Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Updated: Apr 7

A theory of human motivation

It's important for us all to step back, and understand why we strive to make progress, why we focus on personal development and why we seek to improve our condition. What is the fundamental basis for this kind of motivation? We can try to incorporate all the 'tips and tricks' in the world to help us thrive but without understanding the motivation behind our journey towards personal growth, we will find it difficult to make consistent progress. Understanding the theory behind why we seek these 'life hacks', or why we do anything productive at all, can be very constructive towards unlocking further personal growth.

I’m sure you’ve all had days that began with:

‘I’m feeling so motivated today!!’

Or opened up your laptop to an empty Word Document and thought:

‘Aggh, I literally have no motivation.’

Here it can be really beneficial to delve deeper into why we sometimes feel encouraged, or disillusioned with our very own personal motivations.

Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ is a concept of motivational theory generated from clinical expertise.

He divides human goals into five separate ‘needs’ which are all inter-related in a hierarchy of dominance. Once a ‘need’ is contented, the next becomes accessible.

This ladder formulates the journey towards ‘self-actualization’, the ultimate human motivation of reaching one’s full potential.

The Physiological Needs

The first, most basic level is the physiological needs of the human being. The scientists among you may refer to this as homeostasis. Maslow provides an interesting analogy here by revealing how appetites are a good indicator of exactly what the body needs and lacks.

For example, he states that ‘for our chronically and extremely hungry man, utopia can be defined very simply as a place where there is plenty of food.’ With this in mind, physiological requirements provide a crucial biological foundation for a human being to thrive. By using the analogy of hunger, Maslow provides all the more justification for the importance of a healthy relationship between the mind and the body, much like we encourage here at ALIVE. Looking after our physiology is step one in our motivational journey.

The Safety Needs

Once physiology is mastered, the next level of Maslow’s Hierarchy concerns human safety. When confronted with danger, ‘practically everything looks less important than safety.’ As such, this level of human motivation becomes defined by maintaining security. Maslow’s methodological approach proves particularly engaging, he uses the case study of children and infant's attitudes towards safety and danger. No matter how complex his scholarship may be, we are all familiar with Maslow's reference to a 'child's frantic clinging to his parents’ which is ‘testimony to their role as protectors.’ With this in mind, one of the most basic human motivations can be defined by the need to protect oneself. However, in our modern world, safety must be thought of as more than just physical danger, we must consider psychological safety as well. We’ve all heard the cliché that ‘this is a safe space’ when engaging with new ideas in school, university or the workplace. Security, both environmental and emotional, must be fostered in our lives before we can effectively engage in the creative, intellectual and productive activity that leads to personal growth.

The Love Needs

Having achieved these basic needs, we can ascend Maslow's ladder and begin delving into the deeper psychological and emotional demands that define human motivation. At this level, our perspective begins to widen beyond ourselves and as stated by Maslow, ‘now the person will feel keenly, as never before, the absence of friends, or a sweetheart, or a wife, or children.’ Above all, this development stage exemplifies the progression of human nature from internal, personal priorities to the importance of human relationships. ‘Both giving and receiving love’ play a huge role in the way we experience our lives, a sense of belonging and connection are absolutely crucial components to a life well lived. Of course, our capacity to love others becomes definitive in our capacity to love ourselves.

The Esteem Needs

Here, we begin to explore the more complex levels of human motivation. Maslow defines this stage as the ‘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.’ The ‘necessity of basic self-confidence’ relates to the ways in which we are motivated by our personal sense of worth. Interestingly, Maslow notes how ‘these needs have been relatively stressed by Alfred Adler and his followers, and have been relatively neglected by Freud and the psychoanalysts.’ This sense of worth, ultimately underpins the choices and behaviors we make as we strive for appreciation and achievement. This level of the hierarchy can be supported by learning about self confidence as we did in ALIVE's earlier blog post 'What is self confidence, why is it important and how do I get it?'. With greater self-confidence and self-esteem, we become perfectly poised to progress to the final level.

The Need for Self-Actualization

‘A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.’

As Maslow’s highest level of affirmation, self-actualization refers to the process of fulfilling one’s potential which allows a human being to become everything that they are possibly capable of. Crucially, Maslow argues that ‘it remains a challenging problem for research.’ In this sense, the attainment of self-actualization seems a complex goal which is reflected in its complicated scholarly examinations.

Is this not all too reflective of the very ethos of ALIVE that prioritises this sort of learning?

To digest this in the context of ALIVE, we must remember that our journey to self-actualization may be complex. Of course, not everyone will always know where their full potential lies. However, Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ provides a great template of re-assurance. Knowing that this process is characteristic of a ranked order, we can concern ourselves with progress rather than the end result. We’re talking stepping stones here!! By taking a moment to recognize our personal ‘needs’ on each level, Maslow encourages a patient understanding of our motivations. Each stage of one’s ‘needs’ will be revealed once the previous is achieved. Ultimately, a deeper awareness of our particular motivations across every level of Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy’ fosters trust in each stage of our personal growth.

How could the musician ever learn to make music on an empty stomach, in great danger, with no love for his orchestra and no confidence in his talent?

Let’s all take time to appreciate each step of the way in this journey and rest assured our very own potential will soon become clear.


Meet your writer: This post is written by Isobel Jackson, a keen soccer player and recent graduate in History from the University of Manchester in England. Having studied abroad at the University of Sydney during her undergraduate degree, Isobel has enjoyed combining these different, international approaches to her learning. This flexibility is all the more relevant to her interests in discovering new ideas about the positive empowerment of the human condition. After enjoying her time here in Australia so much, you can also find Isobel’s work on the ManchesterOnTheRoad Travel Blog.

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