“What human beings can be, they must be.” ~ Abraham Maslow
Abraham Maslow has been called one of the most famous psychologists of the 20th Century. His research into what makes successful and high-achieving people do what they do and be what they are is the precursor of the Positive Psychology movement.
The Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow is known for his “hierarchy of needs” – a ranking or scale of human needs. At the bottom are physical or physiological needs – air, food, water, sleep. Next are needs for safety and security – good health, secure employment, social and family stability. These two categories comprise our basic needs. Going up the hierarchy, next come needs for love and belonging – intimate relationships, friends, a sense of connectedness. Then, the need for self- esteem – achievement, respect of others, prestige. These two categories define our psychological needs. Finally, at the top of the pyramid, we reach self-actualization – what Maslow considered as achieving one’s full potential, that is “what one can be, one must be.”
It is important to remember that all of these are needs – not only the physical ones. What happens if we can’t get air, water, or food? We sicken and die. And, in the same way we gasp for air and hunger for food and water when these physical needs aren’t met, we “gasp” for psychological air if psychological needs aren’t met.
Step forward into growth or back into safety?
Maslow says that we have a choice in every moment: we can step forward into growth or back into safety. [Maslow] Brian Johnson, philosopher, teacher, and proponent of optimizing and reaching one’s potential, refers to this as “+1 or -1”. In any given moment, you decide your next action. Will you move +1 step forward toward self-actualization or will you take -1 step backward to safety? When you wake up, do you bound out of bed and move into your exercise routine or meditate or what ever activity you plan to get your day off to an excellent start? That’s a +1. Or do you hit the snooze alarm again and again, dreading the thought of getting up until it’s too late to do the energizing activity you had planned? Ow. That’s -1. And consider this: that -1 step isn’t just one step backwards. Considering that you could have been a +1, you’re actually 2 steps from where you could be. Keep this in mind as you go through your day and then see where you are at the end of the day. Are you several (or even many) +1s ahead? You’re probably feeling great, in control, you’re getting your needs met on all levels. But what if you’re going backwards & have accumulated more -1s? Those are the days you want to collapse on the sofa, maybe drink more than you should, and / or watch mindless and mind-numbing TV. The key to having more +1s is to make the choice to grow, moment by moment throughout the day. Of course some -1 steps are inevitable, but get back on the plus side as soon as you can.
The attributes of the self-actualized human being
According to Maslow, these are the attributes of a self-actualized person.
Perception of Reality: Instead of feeling threatened by or shying away from unfamiliar or ambiguous situations, accept them and embrace them. Self-actualized individuals have a “superior relationship with reality” and are “generally unthreatened and unfrightened by the unknown. . . They accept it, are comfortable with it, and, often are even more attracted by it than by the known. They not only tolerate the ambiguous and unstructured — they like it.” [Maslow]
Acceptance: See yourself as you are, not as you prefer to be and accept your shortcomings, not as flaws, but simply as personal characteristics. “Even the normal member of our culture feels unnecessarily guilty or ashamed about too many things and has anxiety in too many situations. Our healthy individuals find it possible to accept themselves and their own nature without chagrin or complaint or, for that matter, without even thinking about the matter that much.” [Maslow]
Spontaneity: Enjoy the journey, not just the destination — do some things simply for the joy of doing them. “[They] often [regard] as ends in themselves many experiences and activities that are, for other people, only means. Our subjects are somewhat more likely to appreciate for its own sake, and in an absolute way, the doing itself; they can often enjoy for its own sake the getting to some place as well as the arriving. It is occasionally possible for them to make out of the most trivial and routine activity an intrinsically enjoyable game or dance or play.” [Maslow]
Problem / Task Centering: Have a mission, a purpose. Self-actualized people have “. . some mission in life, some task to fulfill, some problem outside themselves which enlists much of their energies… This is not necessarily a task that they would prefer or choose for themselves; it may be a task that they feel is their responsibility, duty, or obligation. . . In general these tasks are nonpersonal or unselfish, concerned rather with the good of mankind in general.” [Maslow]
Solitude: Be comfortable – and enjoy – being alone. Self-actualizing individuals “positively like solitude and privacy to a definitely greater degree than the average person.” [Maslow]
Autonomy: Let motivation and decisions come from within, with an eye toward growth and not based on what others think or expect. “They have become strong enough to be independent of the good opinion of other people, or even of their affection. The honors, the status, the rewards, the popularity, the prestige, and the love they can bestow must have become less important than self-development and inner growth.” [Maslow]
Fresh Appreciation: Be grateful for the “every day” blessings and see the world through “new eyes”, such that you see with renewed appreciation what appears mundane to others. “Self-actualizing people have the wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naïvely, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have become to others. . . Thus for such a person, any sunset may be as beautiful as the first one, any flower may be of breath-taking loveliness, even after he has seen a million flowers. . . For such people, even the casual workaday, moment-to-moment business of living can be thrilling.” [Maslow]
Peak Experiences: Do more of the things that let you be in “flow”.
