Maslow Theory and Why it’s a Path to Knowing Your Purpose in Life
In 1943, Abraham Maslow published his theory on human motivation in the form of a “Hierarchy of Needs.” To this day, this is one of the pillars of modern psychology.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs says that humans are perpetually wanting organisms, but there is an order to the things we feel we need. We start at the bottom of the mountain, and we work our way up to the summit.
The key point of this theory is that humans tend to predominantly focus on attaining one need at a time, and, only once that need is satisfied, will they focus on the next need in the hierarchy.
Think about it for a second in your own life…
When you had a bad cold it was difficult to care about things further up the mountain, right?
This whole process mostly happens unconsciously. Many psychologists use this as a tool to understand what is making a patient disturbed, so they can see which need in the hierarchy is not being met, and thus leading to the psychosis, so they may focus on how the patient may satisfy that need.
Where are you on “Maslow Theory Mountain?”
Paraphrasing Maslow’s work, I’ll elaborate on each level of the hierarchy, starting at the bottom, and working our way up the “mountain,” as Maslow intended:
Food, sleep, etc. The fundamentals for life. If we are starving to death or chronically fatigued, we can think of no further need beyond this. To a person who is literally starving to death, happiness is simply being able to eat, and this person imagines that if they had an abundance of food they would want for nothing else…
Shelter, health, protection against danger. Once we have food in our bellies, we look for safety, and we need nothing more than this until this need is satisfied. To a person who is, for example, sleeping on the streets, happiness is a roof over their head, and this person imagines that if they had shelter for life they would want for nothing else…
Love and belonging needs:
Once we have food and shelter, the modern equivalent being a source of income and a place to sleep, we go searching for someone to give love to and receive love from. Maslow’s theory states that we generally don’t go looking for anything beyond this need until it’s satisfied. To a person who does not receive and give love, happiness is being in a loving relationship of some kind, and this person imagines that if they had this they would want for nothing else (are you seeing a pattern? We are perpetually wanting).
Once we have food, shelter, and a sense of belonging and love, we find we have a need for esteem. We look for self-confidence, recognition, respect, and acceptance from others. To a person who does not have this, happiness is being proud of who they are, respected and admired by others, and this person imagines that if they had all those things they would want for nothing else…
Once we have all the previous needs satisfied, we reach the peak of The Hierarchy of Needs, and only now do we search for meaning and purpose in our lives, to explore our full potential and do the thing we were meant to do. To a person who does not have this, happiness is knowing who they are and what their purpose is, living that life and being all they can be, and this person imagines that if they had all that they would want for nothing else…
Now, Maslow conceded that there would be exceptions, such as if our life is threatened and we are at the upper levels of the hierarchy, we would suddenly drop down to safety needs. And, for example, some people seek esteem before love, as a means to get love. Or a person who has lost love may reject physiological or even safety needs as a result of the emotional pain.
Here’s where it gets interesting…
In other words, Maslow himself conceded, in great detail, actually, that one could often observe reversals of this Hierarchy of Needs.
This concession clause in Maslow’s theory is significant, as we are about to see.
Let’s break these hierarchical needs down and look closer.
I’m going to take it for granted that you, in our spoiled Western society, already have and shall continue to have your physiological and safety needs met…
If you become starving hungry as you read this, go eat. If an axe-murderer bursts into your home to interrupt your reading, abandon these words and run away. Otherwise, we have the luxury of assuming we can focus on just the three needs of love, esteem, and self-actualization, in our pursuit of happiness.
So, for now, let’s only consider love, esteem, and self- actualization as our needs. Alas, these three needs and their inter-relationship are the most complex, and this is why and where it all goes wrong for us.
Let’s zoom in…
Overeating isn’t satisfying the physiological need for food; that’s a substitute for some other need not being met…
Sleeping with a stranger discovered on an app isn’t satisfying the need for love…
Flaunting “stuff” and acquiring “likes” about a picture of your lunch isn’t truly satisfying the need for lasting esteem…
These are all hollow substitutes, indicative of our wheels spinning as we attempt to work our way up the treacherous top half of “Maslow Theory Mountain.” And we just keep our foot to the floor, spinning those wheels, hoping that more of the same, under a different brand name, will finally get traction.
The Need for Love…
We think we’ve found love, when in fact we haven’t, and/or this rug gets pulled from under us all too frequently and yanks us back down the hierarchy to this level. How do you know if you’ve satisfied this need when so many of us don’t understand what love truly is?
The Need for Esteem…
Now things really start to come undone in our quest for happiness. It’s easy for us to either have or assume our need for love is met, albeit perhaps temporarily, so, with this potentially thin ice for a foundation, we then search for esteem in the big, bad world. We strive for promotions at work, we provide running commentaries of our lives on social media to validate our existence, we distract ourselves with home makeovers and vacation planning, and we purchase material possessions such as houses and cars, not as much for shelter and transport, but as if they are trophies to be flaunted as status symbols, so that others may respect us.
The Esteem Level is where the war is fought (and lost) with “The Joneses.” The trouble with the quest for esteem is that, unlike the need for physiological, safety, and love, it’s a zero-sum game. Everyone else wants esteem, and they cannot allow you to accumulate more esteem than them.
You will never beat the Joneses. Ever. I’m not being defeatist, only realistic. There will always be people who have more status, money, and power than you. Even if you did beat them, you would not truly have the satisfaction of beating them because they would never speak to you again, so the end result was not the admiration you sought (because you threatened their need for esteem). And, even in the unlikely event that you became so rich and powerful that you did beat virtually all of the Joneses, there would be a new circle of elite Joneses to compete with (not to mention the attention of the government, but that’s another story).
