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Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Back in 1945, a psychologist named Abraham Maslow rocked the discipline of mental health and science with a bold new model for viewing the evolution of a human life. In a paper called A Theory of Human Motivation, he introduced the concept that would bear and immortalize his name: “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” and theories of personality development and human behavior have never been the same since.

While his peers were focusing on the sick and infirm, Maslow studied the lives of accomplished individuals such as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Frederick Douglass, hoping to find a common thread that separated their penchant for understanding and achievement from the common herd of mankind. He also studied students functioning at the top one percent of academic achievers, coming up with a series of human levels of development and priorities – needs – that were ordered into a hierarchy, the theory being that an individual dwells and focuses at a given level until that need is satisfied, then adjusts priorities to achieve the needs expressed by the next level. The more evolved the individual, the higher level of the need they require for fulfillment.

Infants, for example, need food, water, safety and a means of going to the bathroom – all physiological needs – and not much more. There’s never been a newborn child that felt unfulfilled because they lacked intimacy or had yet to achieve a worthy goal, they just seek their next meal. But as the child grows into a toddler and that first level of basic needs become assured, their needs begin to change. They now require a sense of safety and security, and the reassuring comfort of family. This evolution continues through a series of five levels of evolving needs, each building on the one before it and depending on its fulfillment before the ensuing level can become a new primary focus. Despite the example above, the stages are not necessarily age dependent, an adult requires the same series of fulfilled needs before the next level becomes a priority in their lives. Many people spend their entire lives seeking employment and financial resources, without ever feeling the need to express themselves as an artist or be recognized by their peers for their contributions.

The five levels of need, from most basic to most evolved, are:

  • Physiological – food, water, breathing, excreting, sex, homeostasis (stability and balance);
  • Safety – security, employment, family, health, property;
  • Love and belonging – family, friendship, sexual intimacy;
  • Esteem – achievement, respect, confidence;
  • Self-actualization – morality, creativity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of the truth.

From this list we can easily see where some people linger for years, searching for fulfillment before moving on. The hierarchy doesn’t contend that you can’t achieve an element from a higher level unless you have all of the elements below it in place, only that a sense of fulfillment won’t occur until that happens.

How is this valuable in family dynamics? First, it’s helpful to notice where each member of the family resides in this hierarchy. From this knowledge parents can more easily address the needs of their children, and spouses can help their partners move to a higher level of personal fulfillment and peace. Art lessons may not be the best choice if one is struggling with family issues. If a family has money issues, lack of employment and the bank is threatening foreclosure, it’s unlikely that issues of creativity and achievement are at the forefront of priorities. Until a couple feels safe with each other, they cannot move into true intimacy and sexual fulfillment. If one is constantly seeking esteem and respect, chances are they are not yet concerned with issues of morality and truth, they are focusing on their own situation and needs. It doesn’t mean that they don’t care about morality and truth, but rather, that their sense of fulfillment comes from the next level down, that being the need to be respected and admired.

Maslow’s pyramid is a complex piece of science expressed in a simplistic way, and is best appreciated as a quick guidepost to understand the needs of others, and perhaps yourself. If expectations don’t match the realities of your family situation, this can help you understand what might be a better place to focus. Together, armed with this knowledge, families can move together toward greater contentment, and over time, climb the pyramid toward self-actualization together.

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