Human Kinship: Be your brothers’ and sisters’ keeper – cultivate genuine affection for all humanity. (It isn’t “us” and “them” — it’s just “us”.) “Self-actualizing people have a deep feeling of identification, sympathy, and affection for human beings in general. They feel kinship and connection, as if all people were members of a single family. . . Self-actualizing individuals have a genuine desire to help the human race.” [Maslow]
Humility and Respect: Practice being genuinely humble. “They are all quite well aware of how little they know in comparison with what could be known and what is known by others. Because of this it is possible for them without pose to be honestly respectful and even humble before people who can teach them something.” [Maslow]
Interpersonal Relationships: Cultivate a few close, deep friendships rather than many superficial relationships. “Self-actualizing people have these especially deep ties with rather few individuals. Their circle of friends is rather small. The ones that they love profoundly are few in number.” [Maslow]
Ethics: Do the right thing – not because of external rules and laws but because you decide to. “They do right and do not do wrong. Needless to say, their notions of right and wrong and of good and evil are often not the conventional ones.” [Maslow]
“They are the most ethical of people even though their ethics are not necessarily the same as those of the people around them […because] the ordinary ethical behavior of the average person is largely conventional behavior rather than truly ethical behavior.” [Maslow]
Means and Ends: Don’t confuse methods and intentions; set your intentions then find the methods to reach them. “They are fixed on ends rather than on means, and means are quite definitely subordinated to these ends.” [Maslow]
Humor: Be ready & willing to laugh at yourself, but avoid ridiculing or making fun of others. “They do not consider funny what the average person considers to be funny. Thus they do not laugh at hostile humor (making people laugh by hurting someone) or superiority humor (laughing at someone else’s inferiority) or authority-rebellion humor (the unfunny, Oedipal, or smutty joke).” [Maslow]
Creativity: Cultivate your creativity. Seek variety, learning, and change. “This is a universal characteristic of all the people studied or observed. There is no exception.” [Maslow]
Resistance to Enculturation: Become independent of culture and environment. Make your own decisions based on your experience and judgement; avoid doing or thinking or saying things because “everyone else is doing it.” “Of all of them it may be said that in a certain profound and meaningful sense they resist enculturation and maintain a certain inner detachment from the culture in which they are immersed.” [Maslow]
Imperfections: Accept that you are fallible & will occasionally “mess up”. Actualizers “show many of the lesser human failings. They too are equipped with silly, wasteful, or thoughtless habits. They can be boring, stubborn, irritating. They are by no means free from a rather superficial vanity, pride, partiality to their own productions, family, friends, and children. Temper outbursts are not rare.” [Maslow]
Values: Let your values be a firm foundation upon which to pursue self-actualization. “A firm foundation for a value system is automatically furnished to self-actualizers by their philosophic acceptance of the nature of self, of human nature, of much of social life, and of nature and physical reality.” [Maslow]
Resolution of Dichotomies: “The dichotomy between selfishness and unselfishness disappears altogether in healthy people because in principle every act is both selfish and unselfish.” [Maslow]
“What one can be, one must be.”
Who are you? Parent, teacher, spouse, employer, employee, athlete, scholar, student? In his book The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen Covey says, “We each have a number of different roles in our lives – different areas of capacities in which we have responsibility. I may, for example, have a role as an individual, a husband, a father, a teacher, a church member, and a businessman. And each of these roles is important.” [Covey 135] Covey advises that, in order to keep ourselves balanced, to have a sense of the “natural ecology” of our lives, we need to consider all of these roles. How can you achieve your full potential, how can you “be what you must be”, in a way that touches all of the roles you have assumed? Review Maslow’s attributes of a self-actualized human being. Are there things you can do that move you towards fulfilling more of your potential in ways that affect or even transcend your different roles?
Where are you on Maslow’s hierarchy? Are you getting your basic needs met? If not, you won’t be able to continue up to the next step. And keep in mind that, once you get to a certain step, it’s possible to step back down if you don’t have a scaffolding in place to ensure that you keep getting your needs met at that level. Rate yourself on these 19 attributes, on a scale of 1 – 5 (with 1 = none whatsoever and 5 = fully realizing this attribute). Select the one(s) where you rate the lowest and plan 1 thing you can do to boost your rating for that attribute.
Step forward into growth!
Maslow’s big idea was that self-actualization is the default state for human beings. “I think of the self-actualizing [person],” said Maslow, “not as an ordinary [person] with something added, but rather as the ordinary [person] with nothing taken away.”
You have a choice in each moment: step forward into growth or step backward into safety. Only by choosing to grow can we become fully self-actualized. But when we do, we achieve more and more of our potential to use in service to the world. And that is Excelerating!
Excelerated positivity — building the skills in positivity that help you flourish — is one step in creating your Excelerated life, a life of well-being, meaning, and purpose.
Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits Of Highly Successful People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989
Maslow, Abraham. Motivation and Personality (Third Ed.). New York: Addison-Wesley, 1987