Transcending Maslow’s pyramid
The humanistic notion of self-actualization is a cornerstone of psychological syllabi, permeating broader social discussions about the contribution of psychological theory to human flourishing. Psychologists will immediately recall Abraham Maslow’s pyramid – the hierarchy of needs. The model, as presented in textbooks, suggests that we must achieve particular clusters of human need (e.g., physiological needs, then safety, and then belonging) sequentially, to achieve a state of self-actualization.
In his new book, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman presents a bold and creative revision of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, containing insights from social and personality psychology, positive psychology, organisational psychology and beyond. His text begins with a revelation that shatters the very foundations on which popular perceptions of Maslow’s theory sit – Maslow never actually presented the hierarchy of needs as a pyramid. This was a creation of management consultants trying to sell a particular interpretation of the model, and misrepresents Maslow’s view of the ultimate goal in life.
Above self-actualization, which has selfish connotations, is self-transcendence. According to Maslow’s private and unpublished writings, transcending the self and having a broader sense of purpose and connection to others, is the peak of human experience.
In Transcend, Kaufman uses two metaphors to juxtapose the established view of the hierarchy of needs against his reimagining of the theory. The orthodox model operates like a video game – people ‘level up’ in life by unlocking the door from one layer of needs to the next. Maslow’s conceptualization was that each cluster of needs is interdependent and experienced simultaneously. The hierarchy should be viewed in an integrated way. That is, each cluster of needs rests upon each other, and ‘regression’ to lower levels of needs (or, perhaps more accurately, experiencing the increased salience of more basic existential needs) is not a strictly pathological process.
This integration means that basic needs pertaining to physiological health and physical safety form the basis of higher need fulfilment. That is, the accomplishment of esteem needs is necessarily dependent upon the experience of physical safety, or connectedness to others, as these offer a foundation for approaching new opportunities and reaching one’s fullest potential and to transcend the self.
Kaufman presents a new metaphor to represent Maslow’s model of self-actualization. He suggests that human existence operates more like a sailing boat navigating the ocean. The base of the boat is comprised of lower-order needs – those where deficiency leads to psychosocial functioning difficulties, such as safety, belonging and esteem. Having some of these needs will protect against the oceanwater, but the bigger your boat (the better you achieve these basic needs), the more ferocious the waves of life you can withstand.
While these basic needs protect against emotional turmoil, they provide only a basis for human flourishing. Achieving a secure base provides confidence to explore the ocean (a metaphor for the social world) in search of peak experiences. According to Kaufman’s boat analogy, people do this by opening their sails, which are comprised of Maslow’s growth needs pertaining to needs for exploration (discovery), love and purpose in life. These higher needs offer a guide to life. There are striking links to other texts on how happiness can be found through the establishment of a broader meaning for one’s life (such as Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning). Perhaps most poignantly, Maslow is quoted in the section of the book examining ‘purpose’: ‘Happiness is an epiphenomenon. A by-product. Something not to be sought directly, but an indirect reward for virtue.’
Throughout, Kaufman provides lively examples, links to classic and contemporary literature, and, if you listen to the audiobook as I did, the inquisitive enthusiasm that is a trademark of his podcast interviews. This book is a must-read for anybody interested in understanding how and why finding a greater meaning in life is important, and the importance of self-transcendence in an age where a focus on the self appears to be a source of many personal and inter-group problems.
- Reviewed by Craig Harper, Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University
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