View this post on Instagram
“The most fortunate are those who have a wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy.” ~ Abraham Maslow
Thanks to the routines I’d developed on the psychiatric ward, stability slowly returned to my life following my breakdown.
However, although I was “happier,” life wasn’t joyous.
It was time to up the ante.
But how? It’s not as if there’s a “Happiness Checklist” I could work my way through.
Actually, it turned out there was—Abraham Maslow’s, “hierarchy of needs.”
The American psychologist believed that there were a number of innate, universal “needs” that we have to have fulfilled in order for us to live meaningful lives. Furthermore, he then divided those “needs” into five categories of ascending importance. He then visually represented this all in the elegant form of a triangle.
At the base are our physical needs—food, water, warmth, and rest. There’s a reason why these form the broadest layer, the foundation stone. They’re the essential building blocks for our existence as a species. If you’ve not got them, then you can forget about “happiness”—merely surviving is a battle.
However, once you’ve got all those needs covered, you can move upward.
In the second tier are our security needs—in short, the things that make us feel safe. Whether that’s the safety of having a regular salary, or being free from a fatal illness, we all need some sense of security, some sense that we have “control” over our lives.
Of course, in reality, we don’t. Life is messy, and our own existence is influenced by a huge range of factors we have no power over. However, if you accepted that we’re all little more than fleshy puppets, you’d be wracked with metaphysical defeat, and would never bother getting out of bed each morning. Having a sense of security (even one that is blatantly false) allows to us to keep going.
Once you’ve got your security needs met, you can—again—move upward, and start trying to fulfill your next set of needs.
The next layer is belonging and love, or our social needs. Maslow wasn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to point out that we all need intimate relationships. Friendships, family members, significant others, book groups, sports teams, church, whatever—all of these people give us the feelings of love, acceptance, and belonging that we need as humans.
And it is a need.
Especially for me.
In addition to the toxic cocktail of genetics, trauma, and (in my case) stupidity, social isolation is a major cause of depression. Depression then causes further social isolation, ensuring the vicious, neverending circle is complete. To combat my low moods, I need people.
But you do too. As much as you might sometimes hate people, you also require them. Without others, you’re simply not complete.
There’s still two more levels to come, but, already, there’s something obvious to say about “happiness.” If you’re living a life where your physical, security, or belonging and love needs are not being met, then you’re not being fulfilled on a primal level.
How could you ever be happy when some of your most fundamental, universal needs are not being satisfied?
By this point, you’ve probably already spotted some of the major flaws with Maslow’s ideas.
Life’s not a board game—you can’t just simply progress from one level onto the next. Things happen. Bereavements, redundancy, world crises—there’s no shortage of things that will throw you off your well-ordered path.
No sooner would you have met all of your needs in one area, then—invariably—something would happen that was either beyond your control, or, because of a mistake you’ve made, would take you back to a previous level to rectify the problem.
However, even if life wasn’t as arbitrarily chaotic as it is, even if we didn’t all make mistakes, would it even then still be possible to successfully create, and then live, a life where all the “needs” areas we’ve covered so far are fully being met? Honestly? You’d probably need 54 hours in the day. And remember, there’s still another two levels to explore yet.
But the biggest problem of all is that, although all of these “needs” may be innate, universal, and pretty straightforward, meeting them certainly isn’t.
It’s not as if you can just say to yourself, “I have no intimate relationships in my life. I’ll just nip to the “Friend Shop” and pick up a couple.” It takes time, effort, and a lot of luck to make meaningful friendships. Just as it does to find a romantic partner who doesn’t want to murder you after a week.
There are issues with the rigid way Maslow organised his hierarchy. It doesn’t take into account the randomness of life, nor that, although all of the needs within the hierarchy are essential, they’re also not as easy to find as Maslow might suggest.
But, for me, the beauty of Maslow isn’t in the literal organisation of his—it’s in the “needs” he lists within it.
