As many before me have, after reaching a certain age or a certain level of success, I’ve been contemplating the term, “self-actualization.” We often associate this elusive state with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I, as many others, learned about this psychological developmental level in Psych 101 at ~ the age of 19. As I age, this lofty goal of reaching self-actualization has often left me wondering: “Am I there yet?” If I’m not, how and when will I achieve this Nirvana? What will self-actualization look like for me and would I recognize it if I was there? Is it even possible to attain?
Let me remind you of the theory behind self-actualization since Psych 101, for many of us, was a relatively long time ago!
Self-actualization is a term that has been raised in philosophical and psychological discussions for millennia. It has had different names over history but the general idea behind it has remained the same. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines self-actualization as, “to realize fully one’s potential” (2022). What it means to “realize fully one’s potential,” and how one goes about achieving this level in development are two questions that have surely been explored during many philosophical and psychological discussions throughout history. William Sahakian (1975) claims that the idea of self-actualization can be found all the way back in Aristotle’s teachings and that Aristotle is, in fact, the founder of this important theory.
I will trace for you the theory of self-actualization from Aristotle who believed that self-actualization is found in goodness, to Immanuel Kant who believed that self-actualization is found through moral virtue, to William James who believed that that self-actualization is found through fulfilling our three different selves (material, social, and spiritual) and finally, to Abraham Maslow who believed that self-actualization is found through first satisfying each of the lower levels of needs, as shown in the well-known hierarchy of needs below. We will see that each of these great thinkers strove to understand how one can reach their fullest potential and how the idea of self-actualization was shaped and presented over history.
Aristotle’s eudaimonia (which roughly translates to self-actualization)
Aristotle (384-322 BC) believed that self-actualization is sought out by the soul and if the individual does not reach self-actualization, “frustration or misery results” (Sahakian, 1975, p. 9). Aristotle believed that it was in man’s nature to seek out pleasure but that, in doing so, man should seek out good. Good, in the end, is what makes a man most happy and fulfilled. All pleasure must be sought after in moderation since it is often the nature of man to overindulge and this does not lead to goodness and virtue. Humans, Aristotle pointed out, have a capacity to reason and logic unequaled by other animals. The development of this aptitude is one way in which we can further seek the good and further fulfill our desires towards self-actualization (Viney & King, 1998).
For Aristotle, it was clear that good is what all humans should want and it is that which will make each person feel the most fulfilled. We, as humans, therefore, all start as children who work through years of development aiming and striving towards perfection and that which will make us feel most self-actualized. Aristotle pointed out four factors that could contribute to this achievement, which he called eudaimonia, which in Greek means a sense of flourishing or a sense of well-being, or, for the sake of comparison, self-actualization. These four are: 1) habit, 2) social supports, 3) freedom of choice, and 4) individual differences (Viney & King, 1998). Aristotle believed that creating good and ethical habits could in fact contribute to our happiness in life, and therefore self-actualization. A famous quote by Aristotle states that, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” (as cited in Johnson, 2004, p.51). Such a great and powerful line to take to heart!
Social supports are also important to Aristotle in contributing to a person’s happiness. He stated that one is more likely to be happy if one has children, family and/or friends around them. Also, those who have a higher level of freedom of choice will be free to make decisions about their own lives and this raises the chance of each person making decisions that can lead them towards their own happiness. Individual differences are also important in the drive towards self-actualization. Some people are naturally more apt to choose moderation in their actions while others will always go to extremes, not taking deliberate decisions. The individual differences that vary one person to the next will influence their likely level of happiness in life, and therefore, their level of self-actualization (Viney & King, 1998).
