The pyramid of needs

Abraham Maslow is one of the most renowned psychologists. He devoted an important part of his career searching for the meaning of life. After many years of research, he managed to deliver a consistent map of human needs. First in a paper titled “A theory about human motivation” and later in his book titled “Motivation and personality”. His works led to the famous Pyramid of Maslow.

All human needs are categorized in a five-level hierarchy:

  1. Physiological
  2. Security
  3. Social
  4. Self-esteem and
  5. Self-actualization

The first two are the basic needs. The next two are the emotional needs. The fifth is the need for self-fulfillment. They dictate the rules of all human behavior.

Maslow’s pyramid: Hierarchy of Human Needs

Diagram 1: Maslow’s pyramid: Hierarchy of Human Needs

Material and spiritual needs

The general concept behind the pyramid is that lower stages host mainly our material needs. In the higher ones, we find the spiritual needs. As it happens in a ladder or a pyramid, it is difficult (although not impossible) to climb to the higher steps without first pass through the lower ones. Therefore, the physiological needs have priority over the spiritual, without this being absolutely necessary.

Let’s see how Maslow himself describes it:

“It is true that man can live with bread alone – when there is no bread. But what happens with human needs when there’s plenty of bread? At once, new higher needs emerge and take the place of the physiological. And when these have been satisfied, new even higher ones emerge, and so on”

To a large extent, success in life depends on whether we manage to climb to the top of the pyramid and reach self-actualization. We could think of it as a video game, where we must complete one challenge in order to go to the next. But it doesn’t work exactly like this. Our life allows us to pass to the next step, even if we haven’t yet completed fully the ones before.

The five steps of Maslow’s pyramid

So all our needs can be split in five categories. Let’s look at them in detail starting from bottom to the top.

BASIC NEEDS (Reptilian brain)

Our reptilian brain wants to feel that we have whatever we need to survive.

First level: Physiological needs

This stage contains all the absolutely necessary needs for survival. These include oxygen, water, food and shelter. Anything our physical body demands in order to continue living and reproducing.

Second level: Safety needs

As soon as our physiological needs are satisfied, we start looking for a safer environment. To this end, we seek a job and a stable income. We try to obtain more and more resources. Protect our property. Maybe save or invest for the future.

Maslow’s pyramid: Basic, Emotional and Self-fulfilment Needs

Diagram 2: Maslow’s pyramid: Basic, Emotional and Self-fulfilment Needs

EMOTIONAL NEEDS (Limbic system)

As soon as our survival needs are covered, we will then wish to satisfy our emotional needs. That will keep our emotional brain more happy.

Third level: Social needs

Humans are the principal social animals. Our purpose is to find a good place in the society. So, we connect with others in relationships of friendship or cooperation. We take part in groups, develop an identity and empower all of our social skills. We also learn to be useful. Perhaps, we start a family. Create a pleasant, familiar environment around us. That provides us with love, interest and a sense of belonging. We seek to participate in something bigger than ourselves.

Fourth level: Esteem needs

Given our social nature, we all wish to have good fame, esteem, respect and recognition by others. On top of that, we want to feel confidence, freedom and independence. These needs are also called egoistic needs as they are driven by our ego.


Fifth level: Self-fulfillment needs

This is the higher step in the ladder of human needs. It is our wish to find a place in life. Give meaning in whatever we do. Find a higher purpose. Leave our footprint in our trip through life. However, in order to succeed in all these, we will first need to upgrade our self into its next, advanced edition. We need to make quality changes in our character. Acquire new skills. Exploit our talents. Make dreams and chase them in every way possible. In short, we need to become better.

Growth needs versus Deficiency needs

Needs in the first four steps are referred to as deficiency needs. This means that those needs stem from our wish to get rid of our weaknesses or acquire things we lack. As we acquire more and more adequacy, our motivation decreases.

Maslow’s pyramid: Growth and Deficiency needs

Diagram 3: Maslow’s pyramid: Growth and Deficiency needs

The top need of self-actualization is referred to as a growth need.

It is nothing else than our desire for self-development. As this desire is satisfied, instead of decreasing our motivation, the opposite happens. It is amplified. As we become better, our self-confidence increases. So, we wish to become even better.

Obstacles on our road to self-actualization

As Maslow stated:

“Whatever a man can be, he must be”

He called this esoteric human need, self-actualization.

For an artist, it might be an extraordinary piece of work. For an athlete, it might be an important new record. As for a visionary, it can be a big dream coming into reality.

For each one of us, it can be the satisfaction of our need to feel happy.

It is obvious, that only a few of us can reach the top of the pyramid. Maslow estimated that only 2% of people can reach the state of self-actualization. The main reason people make it to the top, is their ability to focus. They also manage to overcome or ignore most of the obstacles which stop all the others.

Such obstacles can be:

  • Lack of quality education
  • Fixed mindset (the wrong perception that people do not change)
  • Low motivation (inability to self-motivate)
  • Lack of a suitable example (parent, teacher, friend, mentor)
  • Too much attention to the non-important
  • Inability to see the big picture

In the list above, we could add life’s adversities like financial, health or other. These can get us stuck for years in the lower steps of the pyramid. However, life is full with examples of people who proved the opposite. They reached self-fulfillment, despite the amazingly difficult circumstances they met. Adversities not only stopped them, but on the contrary they helped them take-off.

Characteristics and behavior of people who reach self-actualization

  • They have high moral standards. To a great extent, they accept their self and life as it is
  • Usually they tend to focus less on their selves and more outside of themselves. Almost always they have innovative thinking and a somewhat unusual sense of humor.
  • They follow a responsible and objective life approach, with full responsibility for their actions and decisions. In addition, they are honest and never fake.
  • Exceptionally creative: always enjoying to try new things, instead of choosing the known, easy paths. They are reconciled with uncertainty.
  • They are authentic and develop their own views, instead of adopting the dominant standpoint of tradition, authority or majority.
  • Appreciate deeply the small pleasures of life. They live as if they were small children with supreme concentration, amusement and devotion.
  • They value their privacy and personal time. Often, they choose loneliness so they can think and create without any interference.
  • Finally, they have a clear sense of what is important to them and what isn’t. Therefore, they spend more of their time with what’s important and much less with all the rest.

Welcoming discomfort

So there seems to be another, safer way to self-actualization. This is nothing else than make friends with difficulties. Learn to welcome instead of avoid them. The hard way seems to go there much more efficiently than the easy one.

Therefore, perhaps self-actualization is the dominance of our creative brain over its two partners, the reptilian and emotional. It takes many years of fermentation and negotiations among the three of them, in order to get along and reach a smooth state of balance and harmony.

Read also the article: Step out of your comfort zone to pursue personal growth and development