Spirituality and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
The conversation around a ‘shift in consciousness’ or the move toward exploring spirituality is becoming more open and accepted every day.
Practises that were seen as being fanciful are now being taught in schools and businesses. And when you look at behavioural theories like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in conjunction with the overall improvement of living standards worldwide, this shift and collective search makes perfect sense.
In 1943, Abraham Maslow published a psychology paper titled ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’.
His theory was that there are basic needs that every person is inherently motivated to fulfil. When the needs on one level are met, that person seeks to fulfil the needs on the next level, and so on. The needs he identified were: physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualisation. Decades later, he revised his theory and added self-transcendence*.
Here’s an overview of each of the levels:
The first level of needs are physiological: food, water, shelter. When these are at risk, or not secure, a person is consumed by meeting those needs – nothing else matters. It’s pure survival.
When the physiological needs are met, people become motivated by the next level: safety and security needs. These are things like shelter from the weather and feeling safe. Things that threaten this level are natural disasters, living in a war-zone, family violence, and even financial instability. Generally, we meet these needs through a warm and secure home, a steady income and living in a safe area.
Once safety needs are met, we move up to social needs: the need for love, belonging and affection. This can come in the form of family, friends, a community or religion, or even a gang. The need being met here is around love, companionship and acceptance.
The next level is esteem. This is where we seek out things that increase our sense of esteem like accomplishments and social recognition. However, to move past this level, we have to develop a solid sense of our own self-esteem; not rely on others for it. A person in the ‘lower’ version of esteem usually looks to others for their esteem needs, and a person in the ‘upper’ version of esteem develops a sense of internal self-esteem.
The ‘lower’ version is where people can fluctuate from and keep dropping back to. We might get a solid dose of external validation and that propels us to higher levels, but it’s never sustainable. We’ll experience a lull in external validation, and we’ll suddenly drop back to needing to fulfil our esteem needs… and it’s usually a harsh descent. So it’s essential to genuinely and fully develop at the ‘upper’ level of esteem to move to the higher levels of self-actualisation and self-transcendence.
Once we’ve moved through external validation to internal validation, we move to the self-actualisation level. This level is about self-awareness, personal development and exploring potential. This is usually the phase where we move from being externally motivated to intrinsically motivated.
You start to explore more of who you are and what you’re about. You develop self-discipline, create goals and uncover your purpose. You strive to develop yourself and encourage yourself to achieve and grow. This is a powerful stage of life, and initially, this is the level that Maslow identified as being the highest level of a person’s development**.
In textbooks, this is where Maslow’s theory usually stops. It’s widely used in business, and self-actualisation is reported as the highest need a person has. However, in later years, Maslow built on his theory and identified a final level he called self-transcendence.
Self-Transcendence is where a person moves past themselves as an individual and focuses on the spiritual connectedness we all share^. At this level, our concerns move from ourselves to others, and we dedicate our lives to serving others in whatever way feels right to us.
Or, as Maslow puts it:
’Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.’
He identified that people operating at the highest level of personal development have ‘peak experiences’ that are described in ways that mirror mystic experiences, spiritual awakenings or profoundly ‘transpersonal’ (beyond our physical self) experiences.
These people, and these experiences push our human potential higher and higher. Maslow felt that because our society rewards motivation mostly based on esteem, love and other social needs, only 1% of the population would reach those final two levels of self-actualisation and self-transcendence – even though every single one of us has the potential to do so.
I think that’s changing.
As improvements to the average standard of living continue, we as a society are given more opportunity to explore our spirituality. Though poverty and hardship are still very real for a large number of people, we are fortunate to live in an age where more people are able to achieve their physiological and safety needs comfortably. This produces an increased number of people working at the higher levels of Maslow’s model as less energy is spent on survival and more is poured into our deeper self-discovery.
As more people reach the higher levels there is also a flow-on effect to others at the lower levels which takes place through shared knowledge and the natural ‘giving back’ that occurs when Self-Actualisation and Self-Transcendence is achieved. This creates a huge overall shift toward personal growth and development within society, as well as more acceptance of spiritual concepts and practises as the results become more evident to a wider audience.
So, while Maslow’s theory is still very relevant as it stands, perhaps even more so, we are fortunate to be living in an exciting time of transformation where his estimation of 1% achieving Self-Actualisation or Self-Transcendence is being disproven in the most incredible way.
*This hierarchy model is more applicable to individualistic societies and cultures that have separated the physical and spiritual, like most of Western society. People from collectivist societies and cultures that grow up being connected to the spiritual as much as the physical usually have self-actualisation as the final need. For example: developing as an individual to fulfil a leadership role for the group.
**In all honestly, I’m not sure you ever fully graduate from self-actualisation. I do think you get to a certain point where you’re ready to move up to self-transcendence but rather than leaving this level altogether, you kind of work in a parallel way across both levels and navigate increasingly complex areas.
^A little aside to self-transcendence is that some people shun the idea of spirituality, but are completely self-transcendent anyway. I love this and find those people in particular so interesting. They’re usually incredibly spiritual people, just not in the way you’d expect. I’m sure you can think of someone that fits this perfectly. They’re usually older, they’ve devoted their life to something (a clear sense of purpose), they’re totally comfortable with who they are and are very effective at what they do (self-actualisation). They also have a deep connection to what they do in a sense that they work intuitively, draw parallels and understandings from what they do at a philosophical level, and seem spiritually connected in an unexplainable way (self-transcendence). Yet they could read all of this and think ‘what a load of rubbish.’ I’ve come across farmers and gardeners just like this. I love it!