Maslow and the Search of Meaning

The fundamental ingredient to life, as identified in the first “Man’s Search for Meaning” post, is having a purpose.  This crucial idea prompts a crucial question: how do I find it?

In the 1960s, Abraham Maslow introduced the hierarchy of needs which proposed that human behavior is driven by five innate necessities.  Starting at the bottom of the hierarchy, each necessity requires fulfilment before an individual can attempt to fulfil the next.  Maslow also proposed that the progress one achieves relative to this hierarchy will determine their overall satisfaction in life.  The focus of this post will be finding meaning through the satisfaction of these innate needs.

Here is the hierarchy – starting from the lowest level and continuing up:

Physiological Needs (food, water, sleep):  the essential drive in human behavior is survival through the satisfaction of the basic needs – if starved, you’re driven to eat; if dehydrated, you’re driven to drink; if exhausted, you’re driven to sleep.

Safety Needs (security, stability):  once nourished, the next most critical need is to ensure that we are safe from harm of all kinds.  This means having stability and freedom from chaos, being protected from injury and mistreatment, and securing a reliable income to safeguard our ability to satisfy the basic needs.

Belongingness and Love Needs: as social creatures, we require to be part of a group – even if it consists of only two.  Prolonged isolation has long been used as an extreme form of punishment through sentences such as exile and solitary confinement; for most, to be lonely is to suffer.  To satisfy this need, we must be safely connected to a peer group, and ideally, in a love relationship with one or more people, romantic or not.

Esteem Needs (self-esteem/peer-esteem):  once secure within our social circle, we then strive to obtain two things: self-worth and value within our social group.  This can be achieved through gaining recognition of personal value; both by our own standards as well as those of our peers.

Self-Actualization:  finally, once an individual has satisfied the prior four areas, attention can turn to self-actualization, which is the utmost realization of potential.  Self-actualization means to enrich our lives through a succession of meaningful challenges that provide stimulation and satisfaction – think Einstein formulating his Theory of Relativity or Roger Federer winning another gland-slam title.  Although these are larger-than-life examples, no one is exempt from attaining this kind of personal triumph.

In the search for meaning, Maslow’s hierarchy can be used as a roadmap when we’re unable to see a more obvious direction.  Ask yourself, how can I become more secure within each area?

For instance, starting at the bottom of the hierarchy, with physiological needs, one could seek to improve physical health by reducing poor eating habits, introducing or improving an exercise regime, improving sleep quality, etc.

It’s instructive and fascinating to evaluate how secure you are within each segment.  An objective look at how well you are satisfying your needs can provide a unique opportunity to identify potentially problematic areas.  Once identified, find purpose through alleviating those deficits.

Given their supreme importance, there are three areas to pay particular attention:

Area #1 – health – your potential to achieve satisfaction in other areas is increased each time you improve your health, both mental and physical.  A healthy diet, adequate sleep, exercise, the limitation of drugs and alcohol: these are all readily available choices that will provide you more control over your experience.

Area #2 – safety and security relative to your financial situation – given the stress load caused by financial difficulties, it’s critical to explore ways of securing finances.

Area #3 – love and belongingness – the power of being connected to those around you in a deep way cannot be underemphasized.  Therefore, make it a personal mission to improve and expand your relationships.

(Separate posts will be made in the future to discuss each one of these subjects in greater detail)

This exercise may not provide you with your ultimate purpose, but at the very least it will prepare you for that challenge by optimizing, as much as possible, your internal and external environment.  In addition, the spirit of the exercise, and the subsequent actions that you take will put you in more control of your life.  Deficit needs will be identified and, ideally, plans will be made to alleviate those deficiencies.

Attitude is everything, and this exercise is a valuable first step in providing the outlook that may eventually lead to self-actualization.

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