What Does Self-Actualization Really Mean?

Decoding self-actualization reveals a surprising finding.

Posted Jul 27, 2017

A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.
                                                     Abraham Maslow

It's lonely at the top

Ever since Maslow's hierarchy of needs (1943) became part of our everyday conception of ourselves, self-actualization has been a leading contender for "gold ring" of personal development.

Social motivations are more fundamental to survival, however, than Maslow perhaps suggests - humans are born depending on caregivers, equipped with the ability to evoke care-giving behaviors from parents (and others) who in turn provide for basic physiological and safety-related needs. Attachment itself, of course, is necessary throughout the lifespan for optimal development. Although there is growing understanding of the importance of social relationships, we still have a tendency to think of ourselves as islands.

Psychological models have tended to focus on the individual - especially in Western culture, even more so in American culture. We lean toward highlighting individual autonomy and self-understanding at the expense of truly appreciating how important intimacy and connection are. What does self-sufficiency really mean?

Ours can be a lonely culture, and in spite of all the progress we are making with relationships, attachment and intimacy, we don't fully grasp how fundamental it is for us - how much we truly need and depend upon one another. We seem to get stuck between counterdependence and codependence, afraid of intimacy and mutuality without recognizing we are afraid. We don't understand how dangerous it is to continue to avoid addressing how disconnected we are from one another.

Re-framing the hierarchy of needs

In Maslow's model there is a sequence, and generally one stage must be in place before moving on to the next stage:

Human needs arrange themselves in hierarchies of pre-potency. That is to say, the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another, more pre-potent need. Man is a perpetually wanting animal. Also no need or drive can be treated as if it were isolated or discrete; every drive is related to the state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of other drives. (Maslow, 1943)

Contemporary views of development reflect that while there may be phases, some of which are more highly conserved than others, there is a lot more wiggle room, overlap, and movement back and forth among different developmental areas. Of course, some needs are more critical for immediate survival. For instance, we cannot live without oxygen for long. This does not mean the other needs are less important, however. We also rely on one another for basic physiological needs to be met.

Grant Brenner, Illustration
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Source: Grant Brenner, Illustration

While the concept of self-actualization has shaped many a person's views, the definition of self-actualization has been vague.

With that consideration in mind, Krems, Kenrick and Neel (2017) set out to design a series of studies to examine what people mean, and what they really go for, when they spell out what self-actualization is for them. They pose the following three questions:

(a) What functional outcomes might the pursuit of self-actualization be furthering?

(b) Might the functional motives that people link to their self-actualizing vary systematically, concordant with predictions from life history theory?

(c) Is self-actualization uniquely linked to particular functional motives, or do people view other types of personal fulfillment (i.e., eudaimonic, hedonic, and subjective, well-being) as also connected to those very same functional motives?

They review the literature on self-actualization, starting with Maslow's original conception. Despite the popularity of the concept, self-actualization has been difficult for psychologists to define operationally. Different scholars have discussed self-actualization in various terms: pursuing deep commitment to a valued purpose; pushing one's intellectual envelope; being successful in one's chosen pursuits; achieving a higher level of personality development, and so on. Studying people's attitudes and behaviors regarding self-actualization begins to close the gap between academic theorizing and lived experience.

What functions make up self-actualization?

As part of designing a series of studies to look at people's attitudes and beliefs about self-actualization, the researchers review developments in the motivational theory which Maslow laid out originally. Drawing on the work of Kenrick and an earlier group of colleagues (Kenrick et al, 2010), they present an updated pyramid comprised of the following 7 fundamental motives: self-protection (from physical harm), disease avoidance/staying healthy, affiliation, status-seeking, mate acquisition, mate retention, and kin care (care of one's children and other family). 

Krems, Kenrick & Neel, 2017
Updated Motivational Pyramid
Source: Krems, Kenrick & Neel, 2017

They "posit a set of motivational systems arising from the main challenges humans consistently faced throughout ancestral history". Clearly, with a focus on mating and parenting, their model has limitations and potential political dimensions, but remains relevant. In addition to breaking down social motivations into detailed categories, and removing the non-specific term "self-actualization", the updated model shows the various motives overlapping, rather than going in a lock-step sequence. This makes more intuitive sense and is in keeping with contemporary models of development.

In keeping with these shifts, the study authors spell out the implications of the new model:

Implication 1a: Self-actualization is not necessarily a distinct, nonfunctional drive; rather when people pursue self-actualization, they may actually be pursuing the fundamental motive of status-seeking.

Implication 1b: Unlike the pursuit of self-actualization, people may view the pursuits of other types of well-being as furthering alternative fundamental motives.

Implication 2: The fundamental motives potentially furthered by self-actualizing are different for different people; concordant with life history theory, the drive to self-actualize may promote the pursuit of life-stage relevant fundamental motives.

