Maslow’s Pyramid and the meaning of life

Louvre's museum pyramid on a blue sparing red sky as a representation of the Maslow's Pyramid

For some people, the point of no return begins at the very moment their souls become aware of each others existence.
Joybell C.

It’s a new day, and the sunlight tells Helen it is time to wake up. In no time, she feels hungry but has nothing to eat. That’s not a problem though as she still has enough to buy a piece of bread to carry on the day. Can her behavior be explained by Maslow’s Pyramid?

Someone might say yes, but there is more on the table. Helen is heading to her safe place to enjoy her bread. As she walks, she hears a child crying to her mother because he is hungry. His mom can’t do much at the moment to calm his son.

Helen, in an act of love, gives up her bread and shares it with them. Can you tell this is a feasible situation? If you say yes, then you won’t agree with Maslow and his hierarchy of needs.

According to him, there are a set of needs set in a pyramid on the idea that we satisfy those in the base first and then move forward to the top as we satisfy the next ones. In short, he classifies needs like this:

  • Physiological: food, water, shelter, and so on.
  • Safety: a secure home, steady income, and living in a safe area.
  • Social: family, friends, community or religion, being part of a group. 
  • Esteem: accomplishments and social recognition
  • Self-actualization: self-discipline, plans, and uncovering a personal purpose.
  • Self-transcendence: an urgent need to help others, feeling connected. 

The issue here is individuals are supposed to move to the next stage of needs when the previous ones are satisfied.

Maslow’s Pyramid intuition

See the inconsistency between Maslow’s theory with Helen’s actions? Giving up her chance to eat to assist another human being contradicts what Maslow said. Her actions only tell that she values more satisfying someone else needs than her own. Say, she rather meets her self-transcendence needs than physiological ones.

Were Maslow’s insights unidimensional at all then?

If anything, his pyramid is a great tool to have an initial approach to understanding human needs and motivation. Yet, his model ignores some elements that are part of the human experience:

  • Willpower
  • Consciousness
  • Self-determination

Having the ability to postpone the satisfaction of our needs, being aware of our surroundings, and being capable of setting who we are is against that kind of rigid and mechanical view Maslow has on needs.

However, thanks to this model of motivation and human behavior, we can have a big picture of human needs. From that point on, we can strip the model from its rigidness. How can that be?

Well, we can conclude that we act because we think, subjectively, that action will put us in a better situation. Based on personal judgment, each of us ranks our needs and manages our resources so that we satisfy those we deem as more valuable.

In Helen’s example, she rather feels hungry than pity a child with nothing to eat. Is perhaps something wrong with Helen? Not at all. Then why the discrepancies with Maslow’s theory?

Apart from not taking into account willpower, consciousness and self-determination, spirituality is stripped out from the set of human needs. Maslow himself was aware of this, and that’s why he later added self-transcendence, that is, the urge to go past ourselves to serve others.

Needs and the meaning of life

We are very complex living creatures. As such, it is quite challenging creating an explaining-all model to encapsulate our existence. That doesn’t mean those efforts are futile. 

Instead, we can come up with a good explanation of our behavior when we integrate the subjective reality we all experience. In other words, a theory of motivation should take into account our physiological, mental, and spiritual needs.

Regarding that last aspect, Maslow’s Pyramid doesn’t bear it in mind despite his efforts on including it as self-transcendence. But again, the issue is more about the idea that our hierarchy of needs is set a priori. Rather, we set our own based on our personal experiences and expectations.

Back with Helen’s example, it may happen that a child crying to her mother for food reminded her of a personal experience that let her empathize with the woman and her son. Who knows? Only Helen can tell.

So, can we only bring meaning to our life if we previously have satisfied ‘urgent needs’ like hunger? If yes, does that mean monks are deprived of it? It looks like the answer is negative. 

See, happiness can only come from being who we are, expressing it, being part of a community that accepts us, a safe place where we can make mistakes and feel loved nonetheless.

It is not like Maslow was wrong at all. It is more about integrating spirituality into all of our needs. In fact, some might argue that his theory is biased toward Occident culture where spirituality is detached from daily activities.

With all of this in mind, it is easier to explain why poor people can be happy while rich people are not, and vice versa. That is, satisfying physiological needs is necessary but not sufficient to have a meaningful life.

What can we do then?

In a few words, the key is feeding our spirit. That is what underlies Maslow’s pyramid. The reason behind this is simple: The Self is defined, not because of personality, but of an internal and spiritual essence that we call love. 

In that sense, we can express Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in a different way like this:

  1. The need of being loved
  2. The need for belonging
  3. The need of expressing who you are and 
  4. The need to give back
  5. The need for connectedness

Again, the needs Maslow lists are important, but they are not enough. If your essence is not there, life becomes cumbersome. That’s why we see a poet, disguised as a physician, who doesn’t do poetry; or an actor, disguised as an accountant, who doesn’t act; or a sensible man, playing out as a tough guy, who won’t express his feelings.

To avoid living that situation, we have to be honest with ourselves, understand who we are, and be coherent with our inner gifts, talents, strengths, and skills. Live yourself, be as you are and every day will be a new chance to feel grateful and whole.

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Edited by Ludwig Laborda