What motivates us to act and behave a certain way? Why do some people appear happier and more content than others? According to Abraham Maslow, a humanistic psychologist, human behavior is deeply influenced by our needs.
That of course makes perfect sense. All our actions are motivated in order for us to meet certain needs, which could be the needs we see that may be lacking in our lives, or that are needed for our survival.
For example, a person suffering from hunger requires nourishment from food, therefore, the focus of their actions is geared towards obtaining food to relieve them from that hunger.
However, we are complicated beings and have evolved to live more complex lives. We are no longer just motivated by our physical survival and procreation needs.
Different aspects of our lives, besides our physical needs, may be lacking, thereby influencing many of our thoughts and actions.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
In 1943, Abraham Maslow outlined what he believes are fundamental human needs, which psychologists often refer to as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
He first introduced this theory in his paper, ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ and further explained it in his book ‘Motivation and Personality’, which he released in 1948.
At the time Maslow studied human needs and motivations, which he perceived to be the main drivers of human behavior. Most of the existing theories were focused mainly on understanding problematic behaviors, rather than their intrinsic causes.
Maslow wanted to understand what makes people happy and what they do in order to achieve their happiness.
Maslow’s theory views self-actualization and contentment as the ultimate goal. Leading up to this ideal are more ‘base’, fundamental, survival-level needs. We can only achieve self-actualization or the state of finding self-fulfillment when all our other needs are satisfied.
Understanding this pyramid concept of realizing both our instinctive and higher-level needs can help us to achieve greater fulfillment and happiness.
Starting at the base of the pyramid, let’s see how these needs motivate our actions.
Hierarchy of Human Needs According to Maslow
A person’s physiological needs are what we refer to as our basic needs that are essential for survival. For example, food, water, and air. These things are vital in helping our body maintain all physiological processes, essentially to keep us alive!
Without all three, we wouldn’t last long. Without food, water, and oxygen, our body will not function properly, and meeting our other needs will become impossible. Therefore, our physiological needs are the most basic but also the most important need of all, before any others can even be considered.
Appetite and hunger play an integral role in our physiological needs. If a person is very hungry for food, it will be impossible to meet other requirements necessary to be happy.
Therefore, the person’s ultimate goal would now be to satisfy their hunger more than anything else. It would be far more important than all the other needs. When it becomes extreme, even other needs such as safety and love will lessen in importance, for example.
Being hungry drives us to be in our most primitive state. As a result, all our efforts and desires become directed towards meeting our physiological needs alone. The future isn’t even a consideration. It is just the present that is important. We are only controlled by our desire to satisfy our hunger.
Safety and Security
Once our physiological needs are met, the next motivator of our actions is our desire for safety and security. Millions of years ago, our ancestors were able to develop skills and tools to protect themselves from hungry predators and each other, as well.
Our safety and security needs stem from our desire to control our environment, including protecting ourselves from various threats. Safety and security needs cover a person’s need for shelter and include financial security, health and wellness, and even the different rules and laws of the land.
These things ensure that there is order and predictability in our surroundings. By having a predictable environment, we feel more confident and can act with more assurance. So how can we meet our needs for safety and security?
Actions such as saving money, having a job, taking care of our health, and moving into a safe and thriving neighborhood are just some actions that stem from our safety and security needs.
Threats to our safety and security can include anything from loss of financial resources, wars, or power shortages to being homeless. Our lack of safety and security in our environment can lead to seriously damaging effects. According to Maslow, experiencing constant threats to our safety could lead to stress and eventually psychological problems, including anxiety and depression.
For example, a person lacking safety and security could develop an obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is a type of anxiety disorder. OCD is characterized by the intense desire to create order and to stabilize one’s entire surroundings.
Love and Belonging
The next level of basic human need is love and belonging. Once the two previous needs are met, a person will now want to feel like they belong. We begin to yearn for romantic attachments and friendships with others.
As John Donne said, ‘No man is an island.’ It was part of a sermon he gave and he meant that we need connections with others as part of our basic human needs, and for survival.
Getting along with others and enjoying all the other benefits of belonging to a group is evident among children and teens. Unfortunately, there are several damaging psychological impacts of isolation, rejection, and rootlessness among younger people that are usually carried well into their adult years.
A perfect example of the need for love and belonging would be the movie Cast Away. After satisfying his basic food and security needs, Chuck, played by Tom Hanks, began a friendship with a ball he called Wilson. The ball became Chuck’s way to fulfill his need for love and belonging.
There are various threats to our need for affection and community. Behaviors driven by any limit to our mobility, the breakdown of traditional groups, the scattering of families, the generational gap, as well as the urbanization of our communities are just some of the factors that can contribute to our lack of socialization with others.