Kant’s View of Self-Actualization
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) also presented his views of the subject of self-actualization, although his views were quite different. For Kant, the idea of moral virtue was more important than happiness. When an individual denies his own natural selfishness and weaknesses, and follows the moral duties that he knows are right, then he will feel free, and this freedom will lead to self-actualization. Duty and selflessness without any expectation of a reward are necessary for moral virtue. Denying one’s own personal desires in order to serve others is necessary for the fulfillment of an individual and is necessary for one to reach their true potential. Seeking out one’s own happiness, in fact, achieves the opposite effect (Younkins,1998). “Virtue is some sort of excellence of the soul” (Johnson, 2004) and when one reaches this excellence of the soul, one can be said to be self-actualized.
Living a moral life and following the duties that are categorical imperatives in our society is the key, according to Kant, as to how we can feel more fulfilled and reach the highest levels of self-actualization in our lives. Searching out happiness for ourselves will never lead to self-actualization since we must put society and the good of others ahead of ourselves in order to achieve moral virtue and to achieve true satisfaction within.
James’ Interpretation of Self-Actualization
Williams James (1842-1910) also spoke of self-actualization in his theories. James believed that there were three levels of human needs. These levels, he hypothesized, were material needs, social needs, and spiritual needs (Huitt, 2004). Material needs of the person include clothes, shelter, and safety. The social needs we experience include recognition, esteem, and belonging. Spiritual needs are not necessarily related to religion and could be considered as psychological needs. The spiritual needs are personal and intimate where the material and social needs are outward (Viney & King, 1998).
There are often conflicts between the three selves, James concluded. Often decisions have to be made as to where our energies will be focused as we attempt to achieve our potential selves. Our potential selves are different to each person, for example, one person may wish to achieve their potential in terms of wealth, fitness, or intelligence. One may not be able to achieve all of these potential selves and, therefore, will have to make decisions as to which potential self the person will achieve and which they will leave behind, balancing between a dream and what can be a reality. Reaching self-actualization in one of these areas may come at the expense of another area (Viney & King, 1998). The person, therefore, can seek to fulfill the potential of the selves, whether it is the material self, the social self, or the spiritual self, depending on where the individual decides to put their focus and energy (Viney & King, 1998).
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, including Self-Actualization as the Pinnacle
Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) is probably the psychologist best known for his theories regarding self-actualization. Maslow’s theory of motivation, which is known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, is well known and is commonly referred to. Maslow believed that people are basically good and that we all are strive to be healthy, happy individuals and that our nature is to continually attempt to reach our potential. Therapy was one way that an individual who was having problems reaching their potential could find help and this was, in his opinion, the main reason why therapy exists.
Maslow began to contemplate a hierarchy of needs while he was studying monkeys. He saw that the monkeys would act on the most pressing and urgent needs before other needs. For example, the monkey would act on getting water before he would act on getting food. Water is, of course, a more pressing need than food since one can not exist without water for more than a few days but may be able to exist for weeks without food. If oxygen was suddenly taken away, the entire animal’s focus would shift towards this and away from the effort to get food or water. Maslow realized that some needs have priority over others, whether we are discussing monkeys or humans (Boeree, 1998). These ideas led Maslow to come up with his theory of the hierarchy of needs.
In Maslow’s hierarchy, there are five levels of needs. Each level must be satisfied before the individual will shift their attention to the next level and attempt to fulfill it. The first and most basic level of needs is the physiological level. In this level, the individual seeks to fulfill basic physiological needs such as water, food, sleep, and a proper temperature. These needs must be met and, until they are, the further steps are of little concern to the person (Boeree, 1998).
The next level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is for safety-related needs. The individual who has fulfilled the first level will next try to fulfill the needs of safety, security, and stability. One will look to have a safe place to live, money in the bank for emergencies, and a secure job. These needs must be met, or mostly met, before the individual will typically focus on attaining the needs found in the third level, which includes the needs of belonging (Boeree, 1998).
The belonging level includes such things as love, affection and social ties to others. These needs may show themselves through family, friends, coworkers, or a spouse. Maslow contends that when one is starving or dying of thirst, love and marriage are not often on the individual’s mind (Boeree, 1998). On the other hand, one “may forget that once, when he was hungry, he sneered at love as unreal or unnecessary or unimportant” (Maslow, 1954, p. 89). When these needs for belonging are met, the individual will look towards the next level of needs, the esteem needs.
