Beyond Maslow's hierarchy of needs

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Life's deep meaning comes through unity in crisis, less so through self-actualisation

I would like to offer you two models of human development.

The first is what you might call The Four Kinds of Happiness. The lowest kind of happiness is material pleasure, having nice food and clothing and a nice house. Then there is achievement, the pleasure we get from earned and recognised success. Third, there is generativity, the pleasure we get from giving back to others. Finally, the highest kind of happiness is moral joy, the glowing satisfaction we get when we have surrendered ourselves to some noble cause or unconditional love.

The second model is Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs. In this conception, we start out trying to satisfy our physical needs, like hunger or thirst. Once those are satisfied, we move up to safety needs, economic and physical security. Once those are satisfied, we can move up to belonging and love. Then when those are satisfied, we can move up to self-esteem. And when that is satisfied, we can move up to the pinnacle of development, self-actualisation, which is experiencing autonomy and living in a way that expresses our authentic self.

The big difference between these two schemes is that The Four Kinds of Happiness moves from the self-transcendence individual to the relational and finally to the transcendent and collective. Maslow's hierarchy of needs, on the other hand, moves from the collective to the relational and, at its peak, to the individual. In one, the pinnacle of human existence is in quieting and transcending the self; in the other, it is liberating and actualising the self.

Most religions and moral systems have aimed for self-quieting, figuring that the great human problem is selfishness. But around the middle of the 20th century, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and others aimed to liberate and enlarge the self. They brought us the self-esteem movement and humanistic psychology, and their thinking is still very influential today.

For example, one of America's leading marriage researchers, Professor Eli Finkel, has published an important book called The All-Or-Nothing Marriage. It is quite a good book, full of interesting insights on contemporary marriage. But it conceives marriage completely within the Maslow frame.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

In this conception, a marriage exists to support the individual self-actualisation of each of the partners. In a marriage, psychologist Otto Rank wrote, "one individual is helping the other to develop and grow, without infringing too much on the other's personality". You should choose a spouse who will help you elicit the best version of yourself. Spouses coach each other as each seeks to realise his or her most authentic self.

"Increasingly," Prof Finkel wrote, "Americans view this definition as a crucial component of the marital relationship."

Now I confess, this strikes me as a cold and detached conception of marriage. If you go into marriage seeking self-actualisation, you will always feel frustrated because marriage, and especially parenting, will constantly be dragging you away from the goals of self.

In the Four Happiness frame, by contrast, marriage can be a school of joy. You might go into marriage in a fit of passion, but, if all works out, pretty soon you are chopping vegetables side by side in the kitchen, chasing a naked toddler as he careens giddily down the hall after bath time, staying up nights anxiously waiting for your absent teenager, and every once in a while looking out over a picnic table at the whole crew on some summer evening, feeling a wave of gratitude sweep over you, and experiencing a joy that is greater than anything you could feel as a "self".

And it all happens precisely because the self melded into a single unit called the marriage. Your identity changed. The distinction between giving and receiving, altruism and selfishness, faded away because, in giving to the unit, you are giving to a piece of yourself.

It is not just in marriage, but in everything, Maslow's hierarchy of needs has always pointed towards a chilly, unsatisfying version of self-fulfilment. Most people experience their deepest sense of meaning not when they have placidly met their other needs, but when they come together in crisis.

Rabbi Wolfe Kelman's life was fraught with every insecurity when he marched with Dr Martin Luther King in Selma, but, he reported: "We felt connected, in song, to the transcendental, the ineffable. We felt triumph and celebration. We felt that things change for the good and nothing is congealed forever. That was a warming, transcendental spiritual experience. Meaning and purpose and mission were beyond exact words."

In one of his many interesting data points, Prof Finkel reports that starting around 1995, both fathers and mothers began spending a lot more time looking after their children. Today, parents spend almost three times more hours in shared parenting than parents in 1975 did. Prof Finkel says this is an extension of the Maslow/Rogers pursuit of self-actualisation.

I would say it is evidence of a repudiation of it. I would say many of today's parents are moving away from the me-generation ethos and towards covenant, fusion and surrendering love.

None of us lives up to our ideals in marriage or anything else. But at least we can aim high. Maslow's hierarchy of needs too easily turns into self-absorption. It is time to put it away.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline 'Beyond Maslow's hierarchy of needs'. Print Edition | Subscribe