How Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Helps Us Understand the Meaning of Life

Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” was “written as pure psychology,” notes the BBC, but “it has found its main application in management theory.” It has also become one of the best-known theories of human well-being. But whether you first encountered it in an Intro Psych class or a business training seminar, you’ll immediately recognize the triangular scheme of the “hierarchy of needs,” leading upward from basic physical necessities to full self-actualization.

Maslow’s theory had great explanatory power, offering what he called a “third force" between idealism and materialism. He was in line, he wrote, with the more spiritually-minded pragmatists, or what he called “the functionalist tradition of James and Dewey… fused with the holism of Wertheimer, Goldstein, and Gestalt Psychology, and with the dynamicism of Freud and Adler.” Against the general trend in psychology to pathologize, Maslow offered his paper as “an attempt to formulate a positive theory of motivation.”




His work helped inspire managers to “shape the conditions that create people’s aspirations,” says Gerald Hodgkinson, psychologist at the Warwick Business School,” in order to influence productivity and loyalty in their employees. If this seems manipulative, perhaps Maslow can be held no more responsible than can Freud for the use of his work by his nephew Edward Bernays, who almost single-handedly invented modern advertising and propaganda using Freudian appeals.

Maslow had in mind something grander than managing human capital—"no less,” says Alain de Botton in the School of Life video above, "than the meaning of life.” His quest came itself from a personal motivation. “I was awfully curious,” he once remarked, “to find out why I didn’t go insane.” Or, as de Botton says, he wanted to know “what could make life purposeful for people, himself included, in modern-day America, a country where the pursuit of money and fame seemed to have eclipsed any more interior or authentic aspirations.”

De Botton walks us through the hierarchy, which divides into two dimensions, the material—basic biological needs (including sex) and the need for safety—and the psychological. In this last category, we find the social needs for belonging (“the love needs,” Maslow called them) and esteem, capped with the apex need—self-actualization—the realization of one’s true purpose. “A musician must make music,” wrote Maslow, “an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be."

“How do we arrange our priorities and give due regard to the different and competing claims we have on our attention?” De Botton asks. In an increasingly disembodied culture, we may ignore or neglect the needs of the body, even if we have the means to meet them, an unsustainable course over the long term. Even those on the path of the “starving artist” will sadly have to reevaluate after a time, Maslow argued, giving priority to their need to eat over their creative aspirations. But Maslow’s is not, or not only, a theory of rational choice.

On the contrary, he had a compassionate response to alienation and poverty of all kinds: “the bold postulation,” he wrote “that a man who is thwarted in any of his basic needs may fairly be envisaged simply as a sick man…. Who is to say that a lack of love is less important than a lack of vitamins?” The material needs in Maslow’s scheme must be consistently met in order to create a stable base for all the others. Yet, while self-actualization may sit at the top, its lack, according to Maslow, may still affect us as much as much if we suffered from “pellagra or scurvy."

It’s possible to read in the hierarchy of needs a psychological elaboration of Marx’s slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” but Maslow was no dialectical materialist. He valued spirituality, and if he was “ambivalent about business,” he also held out hope that companies would market products to meet consumers’ higher desires as well as their needs for food, shelter, and physical comfort. Maslow died in 1970, and in the ensuing decades, his wish has become a hugely profitable reality.

From religious broadcasting companies to social media to dating and meditation apps, marketers find ever-new ways to sell promises of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Perhaps Maslow would see this as progress. In any case, commerce aside, his theory continues to address pressing sociological and existential problems. And as an aid to personal reflection, it can help us notice how we “haven’t arranged and balanced our needs as wisely and elegantly as we might,” says de Botton. We may have denied ourselves, or been denied, important experiences we need in order to become who we truly are.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch 21 Animated Ideas from Big Thinkers: Steven Pinker, Carol Dweck, Philip Zimbardo, David Harvey & More

The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, better known as the Royal Society for the Arts, and best known simply as the RSA, was founded in 1754. At the time, nobody could have imagined a world in which the people of every land, no matter how far-flung, could hear the same talks by well-known scholars and speakers, let alone see them animated as if on a conference-room whiteboard. Yet even back then, in an era before the invention of animation and whiteboards, let alone computers and the internet, people had an appetite for strong, often counterintuitive or even contrarian ideas to diagnose and potentially even solve social problems — an appetite for which the RSA Animate series of videos was made.

