ôô

Feeling Out of Sorts? Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Might Help

Are you getting your needs met? The classic Maslow's hierarchy can help you understand why you might be feeling unfulfilled and what to do about it.

By
Jade Wu, PhD
8-minute read
Episode #304
The Quick And Dirty
  • Abraham Maslow proposed, in 1943, that human needs boil down to five categories: physiological (basic), safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization, arranged in a hierarchy from bottom to top
  • He believed that, usually, we have to fulfill our lower-level needs (such as the need for food) before we can work on the levels above
  • Psychologists now believe that the order for the hierarchy is not strict
  • We can still use Maslow's hierarchy as a rough guide for identifying our own missing needs

What are your most important needs in life? Take a moment to consider. Don't think about hopes, dreams, or goals, but needs—things you can’t do without.

Has there ever been a time in your life when all of your needs were met and you wanted for nothing?

Probably not. It's more likely that you’ve always felt the need for something beyond what you already had—better health, more job security, more time with friends and family, more time for hobbies, or a greater sense of fulfillment in life.

When you've come to the conclusion that something's missing in your life, how do you name what it is?

When you've come to the conclusion that something's missing in your life, how do you name what it is? And what needs do you focus on meeting first?

Dr. Abraham Maslow wondered about this almost 80 years ago and came up with a framework called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s an oldie but a goodie! In this theory, Maslow proposed that we have five categories of needs, and these categories are arranged in a hierarchy. 

You can visualize the different categories of needs stacked on top of each other like in a pyramid, with the lower levels as prerequisites for the higher levels. Maslow believed that we progress through the hierarchy of needs from bottom to top—once one level is adequately satisfied, the next level comes into focus.

What is Maslow's hierarchy of needs?

Let’s briefly look at each of the categories. Consider whether you feel fulfilled in each of them.

Physiological (basic) needs

These are basic survival needs like food, water, sleep, and ambient temperature so that we’re not too cold or too hot.

Notice that these are biologically-driven needs. If something's amiss, you'll know it! If you don’t have enough food or water in you, your body will tell you. And if you're chronically short on these essentials, your mental health will suffer, too. Research has demonstrated that food insecurity—not having enough access to nutritious food on a regular basis—is associated with psychological stress and psychiatric problems.

Because these needs are so fundamental to survival, Maslow considered them to be at the bottom of the hierarchy—even though you have other needs, these need to be met first. For example, have you ever tried to do complex work, be creative, or enjoy a social event while ravenously hungry? Were you able to perform at 100 percent, or did your belly remind you constantly that something more urgent needed your attention?

Safety

Once your belly is full, achieving safety is next. We feel this need on a pretty automatic level, too. Fear is one of our most basic hardwired emotions—it's why babies shrink from unfamiliar people and situations. Even when we grow up, our brains continue to monitor the environment, putting us on physical and mental high alert when there are threats to our safety.

Fear is one of our most basic hardwired emotions—it's why babies shrink from unfamiliar people and situations.

When we feel chronically unsafe, our physical and mental health reflects the lack of this basic need. Many studies have shown that living in an unsafe neighborhood is detrimental to our health.

Love and belonging

According to Maslow, we next move onto our need for love and belonging. This includes having relationships with family, friends, partners, and colleagues, and feeling like you belong in a community.

Research shows that having stronger social relationships predicted a much higher likelihood of still being alive years or decades later.

This need for belonging isn't just about being loved in the way that a celebrity would, receiving admiration and praise. It's also about loving others.

What's interesting is that fulfilling this need isn’t only important for psychological well-being, but for literal life or death outcomes. A study that pooled data from over 300,000 people showed that—regardless of the participant's age, sex, or health status at the beginning of the study—having stronger social relationships predicted a much higher likelihood of still being alive years or decades later.

Esteem

Now, as we go up the pyramid, we get to less and less tangible types of needs. Our need for esteem is our need to feel good about ourselves and to have a sense that we're valued by others. This might show up in the form of doing charitable work, pursuing higher education, being in a helping profession, becoming an expert on something, being famous, or even being infamous.

Notice that these ways of chasing esteem don't end up with the same flavor of feeling valued. Some involve service to others, some involve mastery, some involve virtue, and some involve simply being the center of attention. Figuring out which element (or combination of elements) fulfills your esteem needs requires honest self-reflection, and perhaps some trial-and-error.

Self-actualization

Here we are at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. Self-actualization is the ultimate achievement of your potential. You feel like you're fulfilling your life's purpose, answering your calling.

Self-actualization is the ultimate achievement of your potential.

Maslow believed that, often, self-actualization takes on the form of extraordinary creativity or achievement. (Think Lin-Manuel Miranda writing the Broadway smash-hit Hamilton, Christina Koch serving as a flight engineer on the International Space Station, Barak Obama becoming the first Black President of the USA.) But it might also be something more ordinary but still tremendously meaningful. If you believe you were born to be a parent, then you'll feel the most alive and fulfilled when you nurture a child.

Maslow believed that for us to achieve self-actualization, the other levels of needs need to be satisfied first. For example, you can’t write the next great American novel if you don’t feel safe in your living environment; you can’t become a revolutionary political leader if you don’t have solid relationships.

But as we’ll see, this may not always be true.

Was Maslow right about the order of the hierarchy of needs?

