Anyone who’s ever taken an introductory Psychology class knows Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The hierarchy reviews the order of priority of needs for humans’ growth. At the base is biological needs such as food and water. Without having those basic needs met, no organism will be able to survive for long. The second level is safety—again, this is about survival because you need to protect yourself from harm. Those two components ensure that you are able to stay alive long enough to do something with your life. From there, we shift to the higher growth-enabling parts of the hierarchy: belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. These allow someone not just to survive but thrive.
And that’s the point of this post: the meaning of life is growth, and every scientific study on biological creatures have proven that—from Charles Darwin to Abraham Maslow. More precisely, since science cannot prove anything but can only fail to disprove it, they have found that the key to living is surviving long enough to reproduce (Darwin) and that you ideally live to realize your full potential (Maslow). In Darwin’s case, people who didn’t survive before procreation are, by definition, dead and unable to carry on their genes. In Maslow’s case, people who can’t meet their base needs can’t survive, and people who survive but can’t do what they need to do for belonging, esteem, or self-actualization cannot thrive.
There are two main takeaways for you from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs within the scope of your life:
In the first part, you need to make sure that you get enough fresh air, sun, nutrition, rest, and other biological necessities to live a healthy life. You might not realize how poor sleep or an unbalanced diet might be inhibiting your ability to live a happy life, but these things matter and can cause irritability, depression, or pain that can prevent you from living your life to the fullest. The latter three levels are for growth that most people deem to be “higher” or “greater” forms of growth. With the third tier, belonging, the “greater” growth is simply the growth beyond oneself (that’s how most people define “greater” meaning or purpose). You feel better about your place in the world when you are around people who care about you and like what you like. In the fourth tier, you have a feeling of value, accomplishment, or achievement. This is caused by contributing to society, completing a great feat, or having an impact on the people you care about. Effectively, when you do good, you feel good.
The highest tier is the most ambiguous one since it differs for everyone. First of all, it very much seems like an extension of the fourth tier. This tier of self-actualization is when you push yourself to your full potential. That could be through creative activities, becoming the best you can be, or breaking barriers, records, or limitations. But this can only be attained if you have done everything you needed to attain growth first and is the end or culmination of the journey and not a state that you’re always going to be in. You still need to eat, go inside when a storm comes, and spend time with your friends and family.
In the second bullet, your priorities in life are very important to how and whether you realize your life goals. For example, if you put your career over sleep, you might make it a good while, but at some point you have to prioritize rest or you will harm yourself. If you decide to eat fast food for its convenience for a while, then at some point you have to balance that out with fruits and vegetables or risk health issues. If you constantly put yourself in danger or abandon your friends for certain goals or events, you might not have the safety or support you need to recover from harm or setbacks.
The questions for you are:
There is nothing wrong with making the tough decisions: drinking at a happy hour might make you feel better and be worth the hangover, and working a little more to earn more money might be worth the sacrifice of family time for their education. As long as you’re making these decisions consciously, you can accept the risks and know when you might need to change direction if you are giving up too much for one area of your life.
Identify your life goals, prioritize the most important things to attain those goals, and monitor for changes that might require you to temporarily reprioritize. But don’t forget about those decisions to the point where temporary trade-offs become bad habits that could hurt you in the long run. If Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has any practical use in day-to-day life, it’s to remind you what’s essential to living life so that you don’t sacrifice those things too much but to remember why you’re doing those things so you don’t relegate yourself to a limited or hedonic life.