The road to self-improvement is a personal journey, and because of this, the results look a little bit different for everyone. But if you’ve dipped your toe into the world of self-help books at all, then you’ve likely encountered psychologist Abraham Maslow and his motivational theory known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. His theory posits that there are five types of needs every person needs met in their life, with the topmost need being self-actualization. In an ideal world, everyone would reach the level of self-actualization and in turn, become the absolute best version of themselves. However, just as self-improvement means something different to everyone, so does self-actualization — and the path you take to get there will be unique to you, as well.
According to Simply Psychology, Maslow posited only about two percent of people actually become self-actualized, and wow, are those lousy odds. If only two percent of the population will reach the top of the pyramid, should you even bother trying to live your best life? Absolutely you should because Maslow’s theory is just a tool, not a law.
Before we dive into the ins and outs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, here are a few things you need to know about this theory: First of all, like so many things in this world, it favors successful, white men over everyone else. When he was creating his hierarchy, Maslow primarily looked at the lives of famous white men like Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein when he listed the characterizations of self-actualized people. Meanwhile, women and people of color were largely left out of his study altogether.
That means Maslow’s ideas favor those who lead a life of privilege, but even though his hierarchy is far from perfect, it’s still an interesting starting point for anyone looking to understand self-actualization and the roadblocks people may face as they work toward being their best selves.
What is Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs anyway?
Maslow’s hierarchy is based around the idea that until a person’s fundamental human needs are met, they will struggle to self-actualize. This theory is particularly true in classroom settings where teachers posit that if a child is hungry, tired, or in an unsafe environment then they can’t be expected to reach their full potential as a student until their most basic needs are also met. These are the five levels of Maslow’s hierarchy:
- Biological and Physiological Needs: At the bottom of the pyramid is the most basic, but also the most vital, needs for humans. These include ample food, a safe place to lay your head, and clean water. Basically, the primary building blocks for a stable home environment.
- Safety Needs: This level is about our collective need to feel safe both at home and in society. In order for these needs to be met, a person needs to have a safe place to live, a secure job, and also feel as though the environment beyond their front door is well-protected, welcoming, and free of fear.
- Love and Belonging Needs: At this stage, the needs become more philosophical. The third level is all about our need for love and a sense of belonging among our family, friends, and significant others.
- Esteem Needs: The fourth level is all about having pride in yourself and your work, while also gaining the admiration and respect of others.
- Self-Actualization Needs: At the very top of the period is self-actualization, the point at which a person is comfortable in their own skin, living up to their full potential, and constantly seeking to continue the growth process.
While Maslow divided his hierarchy into five distinct levels (and expanded them even further to include things like cognitive and aesthetic needs later), the pyramid doesn’t move in just one direction. For instance, a person whose safety needs aren’t being met, can still find love and belonging or become self-actualized. Additionally, you can move back down the pyramid if you lose your job or feel a lack of belonging. Basically, there’s no need to look at the pyramid as a checklist you need to follow in order because even Maslow knew life is far more complicated than his five tiers suggest. Instead, think of the pyramid’s levels more as a suggestion of what an ideal version of life might look like while understanding that just because you’re struggling in one area doesn’t mean you can’t strive to be your best self.
OK, so how do I become self-actualized?
The ultimate goal is to become self-actualized, but self-actualization should not be confused with perfection. If you’re actively trying to become the best version of yourself, you should know the ultimate outcome will be tailored to your personal needs. In short, self-actualization means different things to different people, but the ultimate goal is to find a sense of peace within your own life.
For instance, some people’s ultimate goal may revolve around being a loving, open-minded parent. Another person may want to pursue their passions as a career, and a third person may simply want to feel at ease in their own skin. There’s simply no one size fits all answer to what living your best life looks like, which in turn means your journey will be a deeply personal process.
The most important thing you need to know about self-actualization is that it’s an ongoing process. Even if you feel like you’re finding joy in the little things in life, exercising your creativity, and showing empathy to others, the need to grow never goes away. So part of becoming self-actualized is acknowledging that it’s not an end goal, it’s a state of being.
What are some examples of self-actualization?
As reported by Psychology Today, Maslow’s study was quite narrowly focused on successful white men, so his examples of self-actualization are also a bit skewed. But after looking at the biographies of people like Lincoln and Aldous Huxley, here are a few attributes he ascribed to self-actualized people:
- They accept life is full of uncertainty.
- They embrace spontaneity in their lives and can roll with sudden changes to their plans.
- They focus on large-scale problems over self-centered issues.
- They’re creative in thought and action.
- They’re comfortable spending time alone.
- They’re deeply concerned about the well-being of others and society as a whole.
- They practice self-acceptance.
- They try to find humor or the bright side in a situation. They can also laugh at themselves.
- They make an effort to seek fulfillment and stay present. They try not to dwell on the past or stress about the future.
- They focus on understanding what they need to do or think to feel fulfilled.
- They try to remain confident and secure in their individuality.
Again, it’s important to note that self-actualization is different for everyone, but if you can work on accepting yourself, finding ways to be creative (whatever that may mean for you), and enjoy the small pleasures of life, then you’re already growing as a person. And ultimately, that’s the goal of not only Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but also of a happy life.
Who has reached self-actualization?
An excellent way to tell whether you’ve reached self-actualization is to look at those who’ve already gotten to that point. Here are several people who have characteristics of self-actualized individuals.
- Abraham Lincoln
- Albert Einstein
- Albert Schweitzer
- Aldous Huxley
- Angela Merkel
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Frederick Douglass
- Jane Addams
- Jim Carrey
- Neil Armstrong
- Paul McCarthy
- Sandra Cisneros
- Thomas Jefferson
- Toni Morrison
- Walt Whitman
- William James
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