Prominently placed at the top of Maslow’s pyramid rests self-actualization; the final landing spot for the weary traveler, seeking self-improvement. At least, that’s how I previously understood Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—physiological, security, relationship, self-esteem, and finally self-actualization—like Buddha’s enlightenment. But this understanding was limiting, viewing the pyramid through a life-long growth perspective. I missed the complexity. Life growth is not linear. Maslow’s hierarchy pyramid provides additional wisdom when examined from a moment to moment perspective.
Self-Actualization as a Life Attainment
Certainly, Maslow was speaking of a developed state of being, achieved through a continuous growth. Maslow’s self actualized person is an individual that maximizes their potential. Those that continually strived for self actualization lived what Maslow defined as the “good life.” Perhaps, much like Aristotle’s Eudaimonia.
Many theories of human wellness point to a higher level of development. The theories suggest an “exceptionally advanced, psychosocial maturity—the pinnacle of progressively increasing capacities to think complexly, deeply, and richly about the self an others” (2011).
Maslow wrote, “a musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization” (1943/2011).
In describing self-actualization Maslow used such words as, “self-fulfillment, self-expression, working out of one’s own fundamental personality, the fulfillment of its potentialities, the use of its capacities, the tendency to be the most that one is capable of being” (2011, Kindle location 914).
Progression Through the Hierarchy of Needs
On our life long journey, we don’t move through the hierarchy of needs by conquering one level and then continuing to the next, never looking back. This is linear thinking: Point A to Point B.
For example, writing this self-actualization post, I fulfill a self-actualization need. But in an hour or so, I will set my research aside because I am hungry—a biological need. In the evening, I will greet my wife when she returns home and discuss the happenings of our days—security and relationship need. Sometime after nightfall my body will tire and need rest—biological need.
Our Motivation to Fulfill Needs
We are driven by needs. The needs push action. The foundational levels of Maslow’s pyramid stimulate stronger emotions that the top. Unfulfilled basic drives don’t necessarily prevent higher level action. I can still write while hungry. But if lower level needs are neglected long enough, the body redirects attention and remaining focused becomes more of a challenge.
Maslow explains the impact of unfulfilled needs builds the foundation for psychopathology. He wrote, “any thwarting or possibility of thwarting of these basic human goals, or danger to the defenses which protect them, or to the conditions upon which they rest, is considered to be a psychological threat. With a few exceptions, all psychopathology may be partially traced to such threats” (2011, location 1,473).
Self-actualization is not a premium but an actual need. Maslow explains, “danger to these is reacted to almost as if it were a direct danger to the basic needs themselves. Such conditions as freedom to speak, freedom to do what one wishes so long as no harm is done to others, freedom to express one’s self, freedom to investigate and seek for information, freedom to defend one’s self, justice, fairness, honesty, orderliness in the group are examples of such preconditions for basic need satisfactions. Thwarting in these freedoms will be reacted to with a threat or emergency response” (2011, location 1,228).
Self-Discipline, Need Fulfillment, and Self-Actualization
The amount of self-discipline to fulfill higher needs while the physical body beckons attention to foundational drives varies between individuals. Self-discipline is not a constant. Our response to impulse strengthens or weakens through experience, like a muscle. Marathoners master self-discipline, continuing to run when their muscles beg them to stop. The racer keeps running long after lower drives signal the need to rest.
Fulfilling needs is very individual, we inherit different skills and resources from parents that ease or complicate the burden of survival. Some children are fortunate enough to move into adulthood with a paid education and a bank full of money. This significantly eases the demands of survival, leaving time to chase enlightenment, or careers that fulfill but less likely to provide a comfortable living.
Many mastered skills (through education and experience) increase earning capacity, freeing demands to fulfill basic security and biological needs. Several years of conscientious relationship building creates strong bonds of trust lightening concerns of abandonment. While a relationship lacking trust may continual draw attention and stimulate anxiety.
“At the peak of this hierarchy is self-actualization. The hierarchy suggests that when the other needs at the base of the pyramid have been met, you can then focus your attention on this pinnacle need of self-actualization.”~Kendra Cherry | verywellmind
Repeated healthy behaviors establish foundations that fulfill needs with less mental energy, leaving more resources for higher order needs.
We still bounce between the different levels of fulfillment, but a life well organized, boosted by early life decisions and direction has more energy left for self-actualization. We neglect higher order needs when the basics demand more resources.
Our Need for Meaning
Just as our body has nutritional needs, we also have need for purpose. Once fed and rested, secure in our relationships, and competent in our ability to survive, we encounter an existential crisis. We question deeper meanings.
We have little time for the mental gymnastics of purpose and meaning when our tummies are empty, and our partner is angry. But during the calm, we begin to wonder, “Why?” When lower level needs are satisfied with less effort, we have more resources to direct towards filling the emptiness of purpose. Like eating and sleeping, fulfilling deeper needs is an on-going process. Self-actualization transcends survival by adding meaningful actions.
Life Complexity and Self-Actualization
Life is complex. We continually face struggles, joys, successes and failures. But with purposeful effort, we improve at this complex game. The more adept we are at fulfilling needs, the richer our life becomes.
With each new vista of meaning, we discover new peaks to climb. Enjoy the momentary feelings of successes. Self-actualizing moments bring pleasure and strengthen self-confidence; but only momentarily. The pleasure subsides and new pushes goad us forward. Comforting and discomforting emotions constantly flow through our bodies pushing and restraining action. The feelings energize action.
We can’t transcend the biological givens of living, survival needs will intrude when neglected. We flourish not from lack of discomfort but from lack of effective responsive action to fulfill the underlying needs. We flourish by transcending lower level drives long enough to address the deeper needs of security, relationships, self-esteem and eventually self-actualization.
Bauer, J., Schwab, J., & McAdams, D. (2011). Self-Actualizing. The Humanistic Psychologist, 39(2), 121-136.
Maslow, Abraham (1943/2011). Hierarchy of Needs. A Theory of Human Motivation.