Years ago, Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs was a popular way of understanding human motivation and ourselves in general. His work was one of the first to look at what allowed people to thrive, rather than struggle in dysfunction, and preceded the field of positive psychology as we know it today. Beginning with a basic need to merely survive, Maslow showed how some people evolved beyond that to eventually arrive at a pinnacle: self-actualization. But while Maslow’s theory made a major contribution to developmental psychology, there are new theories replacing his. Could human happiness and motivation really be as simple as the three needs in Self-Determination Theory (SDT) or the six factors in The Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-Being? And is it really possible to know what we humans need to be happy?
First let me recap Maslow’s original five levels of human motivation. Much like the food charts from our youth, these five were considered a pyramid with #1 being wide at the bottom and then ascending narrowly to the top with #5. They are:
1. Physiological needs vital for survival like water, air, food and sleep
2. Security needs like safety, health care, a job and a home.
3. Social needs like belonging, love and affection.
4. Esteem needs like self-esteem, personal worth, social recognition and accomplishment.
5. Self-actualization needs concerned with awareness, spiritual insight and personal growth.
However, in the years that followed Maslow’s proposal, other psychologists have questioned its popularity as well as the evidence supporting it. The largest problem seems to come from the fact that Maslow arrived at his theory by interviewing only around 16 people he believed to be self-actualized like Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt. Plus according to others, his theory is highly individualistic and biased toward the U.S. population and does not appear to fit as easily into other cultures around the world. For example, there is evidence that people can still experience high personal worth, accomplishment, and a level of self-actualization even though their basic needs (#1) and safety needs (#2) are not completely fulfilled. Maslow implied that was impossible.
So who is correct? Some theories today insist that we possess up to 40 different needs that long to be fulfilled. However, one of the more popular theories in recent years comes from Professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan who co-founded SDT. They propose only three needs that guide human intrinsic motivation. Remember, intrinsic means that the motivation is coming from within a person, rather than being influenced or forced upon them by either other people or society. The higher fulfillment of these three needs in a person’s life are believed to be necessary requirements for achieving psychological good health and well-being. They are:
1) Relatedness. Just last week I wrote a blog post about how important friends are to all of us. This need says that we each have a universal need to feel connected to and experience caring for others in order to experience wellbeing.
2) Competence. This need relates to our need to affect our environment and to achieve a sense of control and even mastery over our experiences.
3) Autonomy. This need is about freedom and the belief that a person can choose and direct their own experiences. And while we can all understand how freedom plays a big role in making us happy, it’s equally important to consider how lack of freedom can do the opposite.
So why is it important to consider these inherent motivations? In short, this theory makes it clear that unless our experiences contain these needs, our sense of happiness and well-being will be compromised. In other words, if you work at a job where you don’t like anyone you work with, you have little or no pride or sense of worth about your contribution, and you feel stuck and pressured, it won’t matter how much money you make—you won’t be happy. Or say you’ve become quite popular at school, but have no real friends, recognize that the system to be popular is randomly generated, and feel you only arrived at your notoriety because of forces beyond your control—your well-being will suffer. Ultimately, these needs point out that living a life focused on what matters most to your soul, always trumps doing things to impress others or because someone else told you it was important.
Professor Carol Ryff, who created a model of psychological well-being composed of six “scales” or factors, offers another popular theory very similar to the SDT needs. When used to evaluate how effectively these factors are present or absent in a person’s life, they provide the degree to which well-being exists. They are:
2. Relations with others
3. Autonomy in thought and actions
4. Environmental mastery
5. Purpose and meaning in life
6. Personal growth and development
Obviously the more that anyone can attest to the presence of a positive and high level of each essential trait in ones life, the better. For example, Ryff says that high self acceptance can be, “defined as a central feature of mental health as well as a characteristic of self-actualization, optimal functioning and maturity.” From there we can see that anyone who hates who they are or what they look like can be accused of weak functioning, poor maturity and hardly self-actualized.
What makes these two sets of qualities more relevant today is that they have been tested in other countries and evaluated among many more test subjects. In other words, no matter where in the world you go and who you ask, chances are very good that the fulfillment of all of these characteristics add up to a high-quality life.
So what does this mean to you and me? Again, I think it is important to recognize that even when the media or our culture tries to convince us that a fulfilled life means a never-aging youthful body, a big house, an expensive car, all sorts of material possessions along with power and prestige, it isn’t close to being true. Instead, what these studies and information does confirm is that what we really need can only be found by empowering ourselves to live deeply from the inside-out. And when it’s all said and done, maybe that is the SMART approach to true self-actualization.