Citing prior theory and research, they propose that the popular concept of self-actualization is determined by underlying functional outcomes related to status-seeking - that is, self-actualization is to a large extent really about attaining higher social status. They suggest that status-seeking may not be connected with other familiar concepts of well-being, notably eudaimonic (maximizing life's meaningfulness), hedonic (increasing pleasure and decreasing pain), and subjective (seeking happiness and satisfaction).

The study - design and major findings

Given the above considerations regarding motivational systems and the desire to gain a deeper understanding of the empirical basis for peoples' views on self-actualization, Krems and colleagues created a three part study design to look at these areas of interest, emphasizing motives with a functional orientation in keeping with contemporary evolutionary psychological view. Studies 1 and 2 look at the relationship between self-actualization, status-seeking and demographic factors in, respectively, college students and a broader sample of adults. Study 3 looks at whether status-seeking is uniquely related to self-actualization, as compared with other kinds of well-being.

For studies 1 and 2, they recruited 208 college students and 517 adults from a broader sample, with an overall age range from 18 to 74 years old, covering a range of demographics in terms of ethnicity, gender, marital status and parenting status. They asked participants to write about what "self-actualization" meant to them, specifically "if you were... realizing fully your own potential right now, what would you be doing?" After they completed their narratives, they were asked to rate how their responses mapped onto the 7 fundamental motives from the updated pyramid. 

Overall, they found that status-seeking was the most important functional motive, present in more participants' responses than any other motivation and rated more highly than any other motive by a significant margin, highlighting the importance of both status and esteem for self-actualization. Status-seeking was followed by affiliation, and they did not find any difference between women and men in terms of overall functional motives in study 1, but in study 2 they found that for men, status-seeking was the dominant motive, and for women status-seeking was about even with affiliation and kin-care. They reported more nuanced findings, showing differences in the importance of functional motives between men and women with and without children, for example. Nevertheless, both studies showed the importance of status-seeking as a key functional determinant underlying self-actualization for all participants. 

Study 3 explored whether status-seeking was uniquely connected with 1) self-actualization-based well-being, versus 2) eudaimonic, 3) hedonic and 4) subjective conceptualizations of well-being. The recruited 565 participants, ranging in age from 19 to 87 years old, from diverse backgrounds. The were given descriptions of the four kinds of well-being, and were asked what they would be doing if they were going after well-being from each of those perspectives. Then, as with the first 2 studies, they rated their responses in terms of the 7 fundamental motivations from the updated hierarchy of needs.

They found that status-seeking was the primary motivation associated with self-actualization, and was not the main factor with the other forms of well-being. Affiliation was the strongest motivation in eudaimonic and subjective well-being, whereas self-protection was the strongest motivation in hedonic well-being.They found similar sex differences - for men, status-seeking alone was the greatest motivation, and for women status-seeking, affiliation and self-protection, in this sample.

There were important differences among different subsets, and curious readers would enjoy reading the original paper for more detail about which life circumstances were correlated with weighting of functional goals in addition to the ubiquitous emphasis on status-seeking and esteem. Overall, status-seeking was omnipresent, and shown to be uniquely associated with self-actualization, particular to it alone, among other kinds of well-being.

Reflections on status as a foundational building-block of self-actualization

If it holds up, the primacy of status-seeking for self-actualization is an important finding. Being motivated to seek to increase one's position among one's peers, and in the social order in general, is healthy in moderation - and arguably remains adaptive from an evolutionary point of view, programmed early in the species, and still a sign of fitness. What bolsters self-esteem and furthers status varies with age, phase of life, cultural conditions, and other relevant factors.

Excessive focus on status and esteem-building can backfire, leading to interpersonal problems and professional ruin - signs of misguided efforts to compensate for underlying insecurities, for example, rather than working on the insecurities themselves to build a stronger foundation.

On the other hand, while society can exalt status to an extreme, to the point of cult-like worship of celebrities for example, society can also "status-shame", ganging up on folks who are trying to get to a better place, or fall into cynical views about status-seeking. This could be a way for status-shamers to both deal with their own insecurities around "success", as well as a way to eliminate competition by influencing others to back down.

Because of our biological heritage, we focus on status-seeking in order to find a secure place in the world, in the (great ape) pecking order. Status is therefore inherently social. We also focus on affiliation, seeking intimacy, and caring for ourselves and others. Status-seeking appears to be at the core of our motivations in many respects, but it only works well when balanced with other strivings. Problematically, as I see it, status often comes from defeat of the other, from destructive competition, and not enough from affiliation and kinship.

Please send questions, topics or themes you'd like me to try and address in future blogs, via my PT bio page.


Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

Kenrick, D. T., Neuberg, S. L., Griskevicius, V., Becker, D. V., & Schaller, M. (2010). Goal-driven cognition and functional behavior: The fundamental-motives framework. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 63-67.

Krems, A. J., Kenrick, D. T., Neel, R. (2017). Individual perceptions of self- actualization: What functional motives are linked to fulfilling one’s full potential? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1-16, June 22. DOI: 10.1177/0146167217713191