Why Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs Matters – Free Ebook

One of the most legendary ideas in the history
of psychology is located in an unassuming

triangle divided into five sections referred
to universally simply as ‘Maslow’s Pyramid

of Needs’.This profoundly influential pyramid
first saw the world in an academic journal

in the United States in 1943, where it was
crudely drawn in black and white and surrounded

by dense and jargon-rich text. It has since
become a mainstay of psychological analyses,

business presentations and TED Talks
– and grown ever more colourful and emphatic

in the process.The pyramid was the work of
a thirty-five year old Jewish psychologist

of Russian origins called Abraham Maslow,
who had been looking, since the start of his

professional career, for nothing less than
the meaning of life. No longer part of the

close-knit orthodox family of his youth, Maslow
wanted to find out what could make life purposeful

for people (himself included) in modern-day
America, a country where the pursuit of money

and fame seemed to have eclipsed any more
interior or authentic aspirations. He saw

psychology as the discipline that would enable
him to answer the yearnings and questions

that people had once taken to religion. He suddenly saw that human beings could be said

to have essentially five different kinds of
need: on the one hand, the psychological or

what one could term, without any mysticism
being meant by the word, the spiritual and

on the other, the material. For Maslow, we
all start with a set of utterly non-negotiable

and basic physiological needs, for food, water,
warmth and rest. In addition, we have urgent

safety needs for bodily security and protection
from attack. But then we start to enter the

spiritual domain. We need belongingness and
love. We need friends and lovers, we need

esteem and respect. And lastly, and most grandly,
we are driven by what Maslow called – in

a now legendary term – an urge for self-actualization:
a vast, touchingly nebulous and yet hugely

apt concept involving what Maslow described
as ‘living according to one’s full potential’

and ‘becoming who we really are.’ Part of

the reason why the description of these needs,
laid out in pyramid-form, has proved so persuasive

is their capacity to capture, with elemental
simplicity, a profound structural truth about

human existence. Maslow was putting his finger,
with unusual deftness and precision, on a

set of answers to very large questions that
tend to confuse and perplex us viciously,

particularly when we are young, namely: What
are we really after? What do we long for?

And how do we arrange our priorities and give
due regard for the different and competing

claims we have on our attention? Maslow was
reminding us with artistic concision of the

shape of an ideal well-lived life, proposing
at once that we cannot live by our spiritual

callings alone, but also that it cannot be
right to remain focused only on the material

either. We need, to be whole, both the material
and the spiritual realms to be attended to,

the base lending support while the summit
offers upward direction and definition. Maslow

was rebutting calls from two kinds of zealots:
firstly, over-ardent spiritual types who might

urge us to forget entirely about money, housing,
a good insurance policy and enough to pay

for lunch. But he was also fighting against
extreme hard-nosed pragmatists who might imply

that life was simply a brute process of putting
food on the table and going to the office.

Both camps had – for Maslow – misunderstood
the complexity of the human animal. Unlike

other creatures, we truly are multifaceted,
called at once to unfurl our soul according

to its inner destiny – and to make sure
we can pay the bills at the end of the month. Operating

at the heyday of American capitalism, Maslow
was interestingly ambivalent about business.

He was awed by the material resources of large
corporations around him but at the same time

he lamented that almost all their economic
activity was – unfairly and bizarrely – focused

on honouring customers’ needs at the bottom
of his pyramid. America’s largest companies

were helping people to have a roof of their
heads, feeding them, moving them around and

ensuring they could talk to each other long-distance.
But they seemed utterly uninterested in trying

to fulfill the essential spiritual appetites
defined on the higher slopes of his pyramid.

Towards the end of his long life, Maslow expressed
a hope that businesses could in time learn

to make more of their profits from addressing
not only our basic needs but also – and

as importantly – our higher spiritual and
psychological ones as well. That would be

truly enlightened capitalism. In the personal
sphere, Maslow’s pyramid remains a hugely

useful object to turn to whenever we are trying
to assess the direction of our lives. Often,

as we reflect upon it, we start to notice
that we really haven’t arranged and balanced

our needs as wisely and elegantly as we might.
Some lives have got an implausibly wide base:

all the energy seems directed towards material
accumulation. At the same time, there are

lives with the opposite problem, where we
have not paid due head to our need to look

after our fragile and vulnerable bodies. Maslow
was pointing us to the need for a greater

balance between the many priorities we must
juggle. His beautifully simple visual cue

is, above anything else, a portrait of a life
lived in harmony with the complexities of

our nature. We should, at our less frantic
moments, use it to reflect with newfound focus

on what it is we might do next.

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