Life is messy; it rarely conforms to neat categorizations and it’s hard to reduce it to anything as simple as a checklist. Except, Maslow proved you can. Essentially, he’s provided a “Happiness Shopping List.”
If you feel that something is missing from your life, why not begin by working your way through the “needs” Maslow lists (so far), and seeing if yours are being met.
Food; water; warmth; rest; financial security; physical health; friendships; love.
Yes—some of those will matter more to you than others. And so it’s alright if some of those are being met more than others. The problem is when one (or more) aren’t being met at all. As in zero. Nada. Zilch. If you accept that these are all—in some way—universal “needs” we have to have fulfilled, there’s got to be something in the credit column for each one, even if only a little.
And, as for me, back in 2019? Honestly? Food; water; warmth; rest; financial security; physical health; friendships—I was in debt and overdrawn with each one.
But it’s those things I am now focusing on.
In a previous article, I espoused the power of routine, and explained how building positive, productive routines had not only helped me to begin my recovery, but how they had also helped to keep my depression at bay. Routine helps me to achieve things, and depression just hates you doing that.
For now, my life is still a bit of a to-do list. Spontaneous fun is a bit of a rarity, but I’m willing to endure that as the pluses far outweigh the negatives at the present. Some of the things I’ve incorporated onto my many to-do lists are things that directly relate back to my innate “needs.” It’s just one small way that I’m trying to ensure that my basic, innate needs are being met.
That might sound daft to you, but it’s not uncommon for people with mental illness to neglect such basic things (and before anyone says, “Well, that’s silly—just eat,” I’d like to say that if it was all that easy, I would’ve been depression-free a very, very long time ago).
Putting my innate “needs” front and center has undoubtedly helped me: food; water; warmth; rest; financial security; physical health; friendships. Focusing on these basic “needs” has made me “happier.” For these are more than just my foundation stones.
These are the battlegrounds on which I fight my depression. For it is those elements that my depression directly targets.
Thus, these are a priority for me:
I make sure I eat three times a day. I make sure I drink lots (and lots) of water. I try to speak to one person a day, even if it’s only digitally. It’s all basic stuff, but, Maslow was right—making sure these innate “needs” are being met has improved my life massively. For the first time in years, I’m focusing on the foundations of my life; the stronger those foundations, the happier I will become. I’m certain of that.
So far, so good, so easy: you’ve met your physical, security, and social needs. Time to move upward—onto level four.
We’ve reached our esteem needs.
Once all of our basic physiological needs are being met, the importance of being appreciated and respected becomes more important.
Whether it’s through academic achievements, or sporting prowess, or professional success, it seems we both need to accomplish things, and then have those achievements recognized. However, it can also be on a personal level—just being told you’re a good friend, or parent, or sibling, or partner is more than enough.
If you doubt that, just consider how powerful it is when your partner says, “Thank you. I appreciate you.” Being told we’re clever, or funny, or we’re good in bed, are all lovely things to hear. But there’s a reason why the words, “I value you,” or “I appreciate you” have a greater power—deep down, in some hitherto uncharted part of our subconscious, that’s what we really want to hear.
Those kinds of statements touch something primal, something profound, within us. They’re catnip for the soul.
We need to feel valued.
No, we don’t need to feel as if we’re changing the world (though, that’d be nice); we just need to be noticed. We need someone else to see our worth. (Yes—I’m talking about external validation here. Internal validation, the idea of seeing our own value, is coming up soon).
Using Maslow’s ideas as a troubleshooter to identify parts of my life where my innate “needs” were not being met enabled me to see there was a huge issue with my esteem needs.
If you’ve read any of previous articles, you will know that I let my life slide into a pretty awful state by the end of 2019. I’m not being unfairly harsh on myself, but for a long time, I didn’t achieve much of note. I didn’t even manage to get a handle on my depression. It took a psychiatric ward to do that.
But the lesson is obvious: if you want to be appreciated, then you actually need to do things that others can appreciate. If you want praise, then do something praiseworthy.
