What is the hierarchy of needs, and how does it apply in real life?
According to experts, here are real-life examples of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:
Hope Umansky, PhD
Consulting Psychologist | American Culture Professor | Founder, Innovations Advocacy
What is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
It is important to note that the original title of Abraham Maslow’s model was the “Triangle of Human Needs,” created in 1943 by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, now better known as the Hierarchy of Needs.
Importantly during WWII, it becomes one of the first models that boomers and a country in national and collective trauma due to WWII and the Holocaust to follow. In these times of crisis, during that time in history, having a hierarchical or mathematically familiar map to life success was embraced.
The parents of kids who are now known as boomers, grew up with this model as gospel—is a model Maslow put forth as a way to conceptualize what human beings need physically, emotionally, and spiritually to realize self-actualization.
Self-Actualization is a buzz word from the anti-Judeo Christian models of religion to encompass a more holistic sense of self; hence, the use of the term, self-actualization encompasses a person’s ultimate potential in a professional, emotional, and perhaps spiritual or otherworldly sense (being self-actualized is language from Buddhist esoteric teachings, meaning on the way to enlightenment).
Hence, its appropriation by the self-help and pop psychology movement.
What these needs mean and the significance to their order
Created at a time when the country and world were deeply fractured, not unlike now, Maslow’s original model reads in a linear or binary fashion, invoking the hierarchy of basest foundation to best in the bottom to the top model.
These represent health and biological requirements for survival.
- Do I have a house with clean water, heat, and food in it?
- Is it a safe refuge?
Maslow considered these the most important needs of all. The others, in his model, are considered secondary. In his model, if you do not have the physiological, all else on the model is compromised.
Humans (and all animals, frankly) have an innate need for safety so their nervous systems can relax and not be in fight or flight all the time. Whether this safety is compromised by a neighborhood’s crime rate, the flooding of shootings in this country, the pandemic, that would be external safety.
Maslow’s safety needs hold an assumption that externally there may not be safety, but in one’s own home, there is.
In 2021, we can safely say that whether physically or emotionally many people do not internally feel safe in their homes. It could be because of financial ruin and losing the home or more nefarious reasons. It could be because there is domestic partner violence in the home and chaotic family dynamics.
Maslow’s model of assuming safety in the home and that threats are externally out of the home is not the truth today. The foundation of home does not mean safety.
Love and belonging
Under Maslow’s model, this is the middle group, the need that falls neatly. between the bottom two and the top two. It is one of the most important needs as it has to do with a sense of being able to receive and give love to friendships, children, spouses or significant others, families, etc.
It assumes there is good faith friendship (non-competition), intimacy/authenticity, trust & acceptance that is assumed to be in a reciprocal arrangement.
Maslow’s model here assumes that a person’s personal desires are a stable and realistically positive evaluation of one’s own potential and vision of themselves.
This bar in the triangle assumes that people will find meaningful work equivalent to their talents and skillsets, and the feeling of achievement, competence, and self-mastery that comes as a result of that leads to the ultimate and top tier of the triangle.
Maslow’s most renowned quote from this triangle and the promise it infers post-WWII was, “What a man [sic] can be, he must be.” (Maslow, 1943).
In this traditional read of the top, pinnacle of motivation and achievement, of the pyramid is self-actualization that is seemingly secular or lacking spiritual or consciousness.
It is based on a material sense and the false hope now that if I want to be a doctor, and I am smart enough, I will be a doctor. The hierarchical triangle assumes that as each need from the bottom up is met, there is no way a man cannot be self-actualized because, “If you can dream it, you can see it.”
No more tops and bottoms: The triangle has changed
In fact, in 2021, the triangle is seemingly irrelevant, although our needs haven’t changed; they have changed in order and meaning.
The pandemic and all the other societal ills and collective and personal trauma have thrown the triangle into disarray and untruths, as Maslow originally envisioned it. A lot has changed since 2020, and the triangle doesn’t ring its bell anymore.
What if, as the country emerges and still trudges through the wrath of the pandemic and other non-ignorable factors of change in American culture and society, the triangle is no longer useful because human beings do not fit into a top to bottom or bottom to top model anymore? The triangle is no longer useful as a hierarchy, linear, fixed model.
With the pandemic and the many other ills that have been exposed since March 2020, the triangle has transitioned into a non-binary, nonlinear model, where the spiritual or consciousness components come first.
Our needs are best symbolized in a nonlinear, non-hierarchal, non-binary infinity loop.
In this decade and the new millennium, self-actualization is the foundation of self that is emotionally and spiritually fed, whether through religion, spirituality, or just a connection with something that is sustaining and outside the self.
As so much is disorganized and chaotic in our world, this is the most important need of stabilization of self and adaptability. For some, meditating and mindfulness is now the only way to deal with the extreme chaos of not having financial or home security.
