Misery; Having Everything is no Defense

“I should be happy, I have everything I need, but I’m not. For example, I love playing golf, but even that is getting old. Sometimes I can’t find a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow would have understood this completely. He believed that as human beings, our ultimate goal is for something he labeled self-actualization. Sounds interesting doesn’t it? Let me explain.

His theory, creatively called Maslow’s Hierarchy, ranks our needs in the shape of a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are the most basic things the human animal would need to survive such as food, water, warmth, rest and health. He calls these the Physiological Needs. When The American Red Cross responds to an emergency, someone’s house burns down, for example, the first thing they do is to find the inhabitants a hotel, and give them money for a meal and a second set of clothes. The Red Cross knows that until the most basic needs are met, nothing else can be accomplished.

So let’s say that I have a place to live, and I know where to get my next meal, the next thing to enter my consciousness, and next on Maslow’s hierarchy, will be Safety Needs. These include things such as personal safety, job security and confidence in the ability to manage medical or other types of emergencies. I have friends who have taken jobs they don’t like for the health insurance, and part of the reason we moved to Cave Creek is because the men sleeping under the shrubs in our front yard in central Phoenix made us feel slightly unsafe.

Above Safety on the hierarchy, is the need for intimacy and friendship. He labels this group the Belongingness and Love Needs. I really don’t think that we are designed to be hermits. I think all human beings have the desire to love and be loved, and to feel some sense of belonging to a group, whether it is a small family group of only one other member, a large religious organization, or a group that gathers around the office water cooler to gossip. Once we feel safe and warm we just naturally start looking for the rest of our “tribe”.

After we find our “tribe”, we can start working on the next set of Maslow’s needs, the Esteem Needs. These needs have to be met in some sort of group. They include things like respect from others, prestige and feelings of accomplishment.

And finally, at the top of the list, is Self-Actualization. Maslow believed it meant several things, such as having an accurate perception of the self, others and external reality, and therefore possessing the ability to accept everything exactly as it is. It is also manifested by spontaneity, creativity, morality and a general appreciation of life. He identified se1f-actualized people as dedicated to "a larger purpose in life based on ethics or a sense of personal responsibility." These people have the ability to balance the need for friendships with the need for solitude and recharge time. In addition, they evaluate their accomplishments according to internal standards rather than what others think. (Like the mom who lets her children scatter toys all over the house in spite of the fact that her mother-in-law thinks the house should be presentable at all times.)

Self-actualized people continue to have the ability to appreciate the simple things in life, and according to Maslow, often have "peak experiences, or moments of intense ecstasy, wonder and awe during which their sense of self is lost and transcended.” It’s easy to see how an experience like that might be difficult if I were concerned about losing my job.

But I’m not concerned about losing my job, and neither was the man who could only play so much golf. We have no worries about finding our next meal, or if we will have to live under a shrub in someone’s yard in central Phoenix. Which only means that we have the freedom, and maybe the developmental obligation, to be concerned about other things, such as finding work (paid or volunteer) that is challenging and enjoyable, initiating and maintaining meaningful relationships, or, in short, reaching our full potential. If your life seems good on the surface, and yet you feel uneasy, you may be stuck on one of Abraham Maslow’s levels. He believed that we are all destined to follow the path toward self-actualization, so it seems appropriate to end with a quote from him;

“What a man can be, he must be.”