Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Maslow's forgotten pinnacle: Self-transcendence
Abraham Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs is depicted as a triangle with self-actualization at the very top. Right before his death, Maslow wanted to add another to the hierarchy: Self-transcendence.
- A great deal of focus is paid to achieving self-actualization, the long-espoused pinnacle of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
- Maslow, however, didn't believe this was the real pinnacle of human development: he averred that self-transcendence was.
- Maslow became ill and soon died after conceiving of this new pinnacle, which is why we hear little about it today.
"A peculiar characteristic of the human organism when it is dominated by a certain need," wrote psychologist Abraham Maslow, "is that the whole philosophy of the future tends also to change. For our chronically and extremely hungry man, … life itself tends to be defined in terms of eating."
This serves as a good example of his model of human development, the now well-known "hierarchy of needs." At the bottom of this hierarchy are the physiological needs — without a reliable source of food, human beings define their lives "in terms of eating." But as those baser needs become satisfied, we find ourselves needing more and more sophisticated things: shelter, love, esteem, and then, at the pinnacle of the pyramid, self-actualization. This refers to our need to realize all our potential, to become everything that we can be.
But toward the end of his life, Maslow began to have some doubts about this model. In his personal journal, published only after his death in 1970, Maslow wrote:
"All sorts of insights. One big one about [self-actualization] stuff, brought on, I think, mostly by my deep uneasiness over articles. . . . I realized I'd rather leave it behind me. Just too sloppy & too easily criticizable. Going thru my notes brought this unease to consciousness. It's been with me for years. Meant to write & publish a self-actualization critique, but somehow never did. Now I think I know why."
What was this developing crisis about? Why did Maslow want to revise the hierarchy that he would ultimately become famous for? The answer is that he had realized the hierarchy was incomplete. Self-actualization wasn't the pinnacle of his pyramid — self-transcendence was.
What's wrong with self-actualization?
Maslow's original hierarchy of needs without the addition of self-transcendence.
Part of these criticisms that Maslow and others had with the idea of self-actualization was that it was directed entirely on the individual. Self-actualized people become what they are individually capable of being, but scholars have argued that this excludes a concern for others. A self-actualized person under this definition might care for others, but it is by way of satisfying their own need to be an individual that cares for others.
"In one individual," wrote Maslow "[self-actualization] may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions." The "ideal mother" may have a genuine concern for their child, but they are not self-actualized because of that concern; they're self-actualized because they were motivated to become as talented a mother as they could be.
What's new about self-transcendence?
When he initially developed the hierarchy of needs model, Maslow described several characteristics of self-actualized people, only to later realize that he had bundled the characteristics of self-transcendent people with those of self-actualized people. Specifically, Maslow thought that self-transcendence was more defined by peak experiences than self-actualization.
Maslow defined peak experiences as "feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placing in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened, so that the subject is to some extent transformed and strengthened even in his daily life by such experiences."
While self-actualizers experience this, he believed that peak experiences were a means of becoming more than just the self:
"As [self-actualized individual] gets to be more purely and singly himself he is more able to fuse with the world, with what was formerly not-self, for example, the lovers come closer to forming a unit rather than two people, the I-Thou monism becomes more possible, the creator becomes one with his work being created, the mother feels one with her child."
This accounts for a gap in Maslow's humanist psychology tradition. Transcendent experiences are the focus of such a wide variety of world cultures — notably Eastern cultures and shamanistic traditions — that it would be an omission to ignore such a pursuit from any model of human development, like the hierarchy of needs. In his later thinking, Maslow realized how to reconcile the Western, individual-centric idea of self-actualization:
"The goal of identity [self-actualization] seems to be simultaneously an end-goal in itself, and also a transitional goal, a rite of passage, a step along the path to the transcendence of identity. … If our goal is the Eastern one of ego-transcendence and obliteration, of leaving behind self-consciousness and self-observation, … then it looks as if the best path to this goal for most people is via achieving identity, a strong real self, and via basic-need-gratification."
Thus, human beings may feel a strong need to become all that they can be, but once this need is met, some continue to feel needs beyond the self, to pursue goals that may in fact have little to do with the self at all.
How self-transcendence became forgotten
Why is it that this revision to the hierarchy of needs, made by the creator of the concept himself, is not better known? There are a few reasons.
The first is simply bad timing. Maslow first began to conceptualize this additional level in 1967. Later that year, he had a major heart attack and was seriously weakened. He was busy with his convalescence, his other duties as the president of the American Psychological Association, and with lecturing at various colleges until a second, ultimately fatal heart attack struck him in 1970 while he was jogging.
Second, he only published his findings in a little-known journal at the time, and his personal journals were not published for some time after his death.
Third, the concept of self-transcendence dips its toes into the spiritual or mystical, something that psychologists avoid doing even to this day. Of course, one doesn't have to embrace pseudoscience or the supernatural to study the human being's predilection for the mystical. Human beings have a drive to become more than their individual selves, a desire that should be studied regardless of whether it manifests in religious, spiritual, or mystical settings.
The lack of such a study is arguably one of the reasons why Maslow felt his hierarchy to be incomplete.
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.