Recently, the pandemic has severely impacted our social needs. Months of lockdowns, isolation and the threat to our physical safety are contributing factors for several mental health problems during the pandemic.
Our need to be loved and to belong seems to intensify whenever people face a common adversary. For this reason, the brotherhood between soldiers, especially those who have fought in battles together, is a special bond that can be appreciated by and is meaningful for others.
The same goes for friendships, marriages, and other relationships that stand the test of time.
The fourth level is a person’s esteem needs. Esteem refers to the respect and admiration that we receive from other people.
It also includes how much we value our own worth as a person. Once a person satisfies their other human needs, the desire to be respected, appreciated and admired for their particular talents and skills becomes more apparent.
Humans crave positive attention, and our esteem needs can become a powerful force that motivates our behavior. We all need to feel that others value us and that we make a significant contribution to society.
If our esteem needs are met, we become more self-confident and feel more capable and adequate to perform our tasks. On the other hand, if esteem needs are not met, a person can easily feel inferior, weak, and helpless.
To fulfill our esteem needs, we need to participate in professional activities, academic pursuits, athletic participation, and not forget to have time for ourselves. Being able to do these activities contributes to the satisfaction of our esteem needs.
At the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is humans’ need for self-actualization. First coined by German psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein in 1939, self-actualization refers to a person’s desire for self-fulfillment.
A person’s self-actualization needs are being met when they feel that they are able to achieve, and are on the path toward their full potential. We only become self-actualized when we are doing what we truly intend to do.
We satisfy our self-actualization needs when we can fully use all of our talents, abilities, and potential as a person.
A self-actualized person is more self-aware and is someone who is more concerned about their personal growth than how others may perceive them.
Unlike the other needs in the hierarchy, there is no one specific way to achieve self-actualization.
This is a much higher-level, discretionary need, involving increased autonomy and choices made on the degree of mental and emotional fulfillment, as opposed to physical satisfaction.
What may make one person fulfilled and at peace with their life may not work for everyone else. Unlike satisfying our hunger or wanting to secure our abode, the paths to self-actualization can vary widely from one person to another.
While our esteem needs are motivated by our desire to be recognized by others, self-actualization needs are perceived purely from the individual’s willingness to reach their full potential.
It is very important to recognize that fully achieving self-actualization is very rare, and one may know of only a handful of self-actualized individuals or none at all.
There is however, great happiness to be found in working towards self-actualization, and in doing these things by choice and not by compulsion.
Deficiency Needs Versus Growth Needs
Seeking adequate food and water, creating a safe place to live in, having a social life, and doing things we love all play a significant role in motivating our behavior.
All the human needs in Maslow’s hierarchy can be either categorized as deficiency needs or growth needs.
Physiological, safety, social, and esteem needs are classified as deficiency needs. All these needs are triggered by feelings of deprivation. We need to satisfy these needs in order for us to avoid damage (physical, mental or emotional) to ourselves and even to others.
Alone, self-actualization is considered a growth need because wanting to be fully self-actualized is not a result of lacking something. Instead, it comes from an individual’s desire to grow as a person. Some psychologists view Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a rigid structure.
However, Maslow clarified that fulfillment of these needs does not have to follow a linear progression. For example, it is possible for a person to feel that their need for self-esteem is more important than finding a romantic partner.
We can also observe that some people at certain times may feel more fulfilled in going after their creative pursuits than fulfilling basic needs such as food and shelter.
Seeking Information Based on our Needs
Fulfilling these needs in our day-to-day lives requires us to obtain different kinds of information. According to Maslow, we need to learn new information to understand the world better. Learning about our environment allows us to better meet our needs.
One example is that when we know about how our particular part of the world works, we can take steps to more adequately ensure our safety. Another example is how when we learn about a specific topic that interests us it can help in our personal growth, which helps to fulfill our self-actualization needs.
The types of information that we seek depend on the need that we want to satisfy. For example,
- Individuals seeking to satisfy physiological needs require some coping information.
- People who are looking to meet their safety needs will look for information and methods that help them to avoid harm or danger.
- Meanwhile, those seeking love and belonging would be looking out for enlightening information often found in self-help books.
- Those who want to fulfill their esteem needs will require some empowering information in the form of leadership seminars, books, or professional talks.
- Finally, those who would like to achieve their self-actualization goals would most likely seek edifying information specific to their dreams and aspirations that could help them reach their full potential.
If there is one thing we can take away from Maslow’s theory on motivation, it is that we should not focus on finding out what is wrong with a person, but instead, we should focus on what that person needs.
There are different reasons as to why we (and everyone else) behave the way we do. As such we can see how our desire to fulfill our needs can similarly motivate others to act in a certain way.
To fully understand a person’s motivations for their behavior, we must look at the different needs they may have and which ones of those needs are not being met.