Maslow’s hierarchy put to the test

You are no doubt familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s and old and much-loved theory that says we must satisfy our basic needs for food, sleep, shelter and so on, before we start trying to meet other needs. Once we’ve met our basic needs, we then seek safety and security. Once we feel safe and secure, we seek love and friendship. Once we feel loved and have enough friends, we seek self-respect and the respect of others. Then what Maslow called self-actualisation kicks in – we want to become the best that we can be. Finally comes self-transcendence, which is feeling part of the greater whole, wanting to serve and help others and so on.

Of course, we’re probably never fully satisfied at any level, but we need a comfortable level of satisfaction at one level before we can move onto the next one.

According to this fine theory of Maslow, we’re happier when we can meet our needs. When we can’t meet our needs, we’re not so happy. Now there’s a blinding flash of the obvious.

But is it true? Is there really a hierarchy of needs that everyone tries to meet?

The problem has always been that this is what’s called an ‘armchair theory’. In other words, Maslow sat in his chair in front of the fireplace, probably smoking a pipe or cigar since after all, it was 1943. And he thought, ‘Now then, which comes first, the chicken or the egg?’ Or rather, ‘Which comes first, food and shelter or the desire to reach your potential?’

Well, some psychologists at the University of Illinois set out to find out whether Maslow’s theory holds water. They tested it in 123 countries between 2005 and 2010.

The good news is, at least for people like me who have studied, taught and used the theory to bring out the best in people, is that Maslow’s theory is largely correct. Fulfilling the needs described in his hierarchy does indeed correlate with happiness: happy people are those whose needs are fulfilled.

To be specific, fulfilment of the lower order needs – food, shelter, friends – is closely linked to a positive evaluation of your life. Satisfaction of the higher order needs, – respect, self-actualisation and self-transcendence – is strongly related to enjoying your life. Bingo.

An interesting but maybe not so unexpected finding when you think about it, was that people seem to feel more positive about their own lives when those around them also have their needs met and feel positive about their lives. And we enjoy our lives more when those around us are enjoying their lives.

So go forth and help the people you lead and manage meet their needs. And make sure your job allows you to meet your needs, to. Especially the higher order needs.

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