Why do you do the things you do each day?  Have you ever stopped to consider it?  Why is one thing more important to you than another?  Why do the things that matter to you seem to change from moment to moment in some cases, while other motivators seem to change more slowly.

I didn’t really think about any of this much back in the day when I was young.  Those bigger questions just weren’t on my mind.  Oh yeah, I recall some moments lying in the grass as a kid and looking up at clouds and wondering where God was or how high up you had to go to get to see heaven.  Most of the time I was more concerned with fitting in with my group of buddies or trying to get some girl to like me.  Turns out that’s kind of normal – Piaget mapped out the stages of childhood development and said we don’t develop the kind of abstract thinking necessary for asking for such questions until late childhood or even sometimes adulthood.

I was 18 and had just arrived at college when I recall the first inklings of trying to figure out who I was and why I thought the way I did.  I recall taking an introduction to psychology class in my first semester and discovering I had all the symptoms of every type of abnormal psychological diagnosis in my textbook.  I ended up majoring in psychology partly as an attempt to cure myself.

Now I have to admit that a lot of the psychological theories I read about at that time were either over my head or just didn’t seem to have much applicability in the real world.  My university psychology department was very much into BF Skinner and behavioralism, so I read a lot about that subject.  I even ended up working for one of the professors doing implants in rats’ skulls and running experiments on the  effects of electrical stimulation on parts of their brain.  It was all a lot of stimulus-response stuff that didn’t seem to apply to me.

Then I discovered the work of Abraham Maslow and his “hierarchy of needs”.  Finally, here was a theory that answered many of the  questions I had been asking about myself.  The first thing I liked about Maslow was that instead of focusing on humans performing abnormally, he sought out and studied high performers and asked “what motivated them?”  More importantly, I saw how his theory could  be applied in the real world.

Of all my college psychological studies, Maslow and his hierarchy along with Robert Ornstein and his book “The Psychology of Consciousness” were some of the only concepts that stayed with me long after college.  Ornstein’s book looked at the specialized functioning of the hemispheres of our brain.  Yet in doing so, he also posed questions about what this thing called consciousness really is and how it related to our physical brain.  I have wondered about that ever sense!  One interesting side note – I wrote a paper for one of my classes attempting to integrate Ornstein’s book with Maslow’s hierarchy.  I was interested in integrating theories back in the early 70s before there was a well-known integral theory!

Let’s consider Maslow for a moment – As a college professor at Brooklyn College in New York in the late 1930s and into the 1940s,  Maslow was in the perfect place to study those who were exhibiting high mental health.  He began observing and noting the characteristics of fellow professors and mentors, looking for the common denominator’s of these individuals.  This process started a lifelong pursuit of seeking those universal human indicators of self-actualizing performance.  One of the most famous subjects that Maslow observed was Albert Einstein.

As Maslow stated, “All the evidence that we have indicates that it is reasonable to assume in practically every human being, and certainly in almost every newborn baby, that there is an active will toward health, an impulse towards growth, or towards the actualization.”  You have to like that attitude!

As Maslow tracked the characteristics of these high-performing humans, he noted there was a trend or direction in their traits and their motivators that could be mapped out.  Ultimately, he created his basic theory which he outlined in 1943 paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation”.  His theory detailed five basic categories of human motivators or needs.  Only later was the visual of a pyramid was employed to show the hierarchical nature.

According to the theory, each of these five levels of motivators can be stacked so that one is on top of one another, with our lower or basic needs on the bottom and our higher needs on the top.  The theory says that fulfilling one level allows us to move up to the next.   And,  if at any time any lower-level need became unmet, we are plunged back down to the lower need and it must be met again before we can return to being concerned about the higher need.

Here then, is a brief summary of the five levels of Maslow’s original hierarchy of needs:

Our basic primary motivator are our physiological needs – water, air, food, sleep – things essential for our bodily survival.  Maslow stated that once these needs were met we could be concern with our security needs – shelter from the elements, a steady job, a sense that life around us was stable and secure.  Meeting these needs allowed us to focus next on our social needs – feeling that we are loved, that we belong to our group, that we have secure relationships, that we feel accepted.  Again, meeting our social needs allowed us to focus on what Maslow termed self-esteem needs – a feeling of importance, social recognition, being worthy.  Finally, at the pentacle of Maslow’s pyramid was what he called our desire for “self-actualization” – that is fulfilling our highest potential, seeking personal growth for its own  sake, moving beyond being concerned with the opinions of others.

Although Maslow’s model appears nice and neat, life is not always that way – and our needs motivating our actions in a particular moment can be dynamic and shift between levels so quickly that it may be hard to determine which level is actual driving us.  Yet from the moment I first encountered Maslow and his pyramid, it has always resonated with me – it rings true from my experience both in college and throughout my life.

