Vignettes of life
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Vignettes of life


Maslow’s Hierarchy is inappropriate

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Motivation”. If you’re not familiar with the construct, it’s essentially a pyramid of needs motivating human behaviour. The basic needs for survival and safety form the base of the pyramid. When the fulfilment of these needs doesn’t come with a struggle, we are “driven” to move up the hierarchy to satisfy our social needs as well as our needs for status and to pursue our aspirations and fulfil our potential.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs puts basic physiological needs like food, water, shelter, and sex at the base of the pyramid of needs. Then comes the need for basic safety and security. The psychological need for relationships and belonging comes next. The need for prestige and status in society is then followed by the need for self-actualisation or the need to achieve one’s full potential at the top of the pyramid.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

As I look at what’s happening in the world and introspect about my place in it, I can’t help but find this hierarchy to be inadequate, even inappropriate. Let me explain.

Since the satisfaction of many if not most of our needs are based on money, first let’s look at what’s happening in the global demographic. Today, just over 50% of the global population comprises the “middle class”.

World Middle Class — 2019 (Brookings Institute)

What is the middle class? Great question. According to the Brookings Institute, those in the middle class have some discretionary income that can be used to buy consumer durables like motorcycles, refrigerators, or washing machines. They can afford to go to movies or indulge in other forms of entertainment. They may take vacations. And they are reasonably confident that they and their family can weather an economic shock — like illness or a spell of unemployment — without falling back into extreme poverty.

Interested to know where you stand? I thought as much. Here’s a handy calculator to find out, no matter where you live.

As per the World Data Lab, if your daily spending exceeds USD 11 per day, then you comprise this rapidly burgeoning middle class. And yes, it is indeed growing rapidly, at a rate of about five people per second.

Pace of the World Middle Class — 2019 (World Data Lab)

Of course there are disparities in this pace across the world. While some parts of the world are affluent, there are others that are struggling to catch up.

Disparities in the World Middle Class — 2018 (OECD)

However, what this essentially means is that by the year 2030, the middle and affluent classes will constitute close to 70% of the global population.

World Middle Class — 2030 (Brookings Institute)

But there is still a major flaw with the world. Quite a few actually. The world may be getting richer but not everyone is getting an equal share of the pie. While 44.8% of the wealth is owned by just 0.8% of the world’s population a vast majority, 63.9% to be precise, owns only 1.9% of the wealth.

World Income Distribution — 2018 (Credit Suisse)

This however is not a call for equal distribution of wealth. It is intended to prompt you to question our or rather your understanding of your own happiness. And hopefully, at a more macro level, the happiness of the world at large. So let’s look at the perception of happiness around the world.

World Happiness — 2018 (Our World in Data)

While it may be true that people around the world are getting happier, there is a problem with this picture. Look carefully and you’ll see that both Canada and the United States of America, two of the wealthiest nations in the world, seem to be getting unhappier. I know that correlation is not causation, but it does make one wonder if the law of diminishing marginal utility might also apply to wealth.

If you’re interested in finding out how the happiness of your country may have evolved over a period of time, you can add your country to this graph here.

Looking at this through a slightly different yet related lens, data also suggests that most people across the world tend to think others are actually unhappier than they say they are!

Perception of Others’ Happiness (Our World in Data)

While this could be explained by many things, could it also be related to people’s realization of their good fortune should they be lucky enough to have food on their tables and their intuition about the actual state of the world?

Could it be that most of us are innately aware that something other than the amassing of wealth and the pursuance of resources can make us happier still? Now what might that be?

This brings me to the whole point of the exercise. But in order to make my point, let’s also look at what happens when our needs, according to Maslow’s hierarchy, are satisfied.

What happens when you’ve never gone hungry and have known safety and security all your life? Don’t you find yourself craving for adventure, risk, and novelty?

The World needs Adventure — For Happiness

And when you find yourself overwhelmed with (sometimes meaningless) social stimuli? Don’t you crave for time alone / quiet time so that you may find your own soul-center?

The World needs Introspection — For Happiness

And when you realise that your status in society can’t buy you self-love?

The World needs Self Respect — For Happiness

And should you be fortunate enough or for that matter have worked hard enough to be in the minority of millionaires, what happens then? Don’t you, after summiting the peak of your aspirations, still feel that something is missing?

The World needs Altruism — For Happiness

So perhaps then this simplistic model of needs is indeed inadequate. For the vast majority anyways. Because all it may guarantee is that it keeps you running… in the rat race. And even if toil all your life, climb up this pyramid, and acquire a vast amount of wealth, you’re most likely going to die with the realisation that ultimate happiness lay elsewhere.

So should we not focus on a new model — based on altruism, authenticity, introspection, and adventure — one that maximises happiness?

The World needs a New Model — For Happiness

It’s okay if you’re not convinced. But do think about this — is it not possible that human activity based on Maslow’s simplistic model is what has led to overproduction and could lead not only to irreversible environmental degradation but also the eventual extinction of our species itself? And if so, then perhaps that itself is reason enough for the model’s inappropriateness as well.

It’s also okay if I haven’t even succeeded in planting a seed of doubt. But perhaps you’d be willing to at least think of finding a new balance? One that takes into account the tradeoffs of the consequences of your actions? And think of the model not as a whole but rather as piece of a larger, more important puzzle?

The World needs a New Model — For Happiness

So what’s stopping us? The one thing I can think of, off the top of my head, is the need for a new socio-economic order. But for that, first we need to elect leaders who are built of a rare moral fabric and are willing to at least acknowledge that there might be a problem.



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Leaning into everything the humanity of my existence will allow…