Maslow's hierarchy of needs
The concept of the ‘hierarchy of needs’, first proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943, is one of the modern world’s most popular, widely-discussed, and enduring psychological theories. You may well already be familiar with the basic tenets of Maslow’s pyramidal approach to human achievement, but below I shall examine each level in detail.
But first, why does this decades-old approach to human achievement remain relevant today? I believe that, even though we as a species are now far more technologically advanced than when Maslow unveiled his theory, our fundamental human instincts and desires have never changed – and never will. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs allows us to understand our primary motivating (and oftentimes subconscious) emotional drivers. By better understanding such forces, we are able to augment, and facilitate, our own emotional and psychological advancement upwards through the pyramid.
It should come as no surprise to learn that the first – and most essential – level of the hierarchy concerns our fundamental physiological needs. Without sufficient supplies of air, water and food, we simply cannot exist; and, of course, how well we exist is largely defined by the quality and quantity in which we consume these essential life sources.
In addition, we can include our innate desires for shelter, sleep, clothing and even sex in this introductory tier. Until each of these needs have been met, we will never be able to progress beyond the first level of the hierarchy.
Safety and security
The next level of needs, ‘safety’, is comprised of elements which – although most of us in developed countries often take for granted – remain difficult for many to achieve and retain. Having a gainful occupation, a healthy body, a property to call one’s own and, above all, a feeling of personal security are all vital components of the human experience.
Having the ability to acquire certain items that we desire is also important, but I should emphasise that this does not equate to being materialistic. Ensuring the comfort of ourselves and our loved ones is a basic need – purchasing extravagant products just for the sake of it is not.
Love and belonging
Whilst it is true that the person whose acceptance you must strive to secure above all others is yourself, this does not mean that you should live your life in a social vacuum. Indeed, Maslow’s theory suggests that self-esteem can only be achieved by those who have first built themselves a network of close friends and family.
It is important to give another caveat at this point: the aforementioned network need not be extensive in size. As with everything in life, it is the quality – not the quantity – that matters; sharing intimacy and a sense of connection with a small but cherished group is infinitely preferable to having dozens of casual acquaintances.
As alluded to in the previous section, an important factor of the most elusive human ‘deficiency’ need (i.e. something which motivates us by its not being present) is gaining the respect and esteem of ourselves. Put simply, you will not be able to become the perfect version of yourself if you do not believe in your own innate ability to do so.
In addition to self-respect, it is also undoubtedly gratifying to be recognised by our peers for our contribution to society. Whether you are a specialist in business, academia, sports, or any other field you could care to name, being known as a ‘high-achiever’ certainly provides a degree of strength and freedom which cannot be enjoyed by anyone who has surrendered themselves to a life of mediocrity.
The pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy is the only level which can be classified as a ‘growth’ or ‘being’ need, as opposed to a ‘deficiency’ need. In practice, this means that its motivation is not driven by a lack of something, but rather by unabashed aspiration – the desire to become the best person we can be.
Maslow’s belief – and it is one I share – is that achieving true self-actualisation is often stymied by our fluctuating between the lower levels of his hierarchy. The vast majority of people spend their lives travelling between the four lower tiers as personal, professional, and physical challenges periodically arise and throw even the best-laid plans into disarray.