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In 1943, Maslow published the epoch-making article of his career, A Theory of Human Motivation, which appeared in the journal, Motivation and Personality (DeCarvalho, 1991). In the paper, Maslow argued that “the fundamental desires of human beings are similar despite the multitude of conscious desires” (Zalenski & Raspa, 2006, p. 1121).

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According to the theory, humans possess higher- and lower-order needs, which are arranged in a hierarchy.

These needs are:

Physiological needs;Safety;Belongingness and love;Self-actualization (Maslow, 1943).

In his article, Maslow (1943) describes these needs as being arranged in a hierarchy of prepotency.

In other words, the first level of needs are the most important and will monopolize consciousness until they are addressed. Once one level of needs is taken care of, the mind moves on to the next level, and so on, until self-actualization is reached.

Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy

Let’s inspect each of the levels in Maslow’s hierarchy.

At the bottom of the hierarchy are physiological needs, which are considered universal. Among the physiological needs are air, water, food, sleep, health, clothes, and shelter. These needs’ positioned at the bottom of the pyramid signifies they are fundamental to human wellbeing and will always take priority over other needs.

Next in the hierarchy are safety needs. If a person does not feel safe in their environment, they are unlikely to guide attention toward trying to meet higher-order needs. In particular, safety needs include personal and emotional security (e.g., safety from abuse), financial security, and wellbeing.

Third in the hierarchy is the need for love and belonging through family connections, friendship, and intimacy.

Humans are wired for connection, meaning that we seek acceptance and support from others, either one-on-one or in groups, such as clubs, professional organizations, or online communities. In the absence of these connections, we fall susceptible to states of ill-being, such as clinical depression (Teo, 2013).

The fourth level of the hierarchy is esteem needs. According to Maslow, there are two subtypes of esteem. The first is esteem reflected in others’ perceptions of us. That is, esteem in the form of prestige, status, recognition, attention, appreciation, or admiration (Maslow, 1943).

The second form of esteem is rooted in a desire for confidence, strength, independence, and the ability to achieve. Further, Maslow notes that when our esteem needs are thwarted, feelings of inferiority, weakness, or helplessness are likely to arise (Maslow, 1943).

Self-Actualization, Peak Experiences and Self-Transcendence Needs

At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization. According to Maslow, humans will only seek the satisfaction of this need following the satisfaction of all the lower-order needs (Maslow, 1943).

While scholars have refined the definition of self-actualization over the years, Maslow related it to the feeling of discontent and restlessness when one is not putting their strengths to full use:

“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.”

Maslow (1943, p. 382)

Examples of self-actualization needs include the acquisition of a romantic partner, parenting, the utilization and development of one’s talents and abilities, and goal pursuit (Deckers, 2018).

Toward the end of his career, Maslow revisited his original conceptualization of the pyramid and argued a sixth need above self-actualization. He called this need self-transcendence, defined as a person’s desire to “further a cause beyond the self and to experience a communion beyond the boundaries of the self through peak experience” (Koltko-Rivera, 2006, p. 303).

Examples of behaviors that reflect the pursuit of self-transcendence include devoting oneself to discovering a ‘truth,’ supporting a cause, such as social justice or environmentalism, or seeking unity with what is perceived to be transcendent or divine (e.g., strengthening one’s relationship with God).

According to Maslow, those pursuing self-actualization and self-transcendence are more likely to have peak experiences, which are profound moments of love, rapture, understanding, or joy (Maslow, 1961).

Examples of peak experiences can include mystical experiences, interactions with nature, and sexual experiences wherein a person’s sense of self transcends beyond the personal self (Koltko-Rivera, 2006).

Today, many psychologists interpret Maslow’s description of peak experiences as similar to or synonymous with the experience of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), which remains a fundamental concept in modern positive psychology.

Criticisms and Modern Applications of Maslow’s Hierarchy

While modern research has confirmed the presence of universal human needs (Tay & Diener, 2011), most psychologists would agree that there is insufficient evidence to suggest such needs exist within a hierarchy.

This is one of just several criticisms of Maslow’s hierarchy and work. Other issues raised by scholars are:

The failure to account for cultural differences stemming from one’s upbringing within an individualist versus a collective society, as these differences may influence how a person prioritizes their needs (Wahba & Bridwell, 1976);The positioning of sex within the hierarchy which Maslow argued falls under physiological needs (Kenrick, Griskevicius, Neuberg, & Schaller, 2010); andThe possibility that the ordering of needs may change depending on region, geopolitics, and so forth. For instance, the positioning of safety and physiological needs in the hierarchy may change during times of war (Tang & West, 1997).

Despite these criticisms, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is still widely taught and a staple of any introductory psychology course. Further, the hierarchy has been adapted for use across a range of fields, including urban planning, development, management, and policing (de Guzman & Kim, 2017; Scheller, 2016; Zalenski & Raspa, 2006).

Among these modern applications of the theory are works adapting the theory to apply to communities rather than to individuals (de Guzman & Kim, 2017; Scheller, 2016), suggesting that Maslow’s hierarchy has influenced modern psychology in ways he likely did not intend.

Abraham Maslow and Positive Psychology

So what does Abraham Maslow have to do with positive psychology?

According to humanistic psychologist Nelson Goud, “the recent Positive Psychology movement focuses on themes addressed by Maslow over 50 years ago.” Goud also believed “that Maslow would encourage the scholarly approach uses for studying topics such as happiness, flow, courage, hope and optimism, responsibility, and civility” (Goud, 2008, p. 450).

More than anything, both Maslow and proponents of positive psychology are driven by the idea that traditional psychology has abandoned studying the entire human experience in favor of focusing on mental illness (Rathunde, 2001).

Indeed, Maslow held a conviction that none of the available psychological theories and approaches to studying the human mind did justice to the healthy human being’s functioning, modes of living, or goals (Buhler, 1971).

To proponents of positive psychology, this reasoning should sound familiar. In fact, Maslow even used the term “positive psychology” to refer to his brand of humanistic psychology, though modern positive psychologists like Martin Seligman claim that humanistic psychology lacks adequate empirical validation (Rennie, 2008).

At the end of the day, both proponents of positive psychology and Maslow believe(d) that humanity is more than the sum of its parts and especially more than its illnesses or deficiencies. To a positive psychologist, optimizing the life and wellbeing of a healthy person is just as important as normalizing the life of a person who is sick, and Abraham Maslow helped legitimize this idea within the field of psychology.

A Take-Home Message

If we are to sum up Maslow’s impact on the field of psychology, we might credit him for encouraging a generation of psychologists to think more holistically about their approach to studying the human condition.

For the psychologists of the time, pathologizing and theories from behaviorist research with animals were some of the only tools available to understand people’s complex inner worlds. Yet, these tools were inadequate as they failed to account for the uniqueness of each individual.

Shaped by his experiences as a child and during WWII, Maslow introduced a whole new set of tools to the psychologist’s toolkit, enabling scientists and practitioners to affect people’s lives positively beyond mental illness and treating symptoms.

It is clear that Maslow was driven by a desire to help people live the best lives they could, acknowledging their unique humanity along the way. May his work and dedication to pursuing human happiness serve as an inspiration to us all.

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