Our Hierarchy of Needs

When us humans are navigating our way through life we are constantly faced with decisions that need to be made. Some of these decisions are simple, like what we should have for breakfast, or what color shirt am I going to wear. But sometimes we must make decisions where the benefits or consequences hold much more weight. Every once in a while these decisions can be life-changing - the proverbial fork in the road. Sometimes we make the right (better) decision, which can lead to a feeling of satisfaction or happiness, and sometimes we make the wrong (less better) decision which leaves us feeling dejected, remorseful, or maybe even ashamed.

When we make the right decision, we rarely reflect back on that decision and ask ourselves - “how did I come to make such a great choice,'' success can have a way of blocking out such self-questioning. But when we make the wrong choices in life, usually after we have gone through the five phases of loss and are now at the phase where we tell ourselves that we didn’t want that thing anyway, we might find ourselves asking why we made such a bad choice in the first place. We may have even known better, we saw the red flags, but still made the wrong decision.

Sometimes these decisions are made consciously and sometimes they are made subconsciously, but whichever it was it was made in an attempt to satisfy a need. And the level of consciousness that was present when we made that decision is what determines our understanding of why we made that decision.

Was the benefit (the satisfaction of the need) worth the cost we decided to pay, or the risk we decided to take? Did we use the right tool in our need satisfying toolbox, or did we use the wrong one? Most importantly, was it really a need or was it just a cleverly disguised want?

Understanding that we have a multitude of different kinds of needs and that they are arranged, more or less, into prioritized levels (a hierarchy) of importance, can go a long way in helping us answer these questions and maybe even give us guidance in making better decisions in the future.

A Little About Abraham Maslow

For thousands of years, people have developed theories about how the human mind works, our perception of the world, and our place in it. These ideas generally coalesced as elaborate thought experiments that, while extremely important, were not necessarily scientific. As these ideas of human nature advanced, they evolved into more advanced philosophies and eventually into the science of psychology. 

The earliest pioneers were Fredrick Nietche, then Sigmund Freud. They developed some serious ideas about what humans wanted in life and why they were having problems getting those things. And it usually had something to do with their Mother and cigars and stuff, but the bottom line was that they painted a pretty dark picture of human psychology and how our conscience and subconscience work.

And while they were probably right about most of what they were telling us, they really didn’t give us much hope for how we could fix the problems we were facing. And the solutions that they were providing, were pretty challenging to say the least.

But Abraham Maslow had a more optimistic assessment of humanity, built on a foundation based on the ideas of Carl Jung and William James. Basically, Maslow believed that humans are striving for good, there’s just a lot of hurdles in our way, most of which are self-constructed. Maslow believes that humans have needs that must be met in order for us to, not only survive, but thrive. In fact, it is not enough anymore for us to just put food on the table, a roof over our head, and create a few beings that look very similar to ourselves. Our overdeveloped, problem-solving brains need more.

Being the pairing, bonding, social creatures that we are, we need to love, feel loved, and feel like we belong. We spend a good part of our lives finding the right person to spend the rest of our lives with. And we seek out friendships and social groups, without which our ancestors, and ourselves, could not and cannot exist (for very long).

As we evolved, it wasn’t enough for us to survive and thrive in intimate and social relationships, we developed the need to feel good about ourselves and how we fit in with the social structure. Self-esteem became a thing for us and it eventually took on a much greater level of importance than for the lower creatures we left behind.

And if all of this evolution wasn’t enough to be satisfied about, after all our species attained, many of us still didn’t feel fulfilled. After we satisfy all of these needs we still feel that nagging feeling that something is missing.

Our Hierarchy of Needs

Physiological - we need to eat, drink, and procreate.
Human physiological needs, as with most animals, are our most primal and consist of our need for adequate nutrition and hydration. Without either of these, we will not live for long. The need for procreation, while not directly related to survival, is regarded as a primal need, or desire, as well. This is something worth digging deeper into down the road as it taps into our two core needs, our need to survive and our need to pass along our genes.

We are driven by the most primitive parts of our brain to satisfy these physiological needs. These are our most primary deficiency needs. If we are dying of hunger or thirst, our drive to satisfy these needs will override any other desire. Without having this need adequately secured, attempting to satisfy any higher need would be considered a psychological pathology.