Like most of the things I’ve discovered on my journey toward greater happiness, this is stupidly straightforward.
I’m trying to do this every day by simply being a better person than I was before. But, this—my writing—has actually been the biggest source of my newfound self-esteem. In addition to helping me heal, it’s also begun to fulfill one of my innate “needs” that I’d neglected for so long.
When I committed myself to the process of writing about my admission, I knew I was making public some very personal details. Wrestling with the implications of that was hard. But, eventually, I decided it was something I needed to do for my recovery. And the risk has been worth it.
Why? People liked my writing. I received as much praise for my language, as I did for the subject matter.
And that made me feel great.
Was that shallow? Actually, it wasn’t. It’s not true to say I’ve only had criticism over the last few years (I’ve got one friend who has only ever offered me praise and encouragement, and I don’t think I could ever truthfully repay him). But it’s mainly been negative. And, in some cases, utterly warranted. However, the praise I got from my writing showed me just how little positive re-enforcement I had received over the last few years.
And the impact that has had on me has clearly showed me that Maslow is right—being valued is, indeed, hugely important. Because far from being shallow or needy, people saying nice things about us is something we, deep down, actually require. It’s done as much for my mood as my medication has.
So, to recap: you’ve met your physical, security, social, and esteem needs. Now you’re at the top of the pyramid, on the final layer: your self-actualization needs.
Once you have fulfilled all four of the preceding “needs” areas, it’s now time to focus purely on you. In short, this is about you trying to reach your full potential as a human being, close to being the very best that you can be.
And that’s all it will ever be—close to. If you seriously think that, one day, you’re going to actually reach your full potential, then you really need to sit down and have a good talk with yourself about your expectations. Because that’s never going to happen.
You’re not a machine; you’re a human—you’re going to muck up. And you coexist with other humans—their missteps are going to impact on you as well. Perfection is unattainable. But aspiring toward it? That’ll do.
And that’s what self-actualized people do: they try their best. They’re focused on self-growth, on becoming better.
These people don’t necessarily have their “dream jobs,” or even their “dream lives.” They could even have a job they hate. But they make the most of it. They try to maximize their talents in the role they have. They strive to be better, to reach as much of their potential as they possibly can.
But what if their occupation simply doesn’t allow them that growth? Then self-actualized people will seek that fulfillment elsewhere. It might be in their hobbies. Maybe their interests will give them the chance to grow, to be the best they can be. Or it could be in their personal relationships. Perhaps being the best friend they could possibly be allows them, in turn, to be the best person they can be.
Regardless of what area of their life they chose to self-actualize in, the people who manage to successfully do this are, according to Maslow, the happiest of them all.
Primarily, because they’re also able to self-validate. As much as others saying nice things about them makes a difference, self-actualizing people also say nice things about themselves. And believe it.
They’re proud of themselves when they achieve something. And they’re sympathetic toward themselves if they make a mistake. They learn the lessons—and move on. As long as they try their best, they accept that, sometimes, the result is out of their hands.
For someone with depression, this level is impossibly difficult. I really don’t need others to say mean things about me—I’m quite capable of providing my own inner monologue of hate myself. But this is my aim—to be proud of myself.
It’s only been a few months, but it’s going well so far. I’m nowhere near being able to self-actualize, but I’ve stopped despising myself.
And that’s a pretty big start.
Taken literally, Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” is utterly, ridiculously unrealistic.
But, although the “levels” might be questionable, the actual needs themselves are pretty much spot-on, regardless of what order you tackle them:
Food; water; warmth; rest; money; physical health; career; friendship; family; love; being valued; valuing yourself.
You can’t always reduce the multifaceted, chaotic beast that is “life” to a checklist—it’s far too unwieldy for that. But, if you could, if you needed to (as I had to do), then it’s a pretty good place to start.
Being reminded of the importance of the basics has been invaluable to me.
And, for that reminder alone, I’d just like to say, “Thank you, Maslow.”