Why do we do the things we do? What drives people to act? According to Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, our actions are based on our motivation to attain a goal. He was interested in normal human behavior and specialized in humanistic psychology that is centered around human motivation and sources of personal fulfillment.
In 1954, Maslow introduced a hierarchy of five needs that all humans share. The bottom four needs of the pyramid, basic and psychological needs, are deficiency needs; they arise from deprivation and this deprivation itself will motivate us to act in order to meet our need. The top and ultimate need is called the growth need because it allows people become the best versions of themselves. In order to become self-actualized people, we need to fulfill the deficiency needs first.
A Flexible Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow continued to adjust his theory over time. At first, it seemed to be a rigid theory that focused on the orderly manner of meeting the needs. He asserted that the source of human motivation relies in trying to meet the needs in order. Once we achieve one need, we move on to the next. It’s a progression of needs; that is, it’s not possible that we strive for love and belonging if we had not met the need for physiological needs yet. Once we have a full belly and a safe home and secure job, we have the motivation to look for an intimate partner or a friend.
However, he later clarified that it’s not so rigid. The order of needs might be tailored to individual differences or external circumstances. For instance, the need doesn’t necessarily need to be met entirely, as it depends on the individual. At some point, the need will become salient and the individual’s attention would shift to the next need. Also, some people may prefer love and belonging over self-esteem. Thus, the need for belonging is above the need for self-esteem.
Maslow also noted that because behavior can be motivated by many things, our behavior is motivated by various needs at the same time. That is, in looking for a job, we’re not only motivated by our need for safety or security, but also by our need for basic needs.
According to Maslow, self-actualized people are free, autonomous people who are able to make correct judgements and see reality as it is. They tend to be true to themselves and are self-sufficient enough to be self-reliant. Moreover, such people tend to have a good sense of self and value solitude. Although they enjoy spending time alone, they also have profound interpersonal relationships that involve deep connection with others. However, they tend to have a small circle of friends.
Maslow emphasizes that self-actualizers have peak experiences, which are temporary moments of self-actualization. Such experiences are met with feelings of harmony and deep meaning. Not only that, but self-actualizers also have a continued freshness of appreciation and a sense of oneness with all humanity.
Man’s Search For Meaning
In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, self-actualization is not motivated by deprivation. Rather, it is the desire to grow, achieve one’s full potential, and become more what one is, that actually drives a human’s intent to become self-fulfilled. Maslow points out that the process of becoming a self-actualized person is an ongoing one, it is not a state of mind that one reaches. It is the time when a person contemplates the meaning of life.
In the process of contemplating the purpose of your existence, you begin with questioning what you do and why you do them. But this thought experiment can evoke feelings of confusion and distress. Many people choose to avoid reflecting upon the norms and values they so blindly follow because it can be too overwhelming and unbearable. Instead, they prefer to stick to their constructed reality that is based on traditional moral codes, customs, and habits. Such people don’t really care about the authenticity of their being and their freedom to choose how they want to live their lives.
Jean-Paul Sartre, an existentialist philosopher, would condemn this conformity. As thoroughly discussed in a previous post, Sartre believes that freedom often puts us in a state of anguish, where we are constantly in a state of having to take decisions. To avoid this anguish, we conform to the societal norms and decide to live an inauthentic life. We start to act in bad faith; in other words, inhabit a role that the society has assigned for us. We lose our ability to choose.
Sartre views that the underlying motivation for action is to be found in the nature of consciousness, which is a desire for being. It is up to every individual to practice his freedom in such a way that he does not lose sight of his existence as a facticity, as well as a free human being. In so doing, he will come to understand more about the original choice which his whole life represents, and thus about the values that are thereby projected.
In order to live an authentic life, we should posses the ability to think for ourselves. We must refuse to let others do our thinking and talking for us. We must refuse a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies. We must question our thoughts, actions, and behavior. We should be able to choose how we live our lives. Previously, I mentioned that our capacity to choose a way of life should respected and recognized.
The power of choice is one thing a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor E. Frankl, highlighted in his book Man’s Search For Meaning:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl
The foundation of Frankl’s theory, known as logotherapy, is that human behavior is driven by the discovery and quest for meaning. It’s not pleasure that we’re after, but meaning. Frankl asserts that suffering is out of our hands; it’s inevitable and unavoidable. However, what is in our hands is our ability to choose how we cope with the horrible reality and to find meaning in the suffering we are enduring. With this new meaning, we are able to move on with our lives. According to Frankl, meaning can come from three possible sources: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty.
Rising Above Our Needs
In the journey to self-actualization, the belief system of Stoicism, a philosophical school of thought, is centered around a completely different route. The Stoics believe that in order to reach tranquility, enlightenment, and self-actualization, one must not necessarily “meet” a need. According to them, self-actualization is a product of rising above our needs and being indifferent to unmet needs. The person who is able to learn to be untroubled by unmet needs will enjoy a more tranquil life than the one who is struggling for the next big promotion.