We can't understand what goes right and what goes wrong in our societies without understanding how we think. To that end the RSA has commissioned animated videos based on talks by psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist on our "divided brain," former political strategist (and current RSA Chief Executive) Matthew Taylor on how our left and right brains shape our politics, psychologist Steven Pinker on language as a window into human nature, philosopher-sociologist Renata Salecl on the paradoxical downside of choice, psychologist Philip Zimbardo on our perception of time, "social and ethical prophet" Jeremy Rifkin on empathy, philosopher Roman Krznaric on "outrospection," journalist Barbara Ehrenreich on "the darker side of positive thinking," and behavioral-economics researcher Dan Ariely on drive and dishonesty.

Economics is another field that has provided the RSA with a surfeit of animatable material — even of the kind "economists don’t want you to see," as the RSA promotes economist Ha-joon Chang's talk on "why every single person can and SHOULD get their head around basic economics" and "how easily economic myths and assumptions become gospel."




Freakonomics co-authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner make an appearance to break down altruism, and "economic geographer" David Harvey attempts to envision a system beyond capitalism. And on the parts of the intellectual map where economics overlaps politics, the RSA brings us figures like Slavoj Žižek, who "investigates the surprising ethical implications of charitable giving."

As, in essence, an educational enterprise, RSA Animate videos also look into new ways to think about education itself. Educationalist Carol Dweck examines the issues of "why kids say they’re bored at school, or why they stop trying when the work gets harder" by looking at what kind of praise helps young students, and what kind harms them.

Education and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson explains the need to change our very paradigms of education. And according to the RSA's speakers, those aren't the only paradigms we should change: Microsoft Chief Envisioning Officer Dave Coplin argues that we should re-imagine work, and technology critic Evgeny Morozov argues that we should rethink the "cyber-utopianism" that has exposed harmful side-effects of our digital world.

httvs://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U&list=PL39BF9545D740ECFF&index=11&t=0s

But it is in this world that the RSA promotes "21st-century enlightenment," a concept further explored in another talk by Matthew Taylor — and one of which you can get a few doses, ten minutes at a time, on the full RSA Animate Youtube playlist. Watch the complete playlist of 21 videos, from start to finish, below.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What Is Higher Consciousness?: How We Can Transcend Our Petty, Day-to-Day Desires and Gain a Deeper Wisdom

Each of us has a normal state of mind, as well as our own way of reaching a different state of mind. As the School of Life video above reminds us, such habits go back quite deep into recorded history, to the eras when, then as now, "Hindu sages, Christian monks and Buddhist ascetics" spoke of "reaching moments of ‘higher consciousness’ – through meditation or chanting, fasting or pilgrimages." In recent years, the practice of meditation has spread even, and perhaps especially, among those of us who don't subscribe to Buddhism, or indeed to any religion at all. Periodic fasting has come to be seen as a necessity in certain circles of wealthy first-worlders, as has "dopamine fasting" among those who feel their minds compromised by the distractions of high technology and social media. (And one needs only glance at that social media to see how seriously some of us are taking our pilgrimages.)

Still, on top of our mountain, deep into our sitting-and-breathing sessions, or even after having consumed our mind-altering substance of choice, we do feel, if only for a moment, that something has changed within us. We understand things we don't even consider understanding in our normal state of mind, "where what we are principally concerned with is ourselves, our survival and our own success, narrowly defined."




When we occupy this "lower consciousness," we "strike back when we’re hit, blame others, quell any stray questions that lack immediate relevance, fail to free-associate and stick closely to a flattering image of who we are and where we are heading." But when we enter a state of "higher consciousness," however we define it, "the mind moves beyond its particular self-interests and cravings. We start to think of other people in a more imaginative way."

When we rise from lower to higher consciousness, we find it much harder to think of our fellow human beings as enemies. "Rather than criticize and attack, we are free to imagine that their behavior is driven by pressures derived from their own more primitive minds, which they are generally in no position to tell us about." The more time we spend in our higher consciousness, the more we "develop the ability to explain others’ actions by their distress, rather than simply in terms of how it affects us. We perceive that the appropriate response to humanity is not fear, cynicism or aggression, but always — when we can manage it — love." When our consciousness reaches the proper altitude, "the world reveals itself as quite different: a place of suffering and misguided effort, full of people striving to be heard and lashing out against others, but also a place of tenderness and longing, beauty and touching vulnerability. The fitting response is universal sympathy and kindness."

