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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Har­vard Course on Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy: Watch 30 Lec­tures from the University’s Extreme­ly Pop­u­lar Course

The Caus­es & Preva­lence of Sui­cide Explained by Two Videos from Alain de Botton’s School of Life

The Neu­ro­science & Psy­chol­o­gy of Pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and How to Over­come It

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

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