Esteem can be deeply problematic in the original model as there is no guarantee in 2021 and for the upcoming generations that their talents, abilities, and gifts will translate into a professional with a meaningful wage. Maslow’s “What a man can be, he must be,” falls apart.
The Maslow original post-WWII model has the boomer generation who emerged out of college, take this quote of Maslow’s and its conceptualizations that it is a logical assumption or even promise if you go to school, even if you borrow money, it is still a worthwhile venture, as you will get a job that matches your brilliance and accomplishments; where you will be able to pay back the money in a relatively short time and then buy a house, get married or partnered for kids.
This is no longer a given. Hence the need for professional identity or job titles to not be tied into self-identity and love and belonging. In the pandemonium of 2021, we cannot assume there is really any hierarchy or bottom-up climbing to self-actualization because the triangle has been upended.
Love and belonging
Interestingly, this part of the triangle stays in the same place whether we keep the 1943 model or its inversion. This is significant, and perhaps it is closer to self-actualization than was thought before.
With the instability of the last two years, including the culture better understanding that very little lands one fixed line anymore, love and belonging come from adaptability, resilience, fluidity in self and friendships, and an acceptance of life’s randomness or non-linear cycles.
For people whose social groups have disappeared, or family, because of political or pandemic divisiveness, the Self and a person’s spiritual practice (or self-care strategies) may be the only source of love and belonging, and it may be that way for a while or for the indeterminate future depending on whether you are single or partnered, well or “immune-compromised,” and so on.
In this model, safety assumes first an emotional/spiritual/conscious safety of our place in the world.
If our fight or flight has been activated and has remained so since the beginning of the pandemic—if, for example, you have comorbidities or chronic diseases that even with inoculation make you vulnerable, an external safety may be elusive because of the pandemic and other reasons, too.
These other reasons could make someone feel intensely unsafe due to exposed inequities and societal ills, quickly increasing homicide rates, violence, lack of financial security—then the body will not recognize it is safe. We must feel safe physically, emotionally, and spiritually to achieve Maslow’s original meaning of safety.
In 2021, it is challenging to write about safety and physiology without recognizing it is filled with irony. The pandemic and all the many viruses it has exposed make physical health elusive depending on privilege, race, gender, geography, and random luck.
Many with chronic illnesses have gotten sicker during this time as the pandemic caused hospitals and offices to go into “crisis mode.”
We truly have learned that we cannot rely on the government or institutions to maintain our health during a crisis like a global pandemic. This can make physiological wellness impossible on a fully holistic level, like stress, instability, and chaos in a re-envisioned model that considers the changes of today.
Maslow’s 1943 model presents us with a pull yourself up by the bootstrap American pursuit of happiness message.
In 2021, we now know or must integrate (or we are going to be pretty unhappy) a new envisioned non-binary and nonlinear model that reflects the fluidity and an infinity symbol as these are more interconnected, interchanging, and fluid that matches the 2021 zeitgeist.
Human’s most basic physical, emotional, and spiritual needs move along the sign cycling infinitely: “The human capacity for burden is like bamboo—far more flexible than you’d ever believed at first glance.” (Jodi Picoult).
Howard Rankin Ph.D.
Communication and Cognitive Neuroscience Expert | Host, How Not to Think Podcast | Author, ”I Think Therefore I Am Wrong”
Financial stress can be an inhibitor of happiness, but having wealth is no guarantee of it either
Did you know that what is often presented as Maslow’s Hierarchy is out of date and missing a significant development that happened late in Maslow’s life?
Just before he died, Maslow added another tier to the top of the hierarchy — self-transcendence.
However, because of his death, this addition wasn’t widely known and didn’t often get translated into accounts of the hierarchy, which typically stop at “self-actualization.”
Now, on a related matter, studies of happiness around the world typically show that above about $70k per year in the US (or equivalent earnings), money adds nothing to happiness. In these studies, happiness is not fleeting pleasure but the concept of eudaimonia — meaning and purpose.
Financial stress can be an inhibitor of happiness, but having wealth is no guarantee of it either.
However, researchers at Harvard wondered whether this finding was simply a result of having very few wealthy people in the happiness surveys.
So they did some further research and compared the reported “happiness” of those with $1 million and those with over $10 million. And they found that the wealthier group were indeed “happier,” but for one reason. They were able to donate more money to causes they believed in, thus increasing their sense of purpose and contribution.
So more money can lead to greater meaning through contribution and lead to self-transcendence.
Attorney, Oklahoma Lawyer
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a motivational theory that comprises five tiers of human needs that dictate our life and behavior. We often depict these five needs in our everyday life but seldom realize them. For example, our need to eat and drink to stay healthy and alive is a physiological need stated by Maslow.
