In the summer of 1962, Abraham Maslow was driving through heavy fog on the treacherous Big Sur coastal highway in
With such a beginning, it was perhaps inevitable that Maslow would become the high priest of the 1960s human potential movement. Through the core idea of the “self-actualizing person,” his Motivation and Personality had presented a new image of human nature that excited a whole generation. With Rollo May and Carl Rogers, Maslow founded the “third force” humanistic branch of psychology, and its extension, transpersonal psychology, which went beyond the regular needs and interests of people to their spiritual and cosmological context.
Yet Maslow was not an obvious revolutionary. As an academic psychologist his work was essentially a reaction against behaviorism, which broke people down to mechanistic parts, and Freudian psychoanalysis, which imagined us controlled by subterranean urges. Still working within the boundaries of the scientific method, Motivation and Personality instead sought to form a holistic view of people, one not dissimilar to how artists and poets have always imagined us. Rather than being simply the sum of our needs and impulses, Maslow saw us as whole people with limitless room for growth. It was this clear belief in human possibility and the organizations and cultures we could build that has made his work so influential.
The key concepts: Hierarchy of needs and self-actualization
Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” is a famous concept in psychology. He organized human needs into three broad levels: the physiological—air, food and water—the psychological—safety, love, self-esteem—and, finally, self-actualization. His insight was that the higher needs were as much a part of our nature as the lower, indeed were instinctive and biological. Most civilizations had mistakenly put the higher and lower needs at odds with each other, seeing the animalistic basic drives as conflicting with the finer things to which we aspire like truth, love, and beauty. In contrast, Maslow saw needs as a continuum, in which the satisfaction of the lower needs came before a person’s higher mental and moral development. Having met the basic bodily requirements, and reached a state where we feel we are loved, respected, and enjoy a sense of belonging, including philosophical or religious identity, we seek self-actualization. Self-actualizing people have attained “the full use and exploitation of talents, capacities, potentialities and the like.” These are the people who are successful as a person, aside from any obvious external success; by no means perfect, but seemingly without major flaws. Since Daniel Goleman wrote his bestseller on emotional intelligence people have “discovered” it as a key to success, yet for self-actualized people this type of intelligence is ingrained.
Maslow’s research involved the study of seven contemporaries and nine historical figures: US Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, scientist Albert Einstein, First Lady and philanthropist Eleanor Roosevelt, pioneer social worker Jane Addams, psychologist William James, doctor and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, writer Aldous Huxley, and philosopher Baruch Spinoza. He identified 19 characteristics of the self-actualized person, including:
❖ Clear perception of reality (including a heightened ability to detect falseness and be a good judge of character).
❖ Acceptance (of themselves and things as they are).
❖ Spontaneity (a rich, unconventional inner life with a child-like ability to constantly see the world anew and appreciate beauty in the mundane).
❖ Problem-centeredness (focus on questions or challenges outside themselves—a sense of mission or purpose—resulting in an absence of pettiness, introspection, and ego games).
❖ Solitude seeking (enjoyed for its own sake, solitude also brings serenity and detachment from misfortune/crisis, and allows for independence of thought and decision).
❖ Autonomy (independence of the good opinion of other people, more interest in inner satisfaction than status or rewards).
❖ Peak or mystical experiences (experiences when time seems to stand still).
❖ Human kinship (a genuine love for, and desire to help, all people).
❖ Humility and respect (belief that we can learn from anyone, and that even the worst person has redeeming features).
❖ Ethics (clear, if not conventional, notions of right and wrong).
❖ Sense of humor (not amused by jokes that hurt or imply inferiority, but humor that highlights the foolishness of human beings in general).
❖ Creativity (not the Mozart type of genius that is inborn, but in all that is done, said, or acted).
❖ Resistance to enculturation (ability to see beyond the confines of culture and era).
❖ Imperfections (all the guilt, anxiety, self-blame, jealousy, and so on that regular people experience, but these do not stem from neurosis).
❖ Values (based on a positive view of the world; the universe is not seen as a jungle but an essentially abundant place, providing whatever we need to be able to make our contribution).
A further subtle difference sets these people apart. Most of us see life as striving to get this or that, whether it be material things or having a family or doing well career-wise. Psychologists call this “deficiency motivation.” Self-actualizers, in contrast, do not strive as much as develop. They are only ambitious to the extent of being able to express themselves more fully and perfectly, delighting in what they are able to do. Another general point is their profound freedom of mind. Despite the circumstances in which they may have been, and in contrast to the conforming pressures all around them, self-actualizers are walking examples of free will, the quintessential human quality. They fully grasp what Stephen Covey calls the gap between stimulus and response, the concept that no response should be automatic. In contrast, the merely “well-adjusted” (that is, neurosis-free) person may not really know who they are or have a defined purpose in life.
As Theodore Rozsak saw it in Person/Planet: “Maslow asked the key question in posing self-actualization as the proper objective of therapy: Why do we set our standard of sanity so cautiously low? Can we imagine no better model than the dutiful consumer, the well-adjusted breadwinner? Why not the saint, the sage, the artist? Why not all that is highest and finest in our species?”
Maslow made the intriguing observation that, although his self-actualizers shared the above traits and therefore could be grouped as a type, they were more completely individualized than any control group ever described. This is the paradox of the self-actualizer: the more of these traits a person has, the more likely they are to be truly unique.
Maslow’s greatness was in re-imagining what a human being could be. Moving us away from the idea of mental health as merely the “absence of neurosis,” he insisted that psychological health required the presence of self-actualizing traits. Such a fundamental recasting of psychology has had implications for all areas of human activity. At the time he wrote Motivation and Personality, Maslow believed that only a tiny percentage of the population was self-actualized, but that these few could change the whole culture. Given the impact of the concept on the 1960s counter-culturalists, a generation that has changed the world in its image, you would have to say that Maslow was right. Certainly, his hierarchy of needs has been seminal to understanding motivation in the workplace, and the self-actualization of the employee has become a serious concern in business. He foresaw the trend toward personal growth and excitement replacing money as the highest motivator in a person’s working life.
The principle clearly sets higher standards for individuals and society, and the main criticism of Maslow has been that he was Utopian, creating an ideal human nature that does not exist. He died before he could address the problem that some say he ignored: evil. The desire for self-actualization may be a factor in the spread of democracy and the growth in recognition of human rights, but what light does it shine on horrors like the genocide in