Samantha Boardman M.D.

Positive Prescription

What Do You Need to Thrive?

Safety, love and belonging? What do you really need to thrive?

Posted Jul 20, 2015

Vitezslav Valka/Shutterstock
Source: Vitezslav Valka/Shutterstock

In 1954, psychologist Abraham Maslow created the famous “hierarchy of needs.” It is a theory about human motivation and what makes people tick—from the most basic requirements (think food and water) to increasingly sophisticated levels of personal growth.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is organized into a pyramid. At the bottom are “Physiological needs” like air, food, warmth, sex and sleep. The second level represents “Safety needs” like freedom from fear and security. Once those essential two needs were satisfied, Maslow believed people were free to explore “higher” needs beyond mere survival. The third level represents "Love and a Sense of Belonging" to a community. The fourth level is “Esteem needs” and is about the pursuit of achievement and mastery. The fifth level, at the very top of the hierarchy, is “Self-actualization.” Maslow described self-actualization as realizing one’s potential and finding personal fulfillment, the ultimate goal of existence according to him.

The role of the self is front and center in Maslow’s model and goes hand in hand with other leading theories in psychology that emphasize the individual. Indeed, the focus is primarily on the self, not the social.

couple of years ago, psychologist Ed Diener, author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, and Louis Tay decided to put Maslow’s theory to the test. They surveyed over 65,000 people from over 123 countries, asking them questions that corresponded to the needs articulated in Maslow’s hierarchy. It turns out that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs didn’t quite fit. In fact, they discovered:

...the needs that are most linked with everyday satisfaction are interpersonal ones, such as love and respect.

Maslow’s step-by-step model misses the mark in other ways too. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a specific order of needs. Needs exist simultaneously. In other words, even those who don’t feel completely safe benefit from having close friends and family and a community they belong to. Diener explains how all needs matter:

They’re like vitamins. We need them all.

As a psychiatrist who meets a lot of patients who are hell bent on self-actualization, I offer a counter-intuitive approach. Instead of focusing on the self, I explicitly suggest they focus a little less on themselves. I ask them to focus more on cultivating connections and doing things for and with others. It’s amazing what a little “less me” and a little “more we” can do.

Successful people are always looking for opportunities to help others. Unsuccessful people are always asking, "What’s in it for me?"

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