Ever since Maslow captured the academic and popular imagination with his hierarchy of needs theory in 1943, there’s been much discussion of whether this really reflects how human motivation works.

Studies have shown that, yes, we value more basic needs above others. When researchers presented a pair of needs, each from a different category on Maslow's hierarchy, people tended to choose the one at the base of the pyramid. In other words, if forced to choose whether to give up having enough to eat versus getting a 4.0 GPA, people would rather give up the perfect GPA. Countries seem to follow a similar pattern in the course of history—developing nations tend to improve their food security before they increase in the percentage of citizens finishing secondary education.

But there have been skeptics, too. Some studies have found the needs levels to be “out of order” when they paired items from each and asked people to rate the relative importance of each in the pair. And some have pointed out that any particular order may not be always true—lower-order needs aren’t necessarily prerequisites for higher needs. For example, those in poverty, struggling with basic and safety needs, can still feel love and belonging.

Maslow himself clarified in his famous paper that “progressing” through the levels is “not nearly as rigid as we have implied.”

Another thing to consider is that much of the early research on Maslow’s hierarchy was done on White American college students, so any conclusions may not apply to everybody else. More recent international research has found that the basic needs seem to be universally regarded as important, but not that the different types of needs must go in Maslow’s proposed order.

In fact, Maslow himself clarified in his famous paper that “progressing” through the levels is “not nearly as rigid as we have implied.” He noted that some highly creative people might be making their magnum opus even as they’re deprived of basic needs, that psychopaths may never feel the need for love, and some of us may take lower-level needs for granted because we’ve never wanted for them.

How can Maslow’s hierarchy help us?

Regardless of whether Maslow’s hierarchy perfectly describes human needs and desires, I think it can be a helpful framework for our everyday thinking. That is, we can use it as a rough guide to help pinpoint what we might be missing in a few scenarios.

You’re feeling miserable right now, at this moment

The easiest place to start is to do a quick run-down of the bottom level of Maslow’s hierarchy to see if it’s something that is straightforward to identify. Are you dehydrated? "Hangry?" Have you been getting good quality sleep? If so, try to get that need fixed as soon as possible, because these basic needs are, not surprisingly, the factors most consistently related to overall well-being.

You’re generally tense, worried, irritated, depressed, tired

If your basic needs are fulfilled, ask yourself if you generally feel safe. This not only includes safety from physical harm, but also safety from emotional abuse, violations of your basic dignity and privacy, and the ability to exist without harassment.

True safety—even basic protection from violence—may be more of a privilege than Maslow had envisioned.

Feeling safe is actually a tall order for many members of our society. True safety—even basic protection from violence—may be more of a privilege than Maslow had envisioned. It’s something not easily checked off on many people’s paths to self-actualization.

If you feel unsafe, try your best to connect with others, and try to find safety through your community, friendship, mentorship, and people with whom you can have mutual respect and trust. Recognize that it’s a chronic lack of safety that has your neck muscles always in knots and your temper on a short fuse. Cut yourself some slack. Show yourself (and others) compassion.

On paper, your life is all in order, but you just don’t feel a lot of positive emotions

This is generally a red flag for running low on love and belonging because this category of needs-fulfillment is the one most associated with positive emotions.

The good news is that love is free. The hard news is that this doesn’t mean it’s easy. Close friendships are difficult to maintain long-term. Families frequently cut ties. Romantic relationships end.

We tend to take the people closest to us for granted because we feel secure that they’ll always be around.

I have noticed that we tend to take the people closest to us for granted because we feel secure that they’ll always be around. Ironically, though, this approach means we offer the least amount of attention and nurturing to the relationships that bring the most meaning to our lives. So, for a positive emotion boost, get in touch with a friend you haven't talked to for a while, or send a family member a card or gift.

The checklist is all checked off—what now?

There are no threats to your safety or basic needs fulfillment and you have lots of good relationships. (Or maybe you don’t have those secure foundations, but you can’t do anything to change your circumstances right now.) In any case, you might feel something tugging at you, like curiosity, pride, or a drive to achieve. This is where esteem needs or self-actualization comes into view.

If you were 90 years old and sat down to write your autobiography, your values would form your key themes.

To pursue this set of needs, I recommend thinking in terms of values, which are less like a checklist and more aspirational. They point you towards the grander, more abstract things that generate purpose and meaning for you—mastery, service, creativity, beauty, spirituality. If you were 90 years old and sat down to write your autobiography, your values would form your key themes.

Once you've formed ideas about what your values are, start setting bite-sized goals in pursuit of them. Keep an open mind along the way and refine what your values mean to you—they're not set in stone. Your values can change as you grow and learn through your experiences.

And while you’re going through life trying to understand and fulfill your needs, don’t get hung up on going through Maslow’s hierarchy in the “correct” order. Sometimes we don't have control over meeting even the most basic needs. As much as possible, we should still allow ourselves to be fulfilled in other ways. Having financial challenges, for example, doesn't mean you can't enjoy love from a family member or kinship from your community groups.

But also, don’t take the fulfillment of your physiological, safety, and love needs for granted. They may form the foundation that allows you to answer your life’s calling. And even if they don't lead you to momentous accomplishments, having a hot meal under a safe roof with a good friend can still be one of life's greatest joys.

Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show.