Humans evolved early on to satisfy these needs in a cooperative manner, since our survival as an individual was dependent on the survival of our group or tribe. We shared what we gathered and hunted, we shared water sources, and we shared our knowledge of how to better acquire them. But as we developed more efficient systems for the procurement and storing of the things we needed to survive, the direct level of cooperation became obscured. Instead of sharing the resources we just gained, we traded them for alternate forms of value (i.e. money), then used that value in trade for other things we needed. Our debt of gratitude (and with it opportunities for belongingness and esteem) was replaced with the immediacy of a financial transaction.

The acquisition of money became the tool by which we could satisfy our physiological needs and the feeling of cooperation with our fellow man was subsequently lost.

Safety and Security - we need to feel our environment is safe and secure.
The one need that can immediately override our physiological needs is our need to feel safe and secure. Our ancient ancestors may have been driven by hunger to hunt, or by thirst to find water, but if a predator higher up the food chain entered the picture, we became prey and our need for safety instantly became the top priority.

As we evolved and developed tools for our protection and societal structures that fostered greater levels of security, we were able to turn our fight or flight mechanism into a more long-term plan. As with our physiological needs, our safety needs evolved under the umbrella of the community, even more so. We have now off-loaded almost all responsibility for our safety and security onto the top communal structure, our government.

And we found a way to pay for this security with the same method we developed to pay for our physiological needs, money.

More on Our Deficiency Needs (Our Physical Needs)
These first two needs are known as deficiency needs, or our physical needs, and they are needs that we are surely born with. They are also the most diabolical in that we further develop them through our infancy in ways that we have no chance of remembering, and we can carry these needs, subconsciously and unnecessarily, into adulthood. If these needs are not satisfied properly in our childhood, they can lead to all kinds of emotional problems and anxieties as we get older.

Love and Belongingness - we need to love, feel loved, and feel like we belong.
When we are hungry, we seek food, when we are thirsty, we seek fluids, and when we are cold and wet, we seek shelter. These are deficiency needs and, even though civilization has evolved to such an extent that satisfying them on a daily basis has become an afterthought (for most), they are still powerful. Our immediate survival is so dependent on them that even the threat of a deficiency, will override any other need we may wish to satisfy.

But, even the most subtle feeling that our deficiency needs are being met, and we will feel free to seek out and satisfy our higher needs, the most powerful of which is our need for love and belongingness. While these needs may feel like they are higher in our consciousness, in reality they are needs that are driven by our core mandate, to survive and to procreate.

As humans, we have risen to the top of the food chain, we have developed levels of thinking and feeling that rise well above any other creature on the planet. We have evolved into higher beings. And yet, we are still animals. We have retained major parts of our brains from our pre-evolved ancestors, along with all the desires and drives that come with them. For most of our evolution, we could not live without being a part of a group and we could not pass along our genes without bonding with a mate.

While this part of our genetic makeup has not changed, our society certainly has. Our need for love and belonging has evolved from one of survival to one of a more emotional desire. What was once a rational drive has become more of an irrational desire. It is the irrational part of this desire that gets us into so much trouble.

For our early ancestors, the drive to procreate, and the requisite partnership that came with it, developed early and became our top priority. Procrastinating on this endeavor would certainly reduce or even eliminate the available pool of partners, and lead to a life of loneliness and a void of the offspring necessary to carry on our genes. In a tribe with a population in the dozens, the pool of potential partners was limited to say the least, and the amount of time available to find the perfect life-partner that shared our desires, our humor, and our higher needs, was even more limited. We partnered up and then lived with that decision for the rest of our short lives.

In our modern world of mass communication, near-unlimited transportation, and sheer population, the gene pool is nearly infinite. Add to this the ease at which we can satisfy our deficiency needs, we are presented with an abundance of time in which we can find our perfect partner (our soulmate) and develop deep friendships, and yet many of us cannot resist diving into a relationship with the first person we meet at the local bar, and cling to “friendships” that are difficult or even toxic.

Our civilization has advanced so far and yet we seem burdened with this sense of urgency that is unnecessary and even sabotaging. In our quest to live a content and fulfilling life, we must love, be loved, and we must belong before we can develop any further. Our need for love and belongingness cannot be overlooked and it cannot be acquired using the same tools we use to satisfy our deficiency needs. It cannot be bought - at any price.

Esteem - We need to feel good about ourselves, we need to feel important.

