Next, we move to the pyramid of needs, otherwise known as Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It states that we are all seeking various types of needs in various points in our lives; when you can observe which level other people are in, you can understand what they are seeking out and motivated by. The levels of the hierarchy are as follows: physiological fulfillment, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Of course, this model, as well as the next one, also functions based on the pleasure principle.
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Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is one of the most famous models in the history of psychology. It employs a pyramid to show how certain human “needs”—like food, sleep, and warmth—are necessary to resolve before more aspirational needs like love, accomplishment, and vocation. Maslow’s pyramid can be viewed as a visual example of how motivation changes and increases after we get what we need at each stage in our lives, which typically coincides with where we are on the hierarchy itself.
When psychology professor Abraham Maslow came along in the 1940s, his theory boiled everything down to one revolutionary idea: human beings are a product of a set of basic human needs, the deprivation of which is the primary cause of most psychological problems. Fulfilling these needs is what drives us on a daily basis.
The hierarchy, now named for him, maps out basic human needs and desires and how they evolve throughout life. It functions like a ladder—if you aren’t able to satisfy your more basic foundational human needs and desires, it is extremely difficult to move forward without stress and dissatisfaction in life. It means your motivations change depending on where you are in the hierarchy.
To illustrate, let’s take a look at how our needs and associated motivations change from infancy to adulthood. As infants, we don’t feel any need for a career or life satisfaction. We simply need to rest, be fed, and have shelter over our heads. Feeding and survival are our only real needs and desires (as parents of newborns will tell you).
As we grow from infants into teenagers, simply staying alive and healthy doesn’t bring satisfaction. We hunger for interpersonal relationships and friendships. What drives us is to find a feeling of belonging and community. Then, as we mature into young adults, simply having a great group of friends is no longer enough to satisfy us. It feels empty, actually, without an overall sense of purpose.
If, as young adults, we are fortunate enough to be able to provide financial security and stability for ourselves and our families, then our desires and needs can turn outward rather than inward. It’s the same reason that people like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates start participating in philanthropy to make as big an impact as they can on the world.
The stages of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs determine exactly what you’re motivated by depending on where you are in the hierarchy.
The first stage is physiological fulfillment. This is easily seen in the daily life of an infant. All that matters to them is that their basic needs for survival are met (i.e., food, water, and shelter). Without security in these aspects, it is difficult for anyone to focus on satisfaction in anything else—it would actually be harmful to them to seek other forms of satisfaction. So this is the baseline level of fulfillment that must first be met.
The second stage is safety. If someone’s belly is full, they have clothes on their back, and they have a roof over their head, they need to find a way to ensure that those things keep on coming. They need to have a secure source of income or resources to increase the certainty and longevity of their safety. The first two stages are designed to ensure overall survival. Unfortunately, many people never make it out of these first two stages due to unfortunate circumstances, and you can plainly see why they aren’t concerned with fulfilling their potential.
The third stage is love and belonging. Now that your survival is ensured, you’ll find that it is relatively empty without sharing it with people you care about. Humans are social creatures, and case studies have shown that living in isolation will literally cause insanity and mental instability, no matter how well fed or secure you are. This includes relationships with your friends and family and socializing enough so you don’t feel that you are failing in your social life.
Of course, this stage is a major sticking point for many people—they are unable to be fulfilled or focus on higher desires because they lack the relationships that create a healthy lifestyle. Isn’t it easy to imagine someone who is stuck at a low level of happiness because they don’t have any friends?
The fourth stage is self-esteem. You can have relationships, but are they healthy ones that make you feel confident and supported?
This stage is all about how your interactions with others impact your relationship with yourself. This is a very interesting level of maturity in terms of needs because it boils down to self-acceptance. You know you have a healthy level of self-esteem when you can accept yourself even if you are misunderstood or outright disliked by others. For you to get to this stage and have a healthy level of self-esteem, you have to have accumulated certain achievements or earned the respect of others. There is a strong interplay between how you get along with others and help others and how you feel about yourself.
The final stage is self-actualization. The highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization. This is when you are able to live for something higher than yourself and your needs. You feel that you need to connect with principles that require you to step beyond what is convenient and what is comfortable. This is the plane of morality, creativity, spontaneity, lack of prejudice, and acceptance of reality.
Self-actualization is placed at the top of the pyramid because this is the highest (and last) need people have. All the lower levels have to be met first before a person can reach this last level. You know you are working with somebody who operates at a truly high level when they do not focus so much on what is important to them, their self-esteem, or how other people perceive them. This is the stage people are at when they say they want to find their calling and purpose in life.
Maslow’s theory may not accurately describe all of our daily desires, but it does provide an inventory for the broad strokes of what we want in life. We can observe people to understand which stage of life they are in, what is currently important to them, and what they require to get to the next level in the hierarchy.
Consider a counselor who works at a women’s shelter. She can use the pyramid of needs to help her decide how to approach and communicate with the women who come there for help. She knows that when a woman first turns up, she is primarily concerned with her physical safety. If she is fleeing domestic violence, trying to secure funds, or is worried about the well-being of her children, she’s not going to be in a position to sit down and work through a cheesy self-love workbook with the counselor. At the same time, a woman who has been at the shelter for a few months has her physical needs largely fulfilled, but may be in the mindset of needing to feel companionship and belonging. The counselor knows that she needs to befriend and support such a woman.
It would be utterly useless to try to talk to either of these women about high-level concepts like compassionately forgiving your abuser or going on to make meaning of your story. On the other hand, a woman who survived domestic abuse and was recovering well might have needs higher up on the hierarchy, and will seek more for herself. A good counselor would use this knowledge to frame how she spoke to each one, and tailor her advice and support to match each woman’s deeper motivation. Such a counselor would no doubt be described as a person who understood others.
But let’s say the counselor encounters a woman one day who is beaten black and blue by her partner, but nevertheless denies that she’s being abused, and simply changes the topic when anyone mentions it. What’s going on here? Our next section explores one key way in which people seek pleasure, avoid pain, and try to address their needs—that is, through defense mechanisms.
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