This may all come across as a bit new-age, sounding "maddeningly vague, wishy washy, touchy-feely – and, for want of a better word, annoying." But the concept of higher consciousness is variously interpreted not just across cultural and religious traditions but in scientific research as well, where we find a sharp distinction drawn between the neocortex, "the seat of imagination, empathy and impartial judgement," and the "reptilian mind" below. This suggests that we'd benefit from understanding states of higher consciousness as fully as we can, as well as trying to "make the most of them when they arise, and harvest their insights for the time when we require them most" — that is to say, the rest of our ordinary lives, especially their most stressful, trying moments. The instinctive, unimaginative defensiveness of the lower consciousness does have strengths of its own, but we can't take advantage of them unless we learn to put it in its place.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Benefits of Boredom: How to Stop Distracting Yourself and Get Creative Ideas Again

Here in the 21st century, we have conquered boredom. Impressive though that achievement may be, it hasn't come without cost: As with many other conditions we've managed to eliminate from our lives, boredom now looks to have been essential to full human existence. Has our reality of on-demand distractions, tailored ever more closely to our impulses and desires, robbed us of yet another form of everyday adversity that built up the character of previous generations? Perhaps, but more importantly, it may also have dried up our well of creativity. The frustration that descends on us when trying to come up with new ideas; the itch we feel, whenever we start doing something, to do something else; our inability to go more than a few minutes without looking at our phones: we can hardly assume these modern problems are unrelated.

"When you're bored, you tend to daydream, and your mind wanders, and this is a very, very important part of the creative process," says psychologist Sandi Mann in the animated BBC REEL video at the top of the post. "If you find that you're stuck on a problem, or you're really worried about something and can't seem to find a way out, take some time out. Just be bored. Let your mind wander, and you might just find that a creative solution will pop into your head."




But we've fallen into the habit of "swiping and scrolling our boredom away," seeking "a dopamine hit from new and novel experiences" — most often digital ones — to assuage our fears of boredom. And the more such stimulation we get, the more we need, meaning that, "paradoxically, the way to deal with boredom is to allow more of it into our life."

"Once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to really wander," Mann says, "you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit into the subconscious, which allows sort of different connections to take place." She says it in "How Boredom Can Lead to Your Most Brilliant Ideas," a TED Talk by journalist Manoush Zomorodi. Like the public-radio podcaster she is, Zomorodi brings in interview clips from not just Mann but a range of experts on the subject of boredom and distraction, including neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, who warns that "every time you shift your attention from one thing to another, the brain has to engage a neurochemical switch that uses up nutrients in the brain to accomplish that." And so the "multitasking" in which we once prided ourselves amounts to nothing more than "rapidly shifting from one thing to the next, depleting neural resources as you go."

We've become like the experiment subjects, described in the Veritasium video above, who were asked to sit alone in an empty room for a few minutes with nothing in front of them but a button that they knew would shock them. In the end, 25 percent of the women and 60 percent of the men chose, unasked, to shock themselves, presumably out of a preference for painful stimulation over no stimulation at all. How much, we have to wonder, does that ultimately differ from the distractions we compulsively seek at every opportunity in the form of social media, games, and other addictive apps? And what do these increasingly frequent self-administered jolts do to our ability to identify promising avenues of thought and follow them all the way to their most fruitful conclusions? As the old saying goes, only the boring are bored. But if our technological lives keep going the way they've been going, soon only the bored will be interesting.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Morals That Determine Whether We’re Liberal, Conservative, or Libertarian

An old friend once wrote a line I’ll never forget: “There are two kinds of people in the world, then there are infinitely many more.” It always comes to mind when I confront binary generalizations that I'm told define two equally opposing positions, but rarely capture, with any accuracy, the complexity and contrariness of human beings—even when said humans live inside the same country.

Voting patterns, social media bubbles, and major network infotainment can make it seem like the U.S. is split in two, but it is split into, if not an infinity, then a plurality of disparate ideological dispositions. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there are two kinds of people. Let’s say the U.S. divides neatly into “liberals” and “conservatives.” What makes the difference between them? Fiscal policy? Education? Views on “law and order,” social welfare, science, religion, public versus private good? Yes, but….




