The Hierarchy of Needs

By David Snyder

Public Broadcasting

I’ve been thinking a bit about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. One of the pillars of any psych 101 course, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs changed the whole ball game of psychology. Before Maslow, a soft-spoken professor at Brandeis University, came about with his talk of self-actualization, psychology was centered around how to fix the broken ones, not improve the one’s who sought help. Pre-Maslow psych was more about dealing with the mentally impaired than the self-improver.

For those who aren’t in the know, the Hierarchy of Needs is a framework of what any one individual needs at certain stages of one’s life. At rock bottom, one needs the barebones: food, drink, and some shuteye. After covering those bases, one is granted the luxury of worrying about their security, about whether or not there’s a practical way to keep the grizzlies and wolfs out of the backyard. Then comes love and belonging. The love can be brotherly, platonic, or romantic; the point is that one needs to feel apart of something more than one’s self. Once one picks up a tribe, next comes self-esteem. Once the food, water, home, and family are all done and dusted, it’s time to love one’s self. Metaphorically, that is. Finally, once all the rest has been accomplished, once every last rung of the ladder has been climbed, comes self-actualization. Self-actualization is a rather academic way of saying finding the good life, of finding what one is “destined” to do or something like that.

I find this system compelling, though not without fault. Sure, when I’m hungry, I could care little for those who “love” me. When a meal is fast approaching but feels endlessly far off, I can’t be trusted to hold a dull pencil, for fear I might strike down the closest chap and serve him up with a side of greens. When the hair doesn’t form just the right audacious poof, the self-esteem goes out the window altogether. Still, even if I’m not too high on my own supply I can taste a bit of that self-actualization business. Bad hair aside, I can write a rambling essay or read a few dozen pages of a book, the two hobbies that actualize my existence the most.

Another trouble of Maslow’s system is the idea that if one lacks consistent food or security then one can’t find the love of a spouse or of a community. Rubbish. I’ve never visited a war-torn country, but I’m damn sure the oft-hungry and ill-sheltered still know the love of their parents, wife, husband, or children. Sure, the badly impoverished may not waste too much thought on the dream timeshare or the next pay raise, but to imply that there’s nothing but food and shelter for them is ridiculous.

Still, while not bulletproof, Maslow was no doubt onto something. However, instead of viewing the needs as a hierarchy, as a series of rungs that make up a ladder, I like to view them as a simple list of needs, a messy and interchangeable set of guidelines. Every day, one goes through the motions of nearly each of the bullets that Maslow highlighted, so to say that there’s a set order to it all is a bit simplistic to fit this fantastically messy world of ours.

I wrote this on a full stomach but outside, amongst the many wolves of Broadway. I could have been shaking in my Converse for fear that my seat might have been taken upon my trip to the restroom or that some bandit would’ve jabbed me in the eye and made off with my laptop, but alas, the self-actualization still reared its lovely little head.

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