Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Updated for the 21st century

Rather than trekking up a mountain, a more accurate metaphor for human development involves navigating the waters of a choppy sea.

SCOTT BARRY KAUFMAN: People get a lot of things wrong about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. First of all, Maslow never even drew a pyramid. A lot of people might not know that as you're probably very used to seeing a diagram on Facebook or in your introductory psychology class or management class. So you see this pyramid with self-actualization at the top and different needs. I looked through Maslow's writings, and he never actually drew a pyramid to represent his theory. He actually viewed human – it was very clear to Maslow that life is not a video game. It's not as though you reach some level in life like safety needs and then you reach the safety needs and you get a certain number of that and then some voice from above is like congrats, you've unlocked connection. And then you go do, do, do, do, do and you move up to connection. It's not how life works. And Maslow is very clear about that. In a lot of ways Maslow was a developmental psychologist at heart. He really believed that human development was constantly this two steps forward, one step back dynamic.

We're constantly choosing the growth option, and then we're failing in some way or we have some struggle which is an inevitable part of life. And then we continue forward. Life is not some trek up a mountain and then you reach self-actualization as though you've achieved self-actualization and the final credits come on. Again, continuing the video game metaphor. Life is not like that. Self-development is a process. It's constantly in a form of development and we are constantly becoming, our being in the world is constantly becoming. And Maslow is very clear about that.

Abraham Maslow made it very clear that self-actualization is not the same as achievement. A lot of people in fact may achieve quite a bit in their lives and may be on the cover of magazines, may have all the awards, the whole trophy shelf of their house that they show off and still feel deeply, deeply unfulfilled. We feel much more fulfilled when we actualize our potentialities, our deepest potentials, the things that make us unique, the things that we can uniquely contribute to the world in ways that have a positive impact on the world. Just realizing your talents without the context of the meaning behind it is a recipe for a lot of talented people to live a very unfulfilled life.

So, Maslow defines self-actualization as becoming everything that you're capable of becoming and that you're most uniquely capable of becoming. So we have a lot of things, a lot of potentials that we share with other humans. We have the need for safety. We have the need for connection. We have the need for respect and a certain level of feeling worthy or self-esteem. We share that with others, but Maslow thought of self-actualization as those potentialities within you that, if grown to full heights, will have the biggest impact on the world uniquely. What do you most uniquely have to contribute to this world? I think that's how Maslow really thought about self-actualization. That's how I tend to think about self-actualization, as well.

So, I've revised Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for the twenty-first century building it on a solid scientific foundation. My revised integrated hierarchy of needs views human development as in a process of higher and higher levels of integration. Instead of some trek up a mountain, we're actually a whole vehicle. We're an integrated set of parts. Our whole can become greater than the sum of its parts. But how we integrate those parts is really important for fulfillment in life and ultimately transcendence. Many people may not realize but towards the latter years of Abraham Maslow's life, he was working on a new theory of transcendence arguing that our highest motivation in life wasn't self-actualization but it was actually transcendence. What is good at the highest level of human development, the highest level of human motivation transcendence, what is good for oneself is automatically good for others. The notion of selfishness breaks down. In fact at the highest level of consciousness, we have a lot of dichotomy transcendence as Maslow put it.

Things such as evil versus good no longer makes any sense. We're all part of an integrated whole. Selfishness, unselfishness doesn't make sense because, what does it mean to be selfish when what is good for you is simultaneously good for society? What does that even mean anymore? So in my revised hierarchy of needs I argue that a better metaphor than a static pyramid is a sailboat. With a sailboat we absolutely need to have a boat that is safe and secure or else we don't go anywhere. If you have a huge leak in your boat you're not going very far in life or in the ocean. But being safe and secure and having a secure boat is not enough or else we won't go anywhere. What we need to do is we need to open up our sail, as well. And when we open up our sail, when we feel very comfortable and safe enough to open up our sail we can really move through the ocean in the direction that we want, usually it's in a purposeful direction. We have some sort of meaning or purpose in life.

But as we're moving, we're still moving in the vast unknown of the sea and the truth is we're all in this together. We're all in our own boats going in our own direction but we're all in the sea. We're all in the vast and unknown of the sea. Especially in this time that we're living in right now. We all see quite clearly how choppy these waters are. But it's important that we recognize that while safety is important in these unknown times we must not neglect our higher possibilities in life. They're just as important.

  • When we imagine Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs, we visualize a pyramid. This is all wrong, says humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman.
  • This is because life isn't a video game, where you unlock new levels until you reach the final prize of self-actualization. In fact, Maslow viewed human development as a two steps forward, one step back dynamic.
  • Kaufman rebuilt Maslow's hierarchy of needs, updating it for the 21st century with a solid scientific foundation. And a better metaphor for this is a sailboat.

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