How Maslow Got Cool

Self-actualization is the new carrot everyone is chasing.

Posted Nov 14, 2017

You remember the chart from a college psychology class.  In his pyramid-shaped Hierarchy of Needs, Abraham Maslow proposed that there is a five-tier model of human needs that people confront as they go through life.  People are motivated to achieve certain needs, he wrote way back in 1943, the most basic one being physical survival.  One has to satisfy a lower need before progressing to a higher need, with our orientation to life and much of our behavior dedicated to climbing the next step.  The original hierarchy (he later expanded it) is:

1. Biological and Physiological needs:  air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep;
2. Safety needs:  protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear;
3. Love and belongingness needs:  friendship, intimacy, trust and acceptance, receiving and giving affection and love, affiliating, being part of a group;
4. Esteem needs:  achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect, respect from others; and
5. Self-Actualization needs:  realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking individual growth and peak experiences.

While Maslow argued that just one out of a hundred people make it to the fifth, ultimate stage, he had not yet met a baby boomer.  The affluent society of the past half-century has enabled many boomers to march up the pyramid towards self-actualization, a remarkable thing if one believes the motivational theory of psychology has merit in real life.  The self-help movement and development of a heavily therapeutic culture have also helped to push boomers up the pyramid; these are other major social forces that Maslow or anyone else could not have predicted when he published his landmark paper during World War II.  Today, self-actualization has emerged as a common goal among more psychologically secure boomers, and it is something that will become even more prevalent as they move through their final act of life.

Although people are more likely to use terms like “wellbeing” and “betterment” rather than “self-actualization,” the idea is basically the same.  As recently noted, boomers are actively trying to achieve the idealized version of themselves as part of their endless quest for self-improvement.  Fighting the physical signs of aging is no doubt (and unfortunately) accounting for a large chunk of boomers’ discretionary dollars, but at least as much is being spent by them to become more of their authentic selves.  In fact, much of contemporary consumerism is really about self-actualization, with brand choices made based on their relative ability to enable people to climb Maslow’s ladder.  Consumers have moved beyond products as status symbols, and even moved beyond the “experience” economy, to a place where self-actualization is the new status symbol, the smart folks at Trendwatching suggest.  Not just health or wellness is a path leading towards self-actualization but wellbeing in all dimensions of life, an idea that savvier marketers have seized.  Fostering a holistic, 360-degree sense of wellbeing and helping to provide a deep, emotional relationship between people and things and experiences are now how many companies are defining their vision and mission.  “Self-actualization is the new carrot everyone is chasing,” Melissa Thompson wrote in in 2016, thinking that, “the potential for people to self-actualize is higher than it has ever been before.”

Little did Maslow know that, three-quarters of a century after his “A Theory of Motivation” article appeared in appeared in the academic journal Psychological Review, self-actualization would become a central theme of American society.  The later years of life of what was the biggest generation in history are for many a time not to reflect on past achievements but to continue to realize one’s full potential.  For the man who coined the term, self-actualization was the desire for fulfillment or, in his own words, “to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”  Work has a lot to do with self-actualization, of course, with much of fulfillment to come from doing what we love (and believing it is worth doing).  It is at this intersection that we will find meaning, Barbara Sher explained in her book I Could Do Anything if I Only Knew What it Was, adding that we are lucky to live in a time and place when and where a good number of us have the ability to choose our careers.  Such a viewpoint is all the more reason why blatant ageism in the workplace is such a bad thing.  Boomers who are immediately disqualified for jobs because of their age are effectively being blocked from their natural course of self-actualization, not just an illegal act but an unjust one.  The Founding Fathers didn’t mention it in the Constitution, but one of Americans’ inalienable rights is the ability to try to become self-actualized, something many boomers are determined to do.