A couple of interesting additions to these basics about Maslow’s theory –one, he later divided his need levels into two groups –  “deficiency” needs and “being” needs.  Deficiency needs are driven by a sense of “lack” in our lives.  When we are lacking something, it  places us in survival mode.  We have to get it.  If we have it, and someone tries to take it away from us, we will fight for it.  Being needs arise not from lack but from a desire to grow in our lives.  Instead of living with a sense of lack, we sense that we have more than enough of what we need and we want to give from our abundance.  Our being needs are about growing and thriving and moving into the highest possibility of who we can be.

The second additional point about Maslow’s theory was that later he added on three more needs which he had identified.  Between self-esteem and self-actualization, he added the needs levels of a desire to understand and a desire for aesthetic beauty.  He also divided self-actualization into two levels, his original self-actualizing and a higher need which he termed a desire for “transcendence” – an inner pull to move beyond the physical human.  More on this later on.

Hence, I offer the model here not because I believe it explains all of our motivations.  Rather it gives us a good map for understanding potentially why humans think and act the way they do.  It puts things in an easy to understand manner – if our “lower needs” are not  being met, they are going to drive our decisions and actions.  It’s only when we can move beyond our lower needs that we are able to focus on bigger issues and advanced concerns.

So let’s look at Maslow’s hierarchy or map from three different directions and see what insights it might offer us.

First, let’s go back in time and consider what our primary motivators were at different points in our life.  Right after birth, although I  don’t really remember it, I suspect that my physiological needs were primary.  I cried for food, I cried to have my diaper changed.  Back in the day when I was young that I can remember, when I was being motivated by my buddies and attractive girls, central to my needs were survival as well as love and belongingness.  Later as an adult, many of my actions to seek success at work were probably driven by a need for self-esteem.  Only much later in life do I have a sense that my primary motivation became a drive towards self-actualization.

Doing this kind of life review to recognize how I had different motivations at different stages of my timeline gives me a sense of how I have evolved in my awareness and consciousness throughout my life.  It reinforces the fact that my life and all life is growing and  evolving, strengthening that evolutionary viewpoint I have been discussing.  It also shows me that earlier in life I was driven by a sense of lack which I have been blessed to let go of for the most part in recent years.

Second, rather than going back in the day, let’s look at just today – let’s look at our life in this moment and consider what is currently motivating us.  When you get up each day do you take time to “create your day” or write down a to do list?  If so, what’s filling your daily  planner?

We have to realize that we have different needs driving different actions every day.  We don’t live our day totally in one of Maslow’s levels.  We breathe, drink, eat, eliminate waste and perform other physiological functions.  Most likely we have a roof over our head and are not spending a lot of time concerned about it going away.  We are blessed in our Western society to be living in a stable environment.  Although we may not be consciously focused upon it, there are probably some things we do each day to support this underlying level of safety and security.  But above these two basic levels, things can get tricky.

We may or may not feel a degree of love and belongingness being met in our life based on whether or not we have a healthy primary love relationship or a close circle of friends.  We may or may not have a healthy sense of  self-esteem depending upon factors in our  relationships, our work, our feelings about our appearance, our health and so on.

As we think about what motivates us each day in all the various aspects of our life – we might consider asking ourselves if our primary motivators come from a sense of lack that we are trying to fill – or whether they come from a sense that we have enough or we are good enough and we are simply trying to give from our abundance and share our unique talents.  Which is it for you?  The point, of course, is to evaluate the motivations of our day so we can release our attachments to certain deficiency needs and spend more time working on  higher needs.

A third way of using Maslow’s theory is to lay the hierarchy against our actions out in the world in relationships with others in specific situations and see if it offers us any guidance in how we relate to others and in guiding our own personal evolution.  Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Let’s consider what is underlying your motivation in your interactions with your primary love life (either in your relationship with a specific person or in your approach to creating such a relationship)?  Now it’s easy when first considering Maslow to think that any time you are motivated to create or maintain a loving relationship with a significant other that your motivation comes from his “love and belongingness” needs level.  But that’s not necessarily so.

In reality, there are generally multiple needs levels at play.  You may be seeking or staying in a relationship because you want access to sexual pleasure – a physiological need.  You may feel you need the other person’s income to survive – a safety and security need.  You may believe your friends and family expect you to be in a serious relationship and would think less of you if you’re not – a love and belongingness need.  You may believe your sense of worthiness relates to being in a relationship, that you would be a failure if you were not – a self-esteem need.

In each case, one is motivated to be in a significant loving relationship – and the underlying need is coming from different levels.  There is one similarity though – no matter what the level, you desire the relationship because you believe it will fill a lack in you.  It’s the old Jerry Maguire “you complete me” thing.  That belief is flat out wrong!