These five needs are depicted by a pyramid with the most fundamental need at the bottom. The hierarchy is as follows:
- Physiological: Biological need for human survival – food, air, water.
- Safety: The need to experience order, predictability, and control in your life.
- Love and Belonging: Interpersonal relationships and wanting to be part of a group.
- Esteem: The need to have dignity, respect, and achievements.
- Self-actualization: Realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, and seeking personal growth.
A lot of businesses have incorporated Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in both their corporate culture and marketing strategies.
One of the most important needs and the highest tier in this hierarchy is self-actualization which is the need for attaining personal growth after all other needs have been satisfied.
Google is one company that has integrated self-actualization into its organizational culture
Google offers a very innovative environment to its employees that boost their creativity and growth, both personally and professionally.
The company has set up nine rules of innovation, one of which encourages them to spend 20% of their work time coming up with innovative ideas and pursuing something they are passionate about.
Uber Eats motivate people by touching on their most fundamental need – hunger
Another company that has very effectively used Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is Uber.
Uber Eats is able to motivate people by touching on their most fundamental need – hunger. Through their advertising and marketing campaigns, they stimulate people’s hunger and manipulate them into ordering them food from Uber Eats. You might have never noticed how
Uber Eats does this, but it is a very effective strategy that combines the use of SEO and consumer data to show you pictures of food you might be craving at the right time.
Founder, Ethical Frames LLC | Author, “Persuade, Don’t Preach: Restoring Civility across the Political Divide“
The human needs of safety and belonging need to be met before “growth” needs become relevant
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs says the basic human needs of safety and belonging need to be met before the “Growth” needs become relevant. You can see that effect in what has happened in the US culture recently.
As a society, the last two decades have been difficult for many people in the US. The combination of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the economic impacts of reduced employment due to several factors (the Great Recession, manufacturing automation, and jobs moving to other countries) has shaken that sense of economic security (Safety) to the core.
The pandemic has recently added to that lack of safety, both on an economic and personal health level. The combination of these events has resulted in many people being stuck at that level of need without being aware of what is going on with them.
The psychological need for safety is behind the rise of populism because it would make people feel safer if the borders were closed and if they didn’t have to deal with immigrants and to keep disease out.
You can’t convince them with a rational argument about the benefits of immigration because they aren’t being rational about immigration; they are reacting on the level of fear of lack of safety.
Oh, and this is behind the tendency to prefer leaders with an authoritarian style because it makes people who feel a lack of safety feel more secure to have a “strong” leader. Understanding this and how to overcome it is key to bridging the political divide.
CEO & Founder, Choice Mutual
The pandemic reminded us that physiological needs take precedence over everything else
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that basic needs have to be fulfilled (like food, shelter, and safety) before other needs, like cognitive needs or ones that feed your self-esteem. Simply put, you’re not going to worry about getting a promotion if you don’t have food on your table; you’re just going to focus on getting a job that pays.
In case we ever forgot that the basic amenities that we have, food on the table, and a house to live in, are the ones that actually keep us safe and happy, the pandemic reminded us of that. People were panic buying toilet paper and canned soup.
We were staying indoors, not venturing out to offices to continue working.
At that moment, staying alive was our number one priority, and for a good reason too. The fear of running out of food replaced the usual fears of performance at work or getting a cushy bonus at the end of the year.
I think that is the most recent and obvious example of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory playing out in real life.
It was only after a few weeks that we started coming up with alternatives to our usual ways of living, remote working or venturing out with masks and sanitizing heavily. These measures, too, were focused on making sure that we remained safe before it did anything else.
It goes to show that physiological needs take precedence over everything else; we think we have evolved and are more sophisticated/intelligent than our cavemen ancestors, but we have the same priority that they did — staying alive.
Teacher and Sustainable Living Blogger, Simple n’ Delight
When children are stripped of basic needs, it affects their ability to learn and grow
It actually saddens me to see how the basic needs removed from children’s lives strip them of the ability to learn and grow.
Our school is fortunate to offer the children several programs to supplement their needs (such as the morning meal program), but even these programs cannot take the place of the love and care that should be received at home.
Here is a real-life example:
Alan and Olivia would often come to school hungry and tired. Their hair would often be matted, and they always had a frown on their face. The children were together in my split grade ½ class. The children would anger quickly, and by the first grade still didn’t know numbers or letters.
When confronted with a challenge, the students would throw things, leave the classroom, or get violent with others.
We knew that the family routinely experienced social issues. Their mother would work a night job and sleep during the day, and his father suffered from substance abuse. The parent’s relationship was not very stable, and they didn’t seem to have the energy or time to dedicate to the children by helping them with homework, feeding them properly, or bathing them.
Both Alan and his sister suffered from childhood depression and had a very hard time learning or caring about improving