Maslow’s Pyramid of Human Needs and the path to self-actualization

pyramid of needs

Maslow’s Pyramid of Human Needs and the path to self-actualization

Maslow’s Pyramid of Human Needs and the path to self-actualization25601789Manolis Stratakis

The pyramid of needs

Abraham Maslow, one of the most renowned psychologists worldwide, devoted an important part of his career searching for the meaning of life. After many years of research, he managed to deliver a consistent map of human needs, first in a paper titled “A theory about human motivation” and later in his book titled “Motivation and personality”. His works led to the famous Pyramid of Maslow.

All human needs are categorized in a five-level hierarchy: physiological, security, social, self-esteem and self-actualization. He classified the first two as basic needs, the next two as emotional needs and the fifth as self-fulfillment needs. These needs dictate the rules of all human behavior.

pyramid of needs

Diagram 1: Maslow’s pyramid: Hierarchy of Human Needs

Material and spiritual needs

The general concept behind the pyramid is that lower stages host mainly our material needs, while in the higher ones, we find the spiritual needs. Also, as it happens in a ladder or a pyramid, it is difficult (although not impossible) to climb in the higher steps without first pass through the lower ones. Therefore, the physiological needs have priority over the spiritual, without this being absolutely necessary.

Let’s see how Maslow himself describes it:

“It is true that man can live with bread alone – when there is no bread. But what happens with human needs when there’s plenty of bread? At once, new higher needs emerge and take the place of the physiological. And when these have been satisfied, new even higher ones emerge, and so on”

To a large extent, success in life depends on whether we manage to climb to the top of the pyramid and reach self-actualization. We could think of it as a video game, where we must complete one challenge in order to go to the next, however it doesn’t work exactly like this. Our life allows us to pass to the next step, even if we haven’t yet completed fully the ones before.

The five steps of Maslow’s pyramid

So all our needs can be split in five categories. Let’s look at them in detail starting from bottom to the top.

BASIC NEEDS (Reptilian brain)

First level: Physiological needs

This stage contains all the absolutely necessary for survival needs. These are whatever our physical body demands to continue living and reproducing. Oxygen, water, food, shelter. Sex is also placed in this category.

Second level: Safety needs

As soon as the physiological needs are satisfied, humans will pursue to live in an environment with greater safety. To this purpose, they seek a job and a stable income, they try to obtain more and more resources, protect their property and save or invest for the future.

Diagram 2: Maslow’s pyramid: Basic, Emotional and Self-fulfilment Needs

EMOTIONAL NEEDS (Limbic system)

Third level: Social needs

As humans are the principal social animals, their purpose is to find a good place in the society. So, they connect with others in relationships of friendship or cooperation, take part in groups, develop an identity and empower all their social skills. They also learn to be useful. Perhaps, they start a family and create a familiar and pleasant environment around them that provides love, interest and a sense of belonging. They seek to participate in something bigger than themselves.

Fourth level: Esteem needs

Given their social nature, humans wish to have good fame, esteem, respect and recognition by others. On top of that, they want to feel confidence, freedom and independence. These needs are also called egoistic needs as they are driven by our ego.


Fifth level: Self-fulfillment needs

This is the higher step in the ladder of human needs. It is our wish to find a place in life, to give meaning in whatever we do, to find a higher purpose, to leave our footprint in our trip through life. However, in order to succeed in all these, we will first need to upgrade our self into its next, advanced edition. We need to make quality changes in our character, acquire new skills, exploit our talents, make dreams and chase them in every way possible. We need to become better.

Growth needs versus Deficiency needs

Needs in the first four steps are referred to as deficiency needs. This means that those needs stem from our wish to get rid of our weaknesses or acquire things we lack. As we acquire more and more adequacy, our motivation decreases.

Diagram 3: Maslow’s pyramid: Growth and Deficiency needs

The top need of self-actualization is referred to as a growth need.

It is nothing else than our desire for self-development. As this desire is satisfied, instead of decreasing our motivation, the opposite happens: it is amplified. As we become better, our self-confidence increases and we wish to become even better.

Obstacles on our road to self-actualization

As Maslow stated:

“Whatever a man can be, he must be”

He called this esoteric human need, self-actualization.

For an artist, it might be an extraordinary piece of work, for an athlete, it might be an important new record, for a visionary it can be a big dream coming into reality.

For each one of us, it can be the satisfaction of our need to feel happy.

It is obvious, that only a few of us can reach the top of the pyramid. Maslow estimated that only 2% of people can reach the state of self-actualization. Not because of some genetic advantage, but mainly because self-actualized people manage to focus clearly to the top. Also, they manage to overcome or ignore most of the main obstacles which stop all the others.

Such obstacles can be:

  • Lack of quality education
  • Fixed mindset (the wrong perception that people do not change)
  • Low motivation (inability for self-motivation)
  • Lack of a suitable example (parent, teacher, friend, mentor)
  • Too much attention to the non-important
  • Inability to see the big picture

In the list above, we could add life’s adversities (financial, health or others) which can get us stuck for years in the lower steps of the pyramid. However, life is full with examples of people, which despite the amazingly difficult circumstances they faced, managed to reach their self-fulfillment. Adversities not only stopped them, but on the contrary they helped them take-off.

Characteristics and behavior of people who can reach self-actualization

  • They have high moral standards. To a great extent, they accept their self, but also life in general. They tend to focus less on their selves and more outside of themselves. Almost always they have innovative thinking and a somewhat unusual sense of humor.
  • They follow a responsible and objective life approach, taking responsibility for their actions and decisions. In addition, they are honest and never fake.
  • Exceptionally creative: they enjoy trying new things, instead of choosing the known, easy paths and they are reconciled with uncertainty.
  • They are authentic and develop their own views, instead of adopting the dominant standpoint of tradition, authority or majority.
  • They appreciate deeply the small pleasures and live life as if they were small children with supreme concentration, amusement and devotion.
  • Privacy and personal time are of top importance to them: they often choose loneliness so they can think and create without any interference.
  • Finally, they have a clear sense of what is important to them and what isn’t. They are ready to pay the price, in order to enjoy more of their time with what’s important and less with all the rest.

Welcoming discomfort

So there seems to be another, safer way to self-actualization and this is nothing else than make friends with difficulties, welcoming instead of avoiding them. The hard way seems to go there much more efficiently than the easy one.

Therefore, perhaps self-actualization is the predominance of our creative brain over its two partners, the reptilian and emotional. It takes many years of fermentation and negotiations among the three of them, in order to get along and reach a smooth state of balance and harmony.


Read also the article: Step out of your comfort zone to pursue personal growth and development


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