The trouble with the need for esteem is that it’s relative; in order to feel this need is satisfied it generally needs to be so because you have more status than those around you.
Because the prevailing social narrative is to be successful (get rich), too many of us get embroiled in the esteem needs arena. Like gladiators in an amphitheater, we will just have to keep fighting, and never winning because there will always be another opponent, until we die. The crowd that cheers on the fight is surely the advertisers that pander to this need, and their commercials for products that imply we will attain esteem for buying this or that, made in China, bought on credit. In fact, the global economy clings to the surety of the amphitheater running, and everyone selling their souls to compete in it.
How often do we lose love, the need below esteem in the hierarchy, which allows us to search for esteem in the first place, because of getting lost in the fight for esteem? I’d postulate that this epitomizes the cause of most divorces, as the distracted esteem- seekers, once soul mates, now drift away from each other, one unnoticeable degree at a time, until they wake up one day next to someone who’s become a speck on the horizon.
But aren’t there other ways to feel esteem?
We are capable of feeling esteem without society’s stamp of approval, and the key is focusing on feeling esteemed without relying on others to give it to you; by empowering yourself, and disempowering The Joneses.
This is accomplished by discovering your purpose and meaning, but this is the next level up: self-actualization…
The Self-Actualization Need…
What is my purpose? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life?
This, of course, squarely resonates with the direction we’re going, and here is both the crux of the problem and how we must find the solution: we’re too busy running a wild goose chase in the Esteem Level to reach the peak of the Hierarchy of Needs: self-actualization.
The self-actualized summit of “Maslow Theory Mountain,” where we breathe the cleanest air, and are blessed with a breathtaking view, is the place we can’t get to for all the shopping malls in the way.
We’re too busy buying souvenirs of life to live life.
I’m not saying we can’t enjoy shopping, or that we must switch to a socialist lockdown, I’m just saying there needs to be balance and perspective because overconsumption is destructive on multiple levels, and it is not making us happy.
But the summit of Maslow Theory Mountain is where happiness is found. This summit of salvation is where our quest must take us; this is where we find a level of joy that is authentic, effortless, and everlasting.
Cue needle scratching this merry record as Maslow leaves us hanging, throwing his hands in the air about how we should attain self-actualization, other than to say it’s about doing the thing you were meant to do!
To quote Maslow, “Since, in our society, basically satisfied people are the exception, we do not know much about self- actualization, either experimentally or clinically. It remains a challenging problem for research.”
Perhaps writing his thesis in the heat of World War II made self-actualization feel like a luxury when so many people at that time, even in Western society, could not even take physiological and safety needs for granted. So this is as far as Abraham Maslow can take us on our quest; The Holy Grail is in sight, but out of reach…
We are currently lost souls, but if we all had the answers to our deepest questions, if we all had meaning in our lives, knew our purpose, and fulfilled our destinies, we would find everlasting happiness, living on the peak of Maslow Theory Mountain.
This would also mean an end to the overconsumption brought on by us constantly fumbling around in the Esteem level, which would likely mean an end to the boom-and-bust cycle, which history shows would have the potential to stop wars, wars that throw us back down the Mountain to appreciate food and safety, once again.
In short, we would evolve.
As mentioned previously, it became clear to me that people are too busy chasing their tails in The Esteem Needs level of Maslow’s Mountain to get to the Self- Actualization level of purpose and meaning; the place where I knew self-improvement students truly wanted to go, even if they didn’t realize it.
But how could they get to the top? I buried myself in research and came up with a solution that would define my approach forever.
And here it is…
One would be hard pressed to disagree with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and no wonder it’s become one of the pillars of modern psychology. But Maslow made an observation of the human condition, not a solution for it.
It’s a road sign, not a road map, so we implicitly have a choice of direction to take.
Maslow himself gives us a bigger clue in his academic paper when he confesses at length that the big fly in his theory’s ointment was that he had so frequently observed reversals of the Hierarchy, that is to say that people were observed to be going down the Mountain, not up it, examples of which I gave previously.
What if we did the same, and completely reversed the Hierarchy?
We have the luxury of taking physiological and safety needs for granted, so what if we began with self-actualization, and then sought esteem, and then love, could this work?
If we knew our purpose in life, and our life had meaning, wouldn’t this then automatically grant us true, inner-felt esteem, regardless of what The Joneses thought represents success?
And, in turn, wouldn’t this deep, inner meaning and purpose, bursting with resultant, heartfelt esteem about ourselves make us confident, thus making us attractive to the opposite sex, granting us love?
More relevantly, our purpose-driven life would now have guided us toward being with like-minded or complimentary people, and wouldn’t that make this love sustainable and authentic?
Why should you have to wait until you’ve found love and esteem to enjoy the ultimate prize of self-actualization?
After this revelation, after I looked in the mirror, I found the answer, and it’s changed my life forever, on all levels, including how I teach the subject of happiness.
Now it will change yours.
We continually ask ourselves more questions than a thousand wise men can answer, but the question we are left with, The Question, is: “Who am I, and why am I here?”
The Answer is locked in your DNA, and we are going to unlock it.
Like a garbled radio message from our distant past, your meaning and purpose is clear once you know the frequency to tune into.
We will start at the summit of Maslow’s Mountain to answer this question of self- actualization first. I’ll fly you straight to the top, and then we’ll make the descent together to satisfy every other need you’ll ever have.
And it all begins with knowing who you are and why you’re here.
What is your purpose? This is self-actualization.
Here, we will begin with satisfying your need for self-actualization, and only then, once your true self is driving, move on to satisfying the other needs in reverse order: esteem (from purpose), love, safety (health), and physiological needs (money).
I now extend my hand to you, to come join me up here, at the top of the mountain. Click here to begin.