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What is Self-Actualization?

You may have heard about Abraham Maslow, but did you know this about his theory?

One of the most famous psychologists of the 20th century was Abraham Maslow.

Maslow is best remembered today for his idea that people have a hierarchy of needs.

First, there are physiological needs. Physiological needs include things like food, water, sleep, and oxygen – very fundamental needs for our survival. A person who is literally starved of these has no other interests but to have these needs satisfied. Their energy becomes devoted to having these very basic needs met.

At the next level there are needs for safety. We need relatively stable and secure environments that protect us from the elements and predators, and that will provide us with a predictable environment. When our needs for safety are fulfilled, we experience calm, security and comfort.

Next, are belonging and love needs. When our needs for love are not satisfied, we are left feeling unwanted, worthless, empty and lonely. When these needs are fulfilled, we feel a sense of warmth, renewed strength within ourselves, and a sense of being whole.

At the next level are esteem needs – our need to value ourselves. First, there is a desire for competence and individual achievement. Second, there is a need for appreciation and recognition from others. When these needs are met, we feel confident, masterful and worthy.

Maslow referred to the above as ‘deficit’ needs because they describe a state in which the person seeks to obtain something that is lacking. But when these needs are met people move to the next level which is self-actualization. This refers to various characteristics such as being:

• Efficient in how we perceive reality

• Accepting of ourselves and of other people

• Able to form deep relationships

• Appreciative of life

• Guided by our own inner goals and values

• Able to express emotions freely and clearly

Self-actualization is a state in which people are at their very best.

So far this may all be familiar to you, but here is the big idea behind Maslow's theory that is less well known.

Maslow’s big idea was that self-actualization was the default state for human beings. He said: ‘I think of the self-actualizing man not as an ordinary man with something added, but rather as the ordinary man with nothing taken away.’

Take a second to think about that because it may just overturn everything you ever thought you knew about Maslow's theory.

In essence Maslow was saying that we are hardwired to self-actualize. The implications of this idea are astounding.

Can you imagine what it would be like if we took these ideas seriously and we began to design our institutions - schools, universities, and so on, around the idea that people are hard wired to self-actualize?

Find out more about the psychology of authenticity in my new book Authentic. How to be yourself and why it matters


Maslow. A.H. (1968), Toward a Psychology of Being (2nd edn), New York: Van Nostrand

Maslow, A.H. (1943), ‘A theory of human motivation’, Psychological Review, 50, 370–96.

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