Best-selling NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt has controversially claimed that morality—based in emotion—really drives the wedge between competing “tribes” engaged in pitched us-versus-them war. The real contest is gut-level, mostly centered on disgust these days, one of the most primitive of emotional responses (we learn in the hand-drawn animation of a Haidt lecture below). Haidt argues that our sense of us and them is rooted, irrevocably, in our earliest cognitions of physical space.

Haidt situates his analysis under the rubric of “moral foundations theory,” a school of thought “created by a group of social and cultural psychologists to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes.” Another moral foundations theorist, Peter Ditto, professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, uses his research to draw similar conclusions about “hyperpartisanship” in the U.S. According to Ditto, as he describes in the short video at the top, “morals influence if you’re liberal or conservative.”

How? Ditto identifies five broad, universal moral categories, or “pillars,” that predict political thought and behavior: harm reduction, fairness, loyalty, authority/tradition, and purity. These concerns receive different weighting between self-identified liberals and conservatives in surveys, with liberals valuing harm reduction and fairness highly and generally overlooking the other three, and conservatives giving equal weight to all five (on paper at least). Ditto does step outside the binary in the last half of the segment, noting that his studies turned up a significant number of people who identified as libertarians.

He takes a particular interest in this category. Libertarians, says Ditto, don’t rank any moral value highly, marking their worldview as “pragmatic” and strikingly amoral. They appear to be intensely self-focused and lacking in empathy. Other strains—from democratic socialism to anarchism to fascism—that define American politics today, go unmentioned, as if they didn’t exist, though they are arguably as influential as libertarianism in the strange flowerings of the American left and right, and inarguably as deserving of study.

The idea that one's morals define one's politics doesn’t seem particularly novel, but the research of psychologists like Haidt and Ditto offers new ways to think about morality in public life. It also raises pertinent questions about the gulf between what people claim to value and what they actually, consistently, support, and about how the evolution of moral sensibilities seems to sort people into groups that also share historical identities, zip codes, and economic interests. Nor can we cannot discount the active shaping of public opinion through extra-moral means. Finally, in a two-party system, the options are as few as they can be. Political allegiance can be as much convenience, or reaction, as conviction. We might be right to suspect that any seeming political—or moral—unity on one side or the other could be an effect of amplified oversimplification.

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Time Seems to Fly By As You Get Older, and How to Slow It Down: A Scientific Explanation by Neuroscientist David Eagleman

The Buddha, it’s said, struggled mightily with three specters of adulthood—aging, sickness, and death—when reflections on mortality harshed his hedonistic life as a prince. His “intoxication with life entirely dropped away,” the stories say, when he reflected on its passing. Nothing cured his fatal unease until a memory from childhood arose unbidden: of stopping time by quietly sitting under a rose-apple tree.

In another version of this story, Marcel Proust discovered timelessness baked in a cookie. His potent memories of madeleines also came from childhood. As he recalled “the taste of tea and cake,” he writes, “at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory …. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal.”




Neuroscientist David Eagleman also invokes a childhood memory in his discussion of time and aging, in the BBC video above. It is also a memory resonant with a remarkable physical detail: red brick pavement hurtling toward him as he falls from the roof of a house, experiencing what must have been a terrifying descent in slow motion. Quite a different experience from communing with trees and eating tea cakes, but maybe the content of a childhood memory is irrelevant to its temporal dimensions.

What we can all remember is that along with impatience and distractibility, childhood seems rich with carefree, absorptive languor (or moments of slow-motion panic). Psychologists have indeed shown in several studies that adults, especially those over the age of 40, perceive time as moving faster than it did when they were children. Why?

Because time is a “psychological construct,” says Eagleman, and can vary not just between ages and cultures, but also between individual consciousnesses. “It can be different in your head and my head,” he says. “Your brain is locked in silence and darkness inside the vault of your skull.” In order to “figure out what’s going on outside,” it’s got to do “a lot of editing tricks.” One trick is to convince us that we’re living in the moment, when the moment happened half a second in the past.

But we can notice that gap when we’re faced with novelty, because the brain has to work harder to process new information, and it creates thicker descriptions in the memory. All of this additional processing, Eagleman says, seems to take more time, so we perceive new experiences as happening in a kind of slow motion (or remember them that way). That includes so many experiences in our childhood as well as emergency situations in which we have to navigate a challenging new reality very quickly.

