Psychologist Abraham Maslow wanted to know what happiness was. Why do some people have it and others don’t?
For Maslow, happiness is not a simple response to a favorable arrangement of external conditions. Instead, it is innate and emerges as a by-product of a fully realized life. Like Aristotle and Confucius before him, Maslow argued that our inherent happiness becomes evident only when we cultivate and manifest our highest potential. He wrapped his findings into a pyramid-shaped package known as Maslow’s Hierarchy.
Maslow’s central claim is human beings have five fundamental sets of needs stacked into a hierarchy. We all begin at the bottom and work our way up—each tier in turn dominating our thoughts. Many spiritual traditions teach that we become what we think about—our thoughts create our lives. It’s only natural then that until each set of needs is satisfied, it’s difficult or impossible to think about anything else. The needs corresponding with our current tier eclipse all other concerns. Only when one tier of needs is met can we turn our attention to the next level.
At the base of the pyramid are the physiological needs essential for survival—air, water, food, sex, and sleep. These needs form the foundation of the hierarchy.
When these needs are met, the second stage of needs can be addressed. Here the focus is on security—keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.
With the first two sets of needs satisfied, a longing for deep and meaningful relationships emerges as the focus of our lives. Our thoughts turn to love and intimacy as we cultivate authentic relationships with friends, life partners, and relatives.
The fourth need is healthy self-esteem. Here we long to be successful in the world. Our self-confidence grows as our skills expand. Proficiency blossoms into mastery. We enjoy the honor and recognition of our peers and take our rightful place in the community.
With the first four needs satisfied, the fifth and final level of need arises—for self-actualization. Despite the high quality of our lives, we have unfinished business. Our deepest, unique potential remains unrealized. Here we heed the call to give expression to our innate excellence, performing the work specifically ours to do. We become self-authorizing, no longer beholden to others for approval or praise. We freely pursue our good and become our own moral agents, guided by our own values and principles rather than group norms or traditional authority. We become, in a word, happy. For Maslow, self-actualization is our highest purpose, the culmination of all the earlier stages of our development.
Every human being carries within them this deep need for self-actualization. Until we rise to this level and meet this need, we always feel vaguely restless, dissatisfied, and incomplete. As the Afghani saying goes, “What a shame, to die like a pomegranate with all of one’s seeds still locked up inside.”
By arranging these needs in a hierarchy, Maslow identifies physiological and social well-being as prerequisites for self-actualization. But is that true? Might it be possible to achieve self-actualization even if basic survival, security, or love needs are unsatisfied?
If, as claimed in many spiritual traditions, the kingdom of heaven is within us, does it matter if we’re rich or poor, loved or lonely, skillful or incompetent? Are we not advised to seek first the kingdom and all else will be given to us? We seem to find many examples of people in poverty or hardship who nevertheless possess remarkable spiritual maturity.
Two competing perspectives emerge. First, it seems reasonable to agree with Maslow that basic survival needs precede the cultivation of higher sensibilities. If you have no air to breathe or water to drink, spiritual growth will not likely be your first priority. And until fundamental safety and security needs are met, self-actualization seems like a luxury.
Yet there are times when the indomitable human spirit shines through even the most severe crisis. In the brutality of the Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl noted the prisoners who chose to find meaning were most likely to survive. Through sheer willpower, human beings can transcend unlivable conditions.
Still, it seems cavalier to claim from the safety and comfort of our middle-class existence that anyone, anywhere, no matter the conditions of their lives, can self-actualize. It seems absurd and even heartless to suggest a child who had been sold into a brothel at the age of 9, became a heroin addict at 12, and contracted AIDS at 14 was not handicapped in her quest to fulfill her potential.
We may argue in the abstract that material things don’t matter—an easy position to assume when we have all we need. But few would argue basic needs are inconsequential to human happiness. Seeds may be storehouses of great potential, but without fertile soil and other conditions for cultivation, how can fruition occur? And herein lies the confusion. By self-actualization, Maslow did not mean spiritual enlightenment or awakening—he meant the realization of one’s specific potential. One cannot become a masterful concert pianist without access to a piano. One cannot become a writer of profoundly important world literature if one has no education. And few can reach their full potential in a war-torn ghetto where families are ripped apart and violent death threatens every step.
So perhaps it depends on what is meant by happiness. For Maslow, happiness is a by-product of self-actualization, which is not possible without certain environmental and psychological needs having been met. For others, happiness is a spiritual condition unmoored from the external world.
As in the following Zen story, most spiritual traditions tend to emphasize this second perspective:
Master Ryokan lived alone in a tiny hut. One night while he was away, a thief snuck into the hut only to discover there was nothing there worth stealing. Ryokan returned home and caught the thief warming his hands by the fire.
“You have come such a long way to visit me,” said Ryokan, “and you should not return empty-handed. Here, please take my clothes as a gift.”
The thief looked bewildered, took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon.
“Poor fellow,” he mused. “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
In this Buddhist portrait of enlightened consciousness, we certainly recognize a highly evolved being. As in the teachings of Jesus, Ryokan’s residency in the kingdom of heaven does not depend on the satiation of basic needs. Still, at its core, Buddhist spirituality seeks sublimation into oneness, not the actualization of one’s individual uniqueness. We can imagine Ryokan enlightened, but we cannot imagine him fulfilled in the Western sense. Self-actualization requires a self. If a spiritual being eradicates the ego, he or she has no “self” left to fulfill.
It would seem self-actualization and spiritual enlightenment are two different goals with distinct pathways and methodologies. Self-actualization requires the realization of our uniquely individual potentialities, while spiritual enlightenment transcends individuality and draws us into a unitive state with the divine.If by happiness we mean our own individual happiness, then Maslow offers a compelling path.
If by happiness we mean transcendence of the separate self and immersion into the One, then the world and its woes are little impediments—in fact, our hardships might even be catalysts for our spiritual ascendency.