The esteem needs are the next level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This level includes things such as a feeling of worth, self-respect and competence. Maslow believed that this level had two versions, a higher and a lower version of esteem needs. The lower version is the need for respect from others, which comes through fame or status or recognition or attention. The higher version is the need for self-respect. This is the higher version because when one achieves self-respect, the individual is more likely to keep it while respect from others can come and go (Boeree, 1998).
The top level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs brings us back to the topic of self-actualization. When all of the other levels of needs are sufficiently taken care of, Maslow believed that an individual will feel a desire to become more, to reach their full potential. This, of course, means different things for different individuals depending on what that individual is capable of doing and capable of being. According to Maslow, self-actualization is, “the intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately, of what the organism is” (Maslow, 1954). In other words, one may be self-actualized by being a dancer, by being a philosopher, by being an artist, by being a scientist, or by reaching one’s full potential in any area. These levels of self-actualization, do not normally show themselves until the first four levels of needs have been met (Viney & King, 1998).
Maslow put much thought into what a self-actualized person would be like, what qualities they would have, and what would differentiate them from others. He even made a list of people he knew and people who were famous, both alive and deceased, that he would consider self-actualized. William James, who was discussed earlier, was one of the people that Maslow believed had probably reached self-actualization. Other notable people that he mentioned that were probably self-actualized individuals were Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington (Viney & King, 1998).
Some of the qualities that self-actualized people had, according to Maslow, were that they were realistic, they accepted themselves as they were, they were problem-centered, they were spontaneous, they were autonomous, they could be alone and not be lonely, they were creative, they were aware of their imperfections, they had a fresh appreciation of people and things, they had values, and they had gone through “peak experiences.” These “peak experiences” were moments when that person had “feelings of limitless horizons… so that the subject was to some extent transformed and strengthened even in his daily life by such experiences” (Maslow, 1970, p.164). Maslow did not feel that people who had reached the level of self-actualization were perfect. He, in fact, even made a list of the imperfections that could be seen in those of whom he considered self-actualized. Some of these imperfect traits that he noticed were absentmindedness, coldness, and suffering from guilt (Viney & King, 1998).
One popular criticism of Maslow’s theories about self-actualization is that it makes an individual’s fulfillment dependent on their self-centeredness. One must turn inward and focus on themselves to be self-actualized instead of focusing on the common good. This opposes the road to self-actualization that was described earlier as was taught by Immanuel Kant who said that self-actualization comes through focusing on the common good, or on moral virtue. Maslow, however, saw no reason why one could not be both self-actualized and value the common good (or not!) (Viney & King, 1998).
I invite you to reflect: Is seeking the common good, finding happiness in life, and fulfilling our desires required for self-actualization, as Aristotle posited? Is social duty, moral virtue, selflessness, and an “excellence of the soul” required to achieve self-actualization, as Kant believed? Do we need to choose where to put our energy to further either material, social, or spiritual self-actualization, as considered by James? Must we achieve all four of the more base levels of needs (physiological, safety, belonging, and esteem) prior to achieving self-actualization, as theorized by Maslow?
Where are you on this theoretical road to self-actualization? What does that look like for you? Some may strive towards self-actualization through their work, through their studies, through their art, or through attaining gray-haired wisdom. We have seen some who excelled in their careers who then turned to philanthropy who seem to be further searching for self-actualization.
When I was young and starting out in the world, the basics such as food and rent had to be met and that consumed much of my energy and attention. Today, I have reached certain career, family, and academic goals, but I believe I am still on my path towards self-actualization. I am unsure of where and when I will find it, or if it is actually an end-point at all. To all of you who, like me, are still questioning and striving, strive on! Question, evaluate, and periodically re-evaluate your path, and rest assured, you are not alone. I wish you all the best on your journey to self-actualization – whatever that means for you.
“What a man can be, he must be.” – Abraham Maslow
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