As writer Charles Bukowski once said, “as you live many years, things take on a repeat…. You keep seeing the same thing over and over again.” The brain can coast on familiarity and expend little energy generating perception. We retain fewer detailed memories of recent events, and they seem to have flown by us. The remedy, says Eagleman, is to seek novelty. (You thought he was going to say “mindfulness”?) Wear your watch on a different wrist, change the way you brush your teeth….

Mundane examples, but the point remains: we need new and varied experiences to slow our sense of time. Routine lack of novelty in adulthood may be the primary reason that “our early years,” write psychologists James Broadway and Brittaney Sandoval write at Scientific American,“tend to be relatively overrepresented in our autobiographical memory and, on reflection, seem to have lasted longer.”

They can also, for that reason, seem all the sweeter. But nostalgia, however tempting, can’t take the place of going new places, meeting new people, reading new books, hearing new music, seeing new films, and so on and so forth—and thereby effectively slowing down time.

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Medieval Monks Complained About Constant Distractions: Learn How They Worked to Overcome Them

St. Benedict by Fra Angelico, via Wikimedia Commons

We might imagine that life in a monastery is one of the safest, most predictable ways of life on offer, and therefore one of the least distracted. But “medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating,” writes Sam Haselby at Aeon, “and concentration was their lifelong work!” They complained of information overload, forgetfulness, lack of focus, and overstimulation. Their jumpy brains, fundamentally no different from those we use to navigate our smart phones, were the culprit, though, like us, the monks found other sources to blame.

“Sometimes they accused demons of making their minds wander. Sometimes they blamed the body’s base instincts.” Given the nature of their restrictive vows, it’s no wonder they found themselves thinking “about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God.” But the fact remains, as University of Georgia professor Jamie Kreiner says in an interview with PRI’s The World, monks living 1600 years ago found themselves constantly, painfully distracted.

It wasn’t even necessarily about tech at all. It was about something inherent in the mind. The difference between us and them is not that we are distracted and they aren’t, it’s that they actually had savvier ways of dealing with distraction. Ways of training their minds the way we might train our bodies.

So, what did the wisest monks advise, and what can we learn, hundreds of years later, from their wisdom? Quite a lot, and much of it applicable even to our online lives. Some of what medieval monks like the 5th century John Cassian advised may be too austere for modern tastes, even if we happen to live in a monastery. But many of their practices are the very same we now see prescribed as therapeutic exercises and good personal habits.

Cassian and his colleagues devised solutions that “depended on imaginary pictures” and “bizarre animations” in the mind,” Haselby explains. People were told to let their imaginations run riot with images of sex, violence, and monstrous beings. “Nuns, monks, preachers and the people they educated were always encouraged to visualize the material they were processing,” often in some very graphic ways. The gore may not be fashionable in contemplative settings these days, but ancient methods of guided imagery and creative visualization certainly are.

So too are techniques like active listening and nonviolent communication, which share many similarities with St. Benedict’s first rule for his order: “Listen and incline the ear of your heart.” Benedict spoke to the mind’s tendency to leap from thought to thought, to prejudge and formulate rebuttals while another person speaks, to tune out. “Basically,” writes Fr. Michael Rennier, Benedict's form of listening "is taking time to hear in a certain way, with an attitude of openness, and commitment to devote your whole self to the process,” without doing anything else.

Benedict’s advice, Rennier writes, is “great… because obstacles are all around, so we need to be intentional about overcoming them.” We do not need to share the same intentions as St. Benedict, however, to take his advice to heart and stop treating listening as waiting to speak, rather than as a practice of making space for others and making space for silence. “Benedict knew the benefits of silence,” writes Alain de Botton’s School of Life, “He knew all about distraction,” too, “how easy it is to want to keep checking up on the latest developments, how addictive the gossip of the city can be.”

Silence allows us to not only hear others better, but to hear our deeper or higher selves, or the voice of God, or the universe, or whatever source of creative energy we tune into. Like their counterparts in the East, medieval Catholic monks also practiced daily meditation, including meditations on death, just one of several methods “Cistercian monks used to reshape their own mental states,” as Julia Bourke writes at Lapham’s Quarterly.

“A medieval Cistercian and a modern neuroscientist” would agree on at least one thing, Bourke argues: “the principle that certain feelings and emotions can be changed through meditative exercises.” No one devises numerous formal solutions to problems they do not have; although their physical circumstances could not have been more different from ours, medieval European monks seemed to suffer just as much as most of us do from distraction. In some part, their lives were experiments in learning to overcome it.

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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