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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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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