needs.

“What, after all, is boredom but overgratification?”

The Physiological Needs - these are the needs taken as the starting point for motivational theory.
  • The desire for homeostasis.
  • Sexual desire
  • Sleepiness
  • Sheer activity
  • Maternal behavior

The Safety Needs
  • The common preference for a job with tenure and protection
  • A savings account
  • Insurance of various kinds

The healthy, normal, fortunate adult in our culture is largely satisfied in his safety needs.

The Love Needs
  • Love
  • Affection
  • Belongingness - relations with people and for a place in his group.

Love is not synonymous with sex. Sex is multi-determined and may be studied as a purely physiological need as well as a love and affection need.

Note - The love needs involve both giving and receiving love.

The Esteem Needs
  • Self-Esteem - the desire for strength, achievement, adequacy, confidence, independence, and freedom.
  • Respect (esteem from others) - reputation or prestige, recognition, attention, and importance or appreciation.

Gratification leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability and adequacy of being useful and necessary in the world. Thwarting of these needs produces feelings of inferiority, weakness, and of helplessness.

Self-Actualization - Even if all these needs are satisfied, we may still often (if not always) expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he is fitted for. What a man can be, he must be.
  • The desire for self-fulfillment

“Instinct theory accepted the fact that humans are self-movers; that their own nature as well as their environment helps to decide a behavior; that their own nature supplies them with a ready-made framework of ends, goals, or values; that most often, under good conditions, what they want is what they need (what is good for them) in order to avoid sickness.”

A healthy man is primarily motivated by his needs to develop and actualize his fullest potentialities and capacities. If a man has any other basic needs in any active, chronic sense, then he is simply an unhealthy man.

Why Does This Matter?
If all human beings learn to know what they lack, learn what their fundamental desires are, and learn in broad outline the symptoms that the lack of satisfaction of these fundamental desires, they can consciously go about trying to make up for these lacks.

Most of the problems we face in life can be attributed in one way or another to this hierarchy of needs, or more specifically, our inability to satisfy these needs. Without realizing it, we find ourselves stuck at a certain level. This can happen for various reasons such as:
  • Our inability to recognize which need it is that we are trying to satisfy.
    • We think we are hungry but we are really lonely.
    • We feel a lack of financial resources is what keeps us from feeling self-esteem.
  • Placing too much importance on a need that has already been satisfied.
    • We have enough money to provide a lifetime of security, yet we don’t feel secure.
    • We live in a nice house, but we feel the need for a bigger one.
  • Trying to satisfy a need on one level with the same tool we used to satisfy a need at another level.
    • The income our job provides so successfully satisfies our two lowest level needs that we use that tool to solve our love and even our self-esteem needs.
    • Being too comfortable at one level or fearful of advancing to a higher level.

“If individuals know that they should have love, respect, self-respect, and so on, they can consciously seek them out.”

Some of the toughest, most crippling situations we can face are when we find ourselves stuck at a certain level in this hierarchy of needs. But, if we can just recognize which level we are stuck we can start to figure out why we are stuck there, and that can tell us what the problem really is. And knowing what the problem really is, puts us so close to solving it, because problem solving, believe it or not, is what we as humans are great at.

“Most human beings have within their own power greater possibility than they have realized for curing themselves of the multitude of mild maladjustments that are so common in our society.”

Independence and Satisfaction of Needs
When we relegate the satisfaction of our needs to some external force (someone or something else) we leave ourselves incredibly vulnerable, maybe even helpless, and this makes us the very thing that we cannot let ourselves become - a victim. This leads to resentment toward the person that is failing to satisfy our needs, in which case that person is sure to become our “villain” and the likely candidate as the reason for all of our future failures as well.

Conversely, while it may feel gratifying to be the satisfier of someone else’s needs, eventually we will fail in this role, since those needs will become harder and harder to satisfy, making us the major source of that person’s frustrations and ultimately their “villain”.

We can only become self-actualizing if we are satisfying our own needs independently, and self-actualization is the only way to escape the treadmill of needs gratification.

In Conclusion
If we can accept that we are making mistakes all the time and the worst are the ones we don’t even know we are making. That these mistakes are really just attempts to satisfy a need that has already been satisfied, satisfy a need with the wrong tool, or our inability to recognize an unsatisfied need. And if we can accept that these mistakes are the things that are keeping us stuck in the lower levels of needs satisfaction.

Then we will recognize that this inability to advance to the higher needs levels is creating a disconnect within us that is keeping us from achieving self-actualization and a life of fulfillment.

“When we ask what a man wants in his life, we deal with his very essence.”

Self-actualization is the ultimate goal. All the other goals are just stepping stones as we progress up the hierarchy of needs. We just need to figure out what it is that we really want, what would fulfill us, and use that as our overarching goal that will keep us on the path of life that we choose for ourselves.

Take care and I’ll see you out there!

Further reading:

Note: all quotes and excerpts in this post are taken from Motivation and Personality by Abraham Maslow