The Case Against Self-Actualization
How individualism has cultivated a "me" approach to living.
Posted May 29, 2020
What is the meaning of life? Sure, we've all asked ourselves this one. And, of course, whether there is some actual right answer is kind of up for grabs and probably always will be.
Some people focus on finding true happiness (e.g., Maslow, 1943). Others focus on leaving a positive mark (see Geher & Wedberg, 2020). While others still might focus on serving a particular religious code as diligently as possible (see Wilson, 2002). And this list is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the age-old question surrounding the purpose of life.
Is Self-Actualization the Answer?
In 1943, renowned psychologist, Abraham Maslow, presented the world with a powerful model regarding human needs. His basic idea, simple yet profound, was that needs are arranged hierarchically for humans. Basic, lower-level needs, such as the need for food and oxygen, are foundational. And it is hard to focus on higher-level needs, such as belonging-ness or love, if such lower-level needs are not being met.
Atop Maslow's famed pyramid of needs is self-actualization, which can be seen as a state of being in which one's lower-level needs are generally satisfied and one is able to focus on big-picture needs such as finding one's true purpose in life; self-actualization largely focuses on the meaning of one's life.
Hey, don't get me wrong: I think that meaning and purpose are critical and worthy goals to pursue along one's journey. And self-actualization, especially as conceptualized by the newest treatise on this topic, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, written by Scott Barry Kaufman (2020), is a significant part of the broader human experience.
But as someone whose work focuses on the evolutionary origins of human social behavior, I would like to provide something of a counterpoint to this idea that self-actualization should somehow be the end-all/be-all.
Individualism, Collectivism, and the Purpose of Life
While human cultures across the globe share a great many attributes with one another, cultural variation in important broad themes certainly exists. One of the primary ways that cultures differ from one another is found in the dimension of Individualism/Collectivism (see Triandis & Gelfand, 2012). Individualistic cultures tend to place a large emphasis on the needs and goals of individuals. The United States is often given as a classic example. In such cultures, people are taught from early on to stand up for themselves and to make sure to get their fair share.
In collectivistic cultures, with Japan often being given as a classic exemplar, people are taught, from early on, very much the opposite of what people in individualistic cultures are taught. In collectivistic cultures, there is a large emphasis on putting one's own needs aside to help address the needs of one's broader group or community.
A simple way to think about the difference between an individualistic culture versus a collectivistic culture pertains to the idea of standing out. In an individualistic culture, people are encouraged to stand out or to stand apart from others. People are encouraged to be unique or to gain a reputation as elite in some field.
In collectivistic cultures, standing out is often discouraged: Thus the adage: The nail that stands out gets hammered down. In collectivistic cultures, making waves is not typically encouraged. In individualistic cultures, on the other hand, making waves is, under some conditions, encouraged and can even be seen as admirable.
In his work over the years on this cultural dimension, Triandis has found that these cultural approaches can be so powerful as to literally seep into the identities of people's unconscious minds. If you were raised in a hyper-individualistic culture, you may well have an individualistic mindset that flavors many facets of your identity without you even realizing it!
So now, let's rethink about the purpose of life. In light of the fact that people vary in terms of how individualistic or collectivistic their worldview may be (largely as a result of cultural upbringing), doesn't it make sense that life's purpose should vary quite a bit between those with individualistic mindsets versus those with collectivistic mindsets?
Now get back to the idea of self-actualization. Inherent in the term is a clearly individualistic slant. It is an ideal state of being that focuses on advancing oneself to a higher level. This goal makes a lot of sense from an individualistic perspective, but it may well seem a bit off from a collectivistic perspective.
Community, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life
As I've written about in much of my past work, community is a critical part of the human evolutionary experience. Until very recently in our evolutionary history (approximately 10,000 years, corresponding to the advent of agriculture), all Homo sapiens lived in nomadic clans that were capped at about 150 (see Dunbar, 1992). Such clans often would have relied on a collectivistic mindset, as is found in a majority of nomadic clans found around the world today.
In short, humans largely evolved in collectivistic cultures, where the focus of one's energies were not on oneself but, rather, were directed toward goals that would have been beneficial for one's group and broader community. Higher-order goals in such a context were not likely about one finding his or her own personal meaning. Rather, higher-order goals likely focused on advancing the welfare of others around oneself. Perhaps, in such a cultural context, communal-actualization would be more appropriate as a life goal rather than self-actualization.
Humanistic and positive psychologists, such as Abraham Maslow, Martin Seligman, and Scott Barry Kaufman, have shed enormous light on the inner workings of the human experience. In fact, these scholars have all contributed positively in adding to our understanding of what it means to live a life well-lived. And we should be grateful for their efforts and insights.
This said, an evolutionary perspective on the human experience that focuses on our small-scale, communal roots suggests that the focus on self-actualization, found in the work of many modern behavioral scientists, may be somewhat limited. We are, at the end of the day, a highly communal ape with roots in a collectivistic approach to being. As such, an ultimate life-goal of any person may well focus not so much on oneself as an individual but, rather, on one's role in enriching the worlds of those around him or her and, more broadly, cultivating one's surrounding community.
What is the purpose of life? Sure, moving toward self-actualization may well be part of it. But let's not forget community-actualization along the way.
This post was largely inspired by a conversation I recently had with a good friend who works as a therapist. I think that the current global pandemic is sparking all kinds of conversations among all kinds of people regarding life's meaning.
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Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.
Kaufman, S. B. (2020). Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization. New York: TarcherPerigree.
Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review. 50 (4): 370–96.
Triandis, H. C., & Gelfand, M. J. (2012). A theory of individualism and collectivism. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology (p. 498–520). Sage Publications Ltd. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446249222.n51
Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.