American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, theorized that humans prioritize the fulfillment of needs. Once basic needs for survival, security, belonging, and esteem are fulfilled, we can ascend to self-actualization, where we satisfy deeper intellectual desires and explore the most meaningful pursuits.
At the base of the hierarchy, physiological needs are those required for survival, such as air, water, clothes, food, shelter, sleep, etc. If we don’t survive, we die, rendering all other needs inconsequential.
With physiological needs satisfied, safety needs take precedence and dominate behavior as we seek mechanisms that allow us to keep ourselves and our families safe. From basic self-preservation to safeguarding ourselves in the face of war, famine, family violence, and economic crisis, safety needs must be met before we concern ourselves with higher-level needs.
Love and Social Belonging Needs
With safety needs satisfied, we strive for love and social belonging. Meaningful relationships with family and friends grant us intimacy, trust, acceptance, and ultimately, the exchange of love and affection. Mutual respect and camaraderie satisfy this need; we need to love and be loved, both sexually and non-sexually. Especially strong in childhood, the desire for love and belonging can even override the need for safety, as can be evidenced when children cling to abusive parents.
With satisfaction from love and social belonging, we aspire for esteem. Maslow observed two versions of esteem needs. The “lower” version of esteem is the need for respect from others, including things like status, recognition, and attention. The “higher” version of esteem is the need for self-respect, including things like internal strength, self-confidence, and freedom. Day by day, experience by experience, we discover competence, capabilities, and a greater sense of self-identity.
Maslow said, “What a man can be, he must be.” Self-actualization is the realization of our full potential, the awakening of our desire to accomplish everything of which we are capable. Mastery of the four lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are prerequisite for attaining self-actualization—the highest state of consciousness. Motivated by the desire to be the best version of themselves, self-actualized individuals tend to explore the more challenging dimensions of life in their quest to constantly learn and grow.
Maslow’s theory proposes that our desire to satisfy higher needs emerges only when we feel that we have sufficiently satisfied the previous need. As humans search for purpose and meaning, we transcend through five stages, culminating with self-actualization and the realization that we are bound by duty to pursue our fullest imaginable potential.
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