So what happens if I have a lack which you’re supposed to be filling and all of a sudden you don’t?  What if you grow and change?  What if you decide to leave me?  If you threaten my survival by withholding the meeting of my needs, I might just lash out at you.  How dare you try to leave me?  I need you.  Of course, when I think I need you in order to be okay with myself, I am coming from a sense of deficiency and lack.

The interesting thing is that the most healthy relationships are based on when the underlying motivation comes from a desire for self-actualization.  Here, we have moved into “being” needs.  We don’t sense any lack within ourselves.  We don’t need the other person to meet any deficiency within us.  We are whole and complete just as we are.  Rather at this stage, our motivation is not to get something from someone but rather to give of ourselves to another.  We love the other person and want them to live the highest possible life that they can.  We are there to support them and encourage them and to love them.  We are not there to cling to them or limit them in any way.  Paradoxically, we have to be okay if they decide they don’t want to be with us anymore, because even though it may emotionally hurt us, what is more important is that they are happy and living their dreams.  We want them live a self-actualized life even if apart from us more than we want them to live a limited life with us.

Let’s look at another example – people seek out and join social groups such as clubs, organizations, churches and spiritual centers  based on different needs.  If you’re in such a group, consider for a moment what need the people meet by participating in it.  I know some people who attend a traditional Christian church out of the old-fashioned fear if they don’t, they will go to hell – sounds like safety and security to me.  I know a lot of people who attend churches and spiritual centers because they want to belong to a group where people hold the same spiritual beliefs – love and belongingness.  I know people who have gotten involved with the leadership of an organization because it makes them feel important – self-esteem needs.

Although there’s nothing wrong with using these social organizations as a means of meeting your deficiency needs, it is helpful to understand what is motivating your involvement.  It can also offer some insights when members of these groups begin disagreeing on what activities they should be doing together.

I’ve heard plenty of stories of leaders of social organizations and ministers of churches who come in to express their being needs through a desire to grow their group so they can do more good in the world and find that they are pushing up against individuals resisting them.  If these members joined the group to meet their love and belongingness needs and they sense that their new leader is minimizing the meeting of those needs in their desire to serve others out in the world, they move into survival mode whether they know it or not and are going to push back!  Realizing that members of their group may have different reasons for being there is useful knowledge for the leader if they want to maintain their group.

Which brings us finally to a consideration of how Maslow’s theory can assist us if we are trying to move across that metaphorical  bridge where we are going from a world where we sense that we are separate from one another and in competition – where we think in terms of win-lose – to a world where we know that we are all connected and our highest calling is to be in service to one another-where we think in terms of win-win.  Using Maslow we gain clarity that our old world is based on a sense of lack and deficiency, where everyone is focused on these lower needs.  In the new world of higher possibilities everyone is focused on being needs – on self-actualization and  self transcendence (a topic we will come back to later).

So how can we move everyone into focusing on the pull for self-actualization or self transcendence – that is moving from surviving into thriving? The primary step is to begin with ourselves.  How can we be focused upon higher needs when we are worried about what others may think of us, we are feeling unloved, or we are experiencing a general sense of unworthiness and low self-esteem?  The key to our personal thriving is moving beyond whatever makes us believe we are less than whole, perfect and complete.

How do we do that?  We start by expanding the time we spend each day knowing and stating this wholeness as the truth of our being.  We spend less and less time looking at things in our life that we have used in the past to convince us their lives are not perfect.  We focus on the gifts and goodness in our life.  We see perfection everywhere we look. We release attachments to people, things, experiences or our sense of how things are supposed to be.  As long as we are emotionally attached to stuff  “out there”, we will sense a deficiency in our lives when we don’t have them.  As the Buddha said in the “Four Noble Truths”, the root of all are suffering is attachment to these external  things.  Awareness of the attachment is the first step in releasing it.

Releasing our attachments and focusing on our perfection allows us to know that we always have more than enough.  From this  abundance we are called to give.  Within us a special talent or ability seeks expression in the world.  Living our passion and sharing it with others allows us to move to that higher world in our own lives.

And what about all the people out there in the world who are still stuck focused upon deficiency needs?  What can any one of us do to assist them?  How can we be a change agent that allows people around the world to meet their basic needs, release their attachment to  lower needs and free them to live a life of self-actualization and ultimately self transcendence?  What can you do?


Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books—available at Amazon. Click here to visit his Author Page. This includes his recent one Our Spiritual Rights and Responsibilities. In this book, he offers what he suggests are the 5 basic rights we all possess by virtue of our being these spiritual beings on planet Earth — and our 2 responsibilities we all hold in relation to one another! Check it out!