Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a systematic organization of the body and mind’s requirements for growth, development, and happiness in general. The foundational needs (d-needs) are undeniable and relate to the objective functioning and protection of one’s physical body. At the top of the pyramid are needs related to the mind and subjective welfare (b-needs). Someone who is struggling to survive has no extra energy to spare on the delicate balance of their mental/emotional states. If there are physical threats, social or emotional needs must be foregone. Similarly, social strains affect one’s emotional and even physical well-being. A precise life requires attention to all levels of development because they are interdependent. Imbalances at any individual level will necessarily send ripples both up and down the system; that system being you.
Maslow made a major distinction between the higher and lower order needs. The physiological and safety needs he called deficiency needs: d-needs. The higher order of needs, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization, were placed in a category he denoted as being needs: b-needs.
This hierarchy that Maslow identified especially makes sense in the context of how life and our species evolved. In particular it parallels the development of the physical universe which later formed the basis for biological entities. In turn these biological entities eventually developed minds and consciousness. In the case of humans and several other highly social mammals, consciousness evolved sufficient complexity to become self-aware to varying capacities. As some humans became able to thrive to the point of satisfying all of their needs at every level, the concept of a self-actualized person began to take shape. Maslow himself developed the vocabulary of self-actualization by studying the lives of people such as Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass. Many of the people who also inspire this very page and embody the concept include Carl Sagan, Joseph Campbell, and MLK as well as countless others.
The good news is that for biologically healthy humans raised even in relatively poor conditions, development through some form of self-awareness occurs naturally. That is to say, even those who have been brought up under the toughest of circumstances realize that they do actually exist (self-awareness). They can reflect on their own thought processes, at least if prompted to do so. They have the ability to understand that they are now different than they once were and that they will one day be different than they are now. They can also see how their circumstances have impacted their lives up until the present, which in turn gives evidence that they can now use their influence to shape their experiences as they move forward. This ability gives people the potential power to overcome nearly any deficits in their immediate and natural environment. It is certainly not always easy and different people’s environments have resulted in better or worse positions to achieve self-actualization. However, the privilege of being a healthy human comes with the ingenuity to overcome the unique shortfalls of our individual situations.
The significance of this system for people attempting to bring greater degrees of precision, refinement, and ultimately happiness to their lives is that the hierarchy of needs is an excellent lens for self-analysis and for understanding others. Anyone who makes an honest attempt to reflect on each of these stages will quickly come to realize some of the aspects of their lives that may be holding them back, how their past may act as an anchor in their present, and it may even offer some insight as to how to accelerate growth in the future.