Updated: Dec 8, 2022
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Quarantine edition.
“Buddha got this” — Raj Hayer, Thailand 2012
“What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.” — Abraham Maslow
Self awareness is the key to change, improvement, and growth. However, as Maslow himself states, if basic needs are not fulfilled, then the next stage of growth cannot be achieved. Reviewing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can help us determine which stage we are currently operating on and understanding what motivates us can help us achieve the next stage.
I came back to the stages to understand how they relate to us during social isolation. A lot of us are feeling guilt for not “doing more” during this social isolation, not getting fitter, skinnier, more enlightened, but the hierarchy of needs itself explains why we need to stop putting so much pressure on ourselves.
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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s famous framework is a broadly accepted concept that comes from a 1943 paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation” about the stages of motivation and growth for humans, which parallels developmental psychology.
In basic terms it describes the needs that motivate human behaviour, i.e. our most fundamental and primary needs, right through to self-esteem and finally, self-actualisation. The framework is effective in illustrating why our needs and therefore our motivation changes as we progress through the stages.
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Physiological needs (water, food, sleep)
No surprise here that our basic needs, and our primary motivation, are human survival and physiological needs — air, water, food, rest — without which the rest is irrelevant. This covers pure survival needs.
If we have a shelter over our heads and food on the table, and we are capable of reading this on our own computer or phone, then we are in the top 1% of the world population and quarantine is a privilege. For others around the world this pandemic has put even more distress on their basic survival needs.
Safety needs (shelter, avoidance of danger)
The next stage of motivation is the need for safety which can come in many forms: the need for financial security, i.e. a shelter over our heads and food on the table; health safety, looking after the body and mind; and personal security, reduced fear from any violence or threat.
Let’s take time to recognise that over the course of the past two months we will sometimes regress to this stage — purely desiring safety. The idea that we should all be self actualising and working on ourselves during this time does not comply with this framework. How can we fulfil our dreams when we are in fear for our health? So let’s go easy on ourselves. The arrival of Covid-19 must grant allowance for us to feel a little insecure, feel a little fear, and to regress rather than move forward.
Social needs (love, affection, being part of groups)
Once the physiological and the safety needs are satisfied, the next motivation is the need for belonging, the need for love and affection. The Beatles said it best when they said “all you need is love”. The need to feel like we belong, whether within a family unit, within our friendship circles, or within society, satisfies our primary need for interpersonal interaction.
We have technology now that we did not even have access to ten years ago. Technology that allows us to stay connected during this time of social isolation, to not only speak to our friends and family but to also see their faces simultaneously. There was a time not long ago when this was not possible, yet now we can even have a drink with our friends on a weekly “Stammtisch” zoom call and the feeling of true isolation is somewhat reduced.
Esteem needs (self-esteem, and esteem from others)
As well as gaining respect from others, this includes all the usual suspects — self confidence, self esteem, and self respect. Imbalance here can result in feelings of inferiority, insecurity, and/or anxiety or depression.
The choices we make in the previous stage of “Social needs” can greatly impact our ability to achieve “Esteem needs”. For example — if we choose to stay with an abusive partner in our desire for belonging, this can greatly diminish our self esteem, increase insecurity and fear that our safety is continually compromised, and so we inevitably stay stuck in the stage of “Safety needs”.
“A positive self image and healthy self esteem is based on approval, acceptance and recognition from others; but also upon actual accomplishments, achievements, and success upon the realistic self confidence which ensues.” — Abraham Maslow
Achieving self-esteem means gaining control over our environment as much as possible — bringing people into our lives who reflect positivity, accept us as we are and who we could be, rather than belittling us because of their own insecurity. It also means gaining control of our self-bullying and negative emotions, and reducing our self-limiting beliefs so we can accomplish our goals and achieve success.
This is the toughest stage, the most difficult and challenging of all of them. This is the stage most people operate at most of their adult lives, which is why this is also the stage where — if we are willing and able — we can experience truly exponential growth.
During quarantine this stage has created struggle for people who are putting pressure on themselves to achieve more and more, to “take advantage” of the time they have at home. However when we must manage fear of getting sick this can be difficult to achieve. Consider instead that this a great time to just reflect. Are the people in our lives — even remotely — giving us support and understanding during this difficult time? Are we being kind of ourselves? Is the couch the best we can manage today? Then that’s okay.
Self-actualisation (achieving individual potential)
After the other four stages comes “Buddha level”…
“What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualization.” — Abraham Maslow
Now before we can come to this stage we must not only achieve the previous needs, but master them. This is the spiritually enlightened stage, where we lose all fear, achieve our dreams and live up to our full potential. Not in some obscure “influencer” or sales-y type of way, but in true gratitude for life.
“Life could be vastly improved if we could count our blessings as self-actualising people can and do, and if we could retain their constant sense of good fortune and gratitude for it.”
If we are healthy, safe, and have maintained healthy relationships in our lives, chances are we have fulfilled the first three needs.
If we are self-aware, self confident, and asking ourselves “what’s my purpose?”, we are mastering the fourth need.
If we are able to see how lucky and blessed we are, and have true gratitude and peace in our lives every single day, then hello self-actualisation!
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are achievable and the first three stages are the foundation of everything else we want to accomplish in life. Assuming we don’t skip steps that is. So if relationships are not healthy, we need to revisit them and it’s okay to move away from people who no longer fit our values. Mediation is always a great first step into achieving our esteem needs, affirmations and healthy habits help.
“If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.“ — Abraham Maslow
No one chooses to be unhappy, so we might as well have the courage to achieve all we can, embrace our full potential by aiming for stage 5 enlightenment over our lifetimes, which at this time can be as simple as finding happiness and lightness in every single day, no matter what is going on around us. Yes, coronavirus and quarantine — I am talking about you.
I like to think I have been operating at stage 4 for years, like most people, but like most people quarantine and the need for social relationships has challenged me and I have regressed to stage 3 periodically. So let’s go easy on ourselves and take each day as it comes. Eventually happiness and contentment can be achieved, but maybe not just yet.
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