Monday, January 31, 2011

Shoots and Ladders in a Candyland World

In 1943, Abraham Maslow came up with his hierarchy of needs, and I was introduced to it in an educational psychology class. At eighteen, I had no idea how I was to use the data in order to be a better teacher. At 35, I see it less a teaching tool and more a tool of introspection. It can be an enlightening and scary proposition to sit down and take inventory of which of your needs are and are not being met.

Maslow divided our needs into five categories: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Basic needs are the tangible ones. In a story, they'd be the showing and not the telling details. They'd be the props on the theater or movie set. Sort of. The most basic requirements are those that allow us to survive. They allow the body to function properly. We need air, water, and food. We need clothes for our bodies and a roof over our heads. And, interestingly enough, Maslow placed sex in this category. Of course, he meant the basic sex act--the sort needed in order to perpetuate the species. Nonetheless, he drew criticism for placing sex as just as important as the air we breathe.

If we think of Maslow's needs theory as a ladder, then the next rung is safety. Safety is equated to predictability. We want things to be consistent and fair. We are drawn to the familiar and are scared by the unfamiliar. This safety applies to all areas of life: personal security, financial security, health and well-being, and protection against accidents and illness. When we are young, we cling to blankets that are special to us. We cling to our mother's leg and peer out at strangers. When our mothers serve cake, we get mad if the slices are not even. We get angry if someone doesn't play by the game rules. As adults, we are supposed to be better at this. I might be stuck here, to some extent. I still cling to the familiar. I build a world and know how it works and am off kilter if something or someone doesn't act as they generally do. I get angry with the world and cry "No Fair!" to no one's ears in particular about all the atrocities in the world. But it is what it is, and you either adapt, or you are stunted--left behind.

After those two levels are reached, we want to be loved and feel like we belong. We work to establish friendships. We value family. We crave intimacy. We begin our search, if we are monogamous, for The One, the one we want to spend our days with. We start to join groups and clubs. Or maybe take our place as one sheep in a flock at a particular religious gathering. Maybe we play on an athletic team or at the very least fervently follow a professional team. Maybe you join a gang. When we go to work, we don't just go to do our jobs but find ourselves seeking out relationships with co-workers. At the very least, we want someone to pass the time with, to joke with, to gossip to, to commiserate with. At the most, maybe we get real friendship or even a mentorship.

Maslow broke esteem down into 2 types: the type that others can give you and the type only you can have (i.e. self-esteem). So does your identity rest on the need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention? Maslow labeled that "low" esteem, as opposed to the "high" esteem--the ability to gain strength, to be competent, to master, to be independent, and be self-confident. Of course, Maslow saw the two types of esteem as interrelated. Neither, it seems are healthy in and of themselves.

Finally, there is self-actualization or realizing your full potential--becoming what you are meant to become, whatever that means. Maslow said that full potential varied from person to person. Maybe it's your gift to be a damn good stay-at-home mom. Maybe you're meant to be a painter. Or a waiter. Or a teacher. Or a construction worker.

The trouble is, we can spend our whole lives trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up. And then we are grown ups and still wondering why life doesn't feel right. Well, Maslow would probably say that, in the board game of life, you've got to lose a turn and go back to START, or at the very least, he'd say that you have to be honest about whether your other, "lower" needs are truly being met.

That said, Maslow acknowledged that there are people who actively operate in phenomenal ways at the higher needs levels, despite the fact that their most basic needs aren't being met. I'm fascinated by his concept of metamotivation. This term describes the motivation of people who go beyond the scope of basic needs and strive for constant betterment. You've encountered those people, right? Throughout my life, I've met people who, as my grandmother would have said, "don't have a pot to piss in," meaning they were poor. They had no money, no things, or at least none of the things those around them had. Yet, they seem happy, content even. Or maybe they are the fighters of the world--the scrappy ones--the ones who ignore the hunger gnawing at their own bellies in order to fight for the basic freedoms of others.

I look at the colorful depictions of Maslow's pyramid and am reminded that it bears a striking likeness to the food pyramid. I realize that's not an accurate comparison. In the food pyramid, the highest point are those things we should avoid--the things that are abundant and tempting yet which will kill us. In Maslow's pyramid, the highest point is something we should strive for, though seemingly very, very hard to reach. The bottom rung for both is building blocks--the origins of energy. And of course in both, there is the murky middle ground between bottom and top. In that murky middle ground, most of us struggle. We cheat. We take more than we need. We starve ourselves, both physically and metaphorically. Or perhaps we act mechanically, treating our bodies and minds like a machine. We abide by the serving size but the goal--the perfect dress size or the enlightened mind--remains out of reach, either by a hair or by a mile.


  1. Aah, Maslow..and how to reach the top of that pyramid? It is indeed snakes and ladders..I love how you have compared it to the food I'm wondering if everything is a bit like pyramid of choice and opportunity..Jae

  2. A lovely commentary on Maslow. I remember that vaguely from my college pyscology class.

  3. Love this intellectual and entertaining piece. Terrific!