“All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, (usually) high evaluation of themselves, for self-respect, or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others.” - Abraham Maslow

For our ancient ancestors, the need for esteem may have been as much of a physical need as much as a social one. In the same manner that a person’s survival depended on being a part of a group or tribe, that person’s position within that group may have almost as much importance. Our rank in the tribe must have played a significant role in one’s ability to satisfy physiological needs, safety needs, and even the need for love and belonging within the tribe's power structure. Our position within the tribe must have been highly dependent on the esteem that our fellow tribe mates had for us. This type of esteem is considered external and it is only dependent on how others think of us.

But as we evolved socially, we became less dependent on the group for our survival, and more concerned with our personal freedoms and independence. Many have pegged this development to have begun around the age of the renaissance, expanded through the age of enlightenment, and still continues to this day. While our survival may have lost its dependence on esteem, our need for it has not.

As our dependence on others has been replaced by a dependence on ourselves, so to has our need for esteem derived from others been replaced by a feeling of esteem from within. Our need to trust in our own ability to solve the problems we face in life, our self-esteem, far outweighs our need for external esteem.

While the need for self-esteem cannot be understated (psychologists like Nathaniel Branden feel it may be the most important need for psychological health), it could be argued that it has lost its importance as a stand-alone need. We may feel good about our ability to provide food and shelter for ourselves and even others, and we may even feel good about our ability to find someone to love and to even belong to a particular group. But how useful would it be if our self-esteem existed while none of our other needs have been met.

While self-esteem may have lost its importance as a stand-alone need it may have gained a new role in our more modern society. Esteem seems to be more of a transitional bridge between our need for love and belonging (an ancient need) and our need for self-actualization (a modern need). Instead of a bridge, it may be more of a gateway, for without self-esteem, it seems impossible to reach for a life of self-fulfillment.

More simply put - If we don’t feel comfortable with who we, how can we work on who we are supposed to be?

"Become who you are. Become all that you are. There is still more of you - more to be discovered, forgiven, and loved." - Carl Jung

Self-Actualization - we need to feel like we are becoming who we are supposed to become (self-fulfillment).

With all of these lower needs successfully satisfied, we should find ourselves living the perfect life. We have food on the table, we have a nice house, a nice car (or two), we have the wife or husband and the 2.5 kids. We can bowl a 220, or we’re batting fourth on our softball team, or we are running the PTA. We should, and most likely do,  feel successful. And yet, with all our needs satisfied, we still may be experiencing a feeling of restlessness and discontent, a feeling like there should be more.

As we humans evolved beyond merely surviving, multiplying, and feeling good about ourselves, we developed the need to be more than we are currently. We developed the need to be the person we are supposed to be, or the best person we can possibly be. This is what Maslow calls the need to be self-actualizing. It developed late in our evolution and it can be regarded as a curse or it can be our blessing.

“Self-actualizing people have the wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have become to others.” - Abraham Maslow

Read more - Self-Actualization


Abraham Maslow had one goal in mind as he explored the world of human psychology - What could make life purposeful for people, himself included, in modern-day America, a country where the pursuit of money and fame seemed to have eclipsed any more interior or authentic aspirations.

For most of us in the modern world, we have all the tools available to satisfy each of the needs Maslow describes, even that of self-actualization, and yet most of us will struggle and ultimately fail to do so. By digging deeper, by assessing what our needs and wants really are and understanding the difference between the two, maybe we can develop our own plan for satisfying those needs, and freeing up the time and energy needed to begin pursuing a life of self-fulfillment.

When the actions and attitudes we develop to satisfy each of these needs become effortless and natural, those actions and attitudes become how we live, and eventually how we live is who we become. This is the moment that we start down the path of self-actualization. 

Just remember, self-actualization is not something that you can achieve, but it is a process that is never-ending. If we are fortunate enough to find ourselves on the path of self-actualization we will soon realize that the more we become “self-actualized” the greater our potential becomes. In essence, we can never become self-actualized, only self-actualizing. We can not live a self-fulfilled life, only a life that is self-fulfilling.

"There are certain conditions which are immediate prerequisites for the basic need satisfactions. Danger to these is reacted to almost as if it were a direct danger to the basic needs themselves. Such conditions as freedom to speak, freedom to do what one wishes so long as no harm is done to others, freedom to express one’s self, freedom to investigate and seek for information, freedom to defend one’s self, justice, fairness, honesty, orderliness in the group are examples of such preconditions for basic need satisfaction. The conditions are not ends in themselves but they are almost so since they are so closely related to the basic needs, which are apparently the only ends in themselves." - A Theory of Human Motivation (A. H. Maslow)