One of the founding fathers of humanistic psychology is Abraham Maslow. Born in New York in 1908, he quickly grew frustrated with both the lack of action in philosophy and the focus on only sick individuals in mainstream psychology. He was not interested in what could go wrong with people; he wanted to understand human potential and how we go about realizing and maximizing that potential. As the beginnings of World War 2 started to stir in Europe, Maslow began his work on what would become one of the most recognizable motivational theories in psychology: his Hierarchy of Needs. Despite how well-known Maslow’s hierarchy is, the version most people are familiar with is incomplete.
Maslow’s original hierarchy had five levels. Each level represented human needs to be met in life. The hierarchy begins with the most basic of human needs, biological and physiological requirements such as food and water. Next are safety needs, including both safety from harm and the security and stability of a society. The third level is the need for love and feelings of belongingness. This is the need for friendship, affection, trust, and affiliation with a close group. After love comes the need for esteem, both esteem for oneself, achieved through things like independence and achievement, and esteem from others, achieved through status or recognition. All of these levels were defined as deficiency needs by Maslow. Once deficiency needs can be met, the person is free to be concerned with the next level of higher-order needs. The culmination of Maslow’s hierarchy, the peak f human development in his theory, was not a deficiency need but a growth need. A growth need is not caused by a lack of something. Instead, Maslow theorized, when all deficiency needs are adequately met, the desire to grow and develop as a person must become one’s driving motivation. Maslow termed this self-actualization.
In 1943, Maslow described the concept of self-actualization as “the person’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely, the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially.” Some examples of self-actualized people that Maslow studied include Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein. Self-actualization is the pursuit of growth, discovery, and fulfillment throughout life. It has been described as someone finding what they were meant to be doing with their life and doing so while continuing to grow.
Although we commonly think of Maslow’s hierarchy as a pyramid, that is not actually how Maslow thought of it. It was not until the 1960s that Charles McDermid created the iconic pyramid structure of the hierarchy as we now know it. Many people think of the hierarchy as a sort of video game, wherein you must beat a level, or fulfill the need of that level before you can move on to the next level or need. However, Maslow clarified in later writings that not only could the order of needs vary from person to person, but that needs are not mutually exclusive. This means that one need does not have to be fully satisfied for a person to focus on another need. Rather, if your main need is something lower in the hierarchy, you are less likely to think about other needs. This does not mean that people who are homeless do not require love, esteem, or self-actualization, just because safety or food may be more pressing. Instead, Maslow’s theory is meant to conceptualize what the dominant, central motivation was for a person at any given time. In his first paper on the hierarchy, he explained that “…the average member of our society is most often partially satisfied and partially unsatisfied in all of his wants.”
But Maslow did not stop with self-actualization. In later writings, he identified cognitive and aesthetic needs as other growth needs more primary than self-actualization. A higher motivational status, self-transcendence, was Maslow’s central focus before his death in 1970. Self-transcendence can be defined as seeking a benefit or cause beyond the self. People who are motivated by self-transcendence rise above their surrounding culture and the stresses of their personal life and identify with humanity as a whole. In contrast, a focus on self-actualization can be quite limiting, in that your primary motivation in life is self-centered. In fact, recent psychological studies have postulated that the problems of corruption and greed in corporations and governments can be traced, at least in part, to a twisted version of self-actualization touted by management culture. It is easy to see how the idea of achieving one’s full potential at any cost can quickly become destructive. To self-transcend, on the other hand, you must be focused on other people, on leaving the world better than it was when you found it. Many researchers are beginning to turn to self-transcendence as an important concept in positive psychology, linking it to many positive health and well-being outcomes in life. The concept may also explain and connect several different levels of psychological research and theory.
You may be wondering, if self-transcendence holds so much potential for improving well-being and understanding in psychology, why isn’t it taught with the rest of Maslow’s hierarchy? Well, Maslow did not start really working on self-actualization until the three years prior to his death, which didn’t leave him much time to publish. Most of what we know about Maslow’s theory of self-actualization comes from just one public presentation and his posthumously published journals, both of which remained relatively obscure for a long time. There is also speculation that the world of psychology simply did not want to recognize the concept of self-transcendence at the time. Maslow’s theory was also meant to be only a conceptual beginning; and as such, it was frustratingly difficult to test, perhaps leading fellow researchers to ignore new additions in favor of simplicity. For whatever reason, Maslow’s final level of motivation was forgotten for years, only for it and similar concepts to re-emerge recently.
Another way to describe the concept of self-transcendence is to call it a eudaimonic, or other-centered, purpose in life. That is to say, when a person’s primary goals and motivation (purpose) in their life specifically relate to benefiting a person or cause other than themselves, they are self-transcending. And while Maslow’s self-transcendence may have been given little attention, the concepts of eudaimonia and purpose in life have been receiving a lot of attention. High purpose in life is linked to great health benefits, both mental and physical. Purpose in life slows cognitive decline, improves memory, reduces the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease, reduces the death rate due to stroke or cardiovascular disease, lowers inflammation, calms the immune system, lessens depressive symptoms over time, and even extends life. Purpose in life and eudaimonia have also been linked to several different conceptualizations of well-being. In many attempts to define well-being, purpose is among several dimensions identified as necessary for true well-being. Even financial well-being benefits from a strong sense of purpose in life.
Here at Go Beyond, we understand the benefits of self-transcended purpose and work to increase understanding of the need for this kind of purpose. Go Beyond wants to support you in finding your client’s unique purpose in life. We want to help you help them to feel as if they have made a difference. We would love to be a part of your journey.