What do we all need? And how do we go about fulfilling these needs? Is there an order, a particular system? What motivates us to decide which needs we fulfill first?

All of these questions were the main focus of the paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow published in 1943. Being a humanist, Maslow focused on figuring out what makes people happy and how they try to achieve that goal.

In an attempt to better understand what motivates human beings, Maslow suggested that human needs can be organized into a hierarchy. In his paper and the book published in 1954 titled “Motivation and Personality“, Maslow puts forward this theory that there is a hierarchy of human needs. There are five categories of human needs according to Maslow’s theory and these dictate an individual’s behavior.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is usually depicted as a pyramid with five tiers which range from more fundamental needs such as food and water to the highest tier where we achieve self-realization.

According to Maslow, we can’t move up the pyramid before we meet the needs at a certain level. Maslow believed that people have an innate desire to be what they were meant to be and to achieve all they can achieve. In order to reach this goal, which is at the top of Maslow’s pyramid, we first have to satisfy all the lower-level needs.

Maslow's Heirarcy of Needs Pyramid

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The 5 Levels in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Physiological Needs

These are the most basic needs, represented at the bottom of the pyramid, as they are the ones we need to fulfill first. Physiological needs include the need for food, water, breathing, and homeostasis. So, before we can move on up the pyramid, humans first need to be fed, bathed, dressed, and have shelter. This is basic biology; the human body cannot function without food, air, or water, so to focus on anything else we first have to tend to our physiological needs.

Safety Needs

The next tier represents our requirements when it comes to safety and security. To be relaxed and content, individuals need to feel safe. Safety needs include things like job security, financial security, health, and security against accidents and injuries.

Fulfilling our safety needs gives us a sense of control over our lives, a certain level of predictability and order. Maslow claimed that people living in societies in which they face serious violations of freedoms or rights cannot completely fulfill their safety needs. Together with the physiological needs, these two levels make up what Maslow referred to as the “basic needs”.

Social Needs

When we reach this level in the hierarchy emotions start to dictate our behavior. Our social needs include a range of emotional relationships, such as friendships, love, social and community groups as well as religious organizations. These needs encompass our desire to love and feel loved, to be accepted, and to belong to different groups, whether family, co-workers, friends or book clubs, for instance. If we don’t fulfill our social needs we might face problems with loneliness, depression, and anxiety.

Esteem Needs

Our esteem needs involve the desire to feel good about ourselves. Maslow suggested that esteem needs can be divided into two types of needs. The first type involves feeling self-confidence and feeling good about ourselves. The second type is about feeling that our achievements have been recognized by other people. By fulfilling our esteem needs we feel self-confident and realize that our contributions are valuable and important. However, if we fail to do so, we might find ourselves feeling inferior or insignificant.

Self-Actualization Needs

At the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs and thus the hardest to achieve, according to him, is self-actualization. Maslow’s examples of famous self-actualized individuals include Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, and Mother Teresa. Self-actualization is being all that you can be, in every possible sense. Self-actualization or self-fulfillment comes down to feeling that we are living up to our full potential. When we achieve self-actualization we are doing what we believe we are meant to do, we are all that we can and want to be.

The interesting thing about self-actualization is that it might be quite different for different individuals or in different spheres of life. One person might achieve self-actualization by helping others, while another might reach their full potential through scientific work.

Real-Life Examples of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In general, an individual’s motivation is governed by the level of hierarchy they are pursuing at the moment. In any given segment of life, a person has to go through all of the tiers to achieve self-actualization.

For instance, Maslow’s hierarchy is highly applicable in the field of education. Students are more likely to excel at learning if they are higher up the pyramid. If students’ physiological needs are met and they have a safe home and school environment as well as a sense of belonging, they are in a solid position to achieve self-actualization. That way they can achieve their full academic potential.

The same principles apply to businesses. In order to motivate and retain employees, businesses have to make sure that they are fulfilling all of the basic needs – decent salary, safe working environment, respectful relationships between coworkers and managers, and appreciation for the work done by employees. This lays the ground for loyal and motivated employees who always aim for more.

When the pandemic reared its ugly head, we were all reminded of the predominance of our physiological needs. Everything else was put on hold. At that moment, staying alive and having all the necessary amenities was our number one priority. People were frantically buying toilet paper and canned foods and everyone stayed at home out of fear. We pressed pause on work, education, and social activities until we came up with safe alternatives to our usual way of life.

Though there is some criticism of Maslow’s theory, through the examples above we realize that even 70 years after publishing his scribbled pyramid diagram is still applicable and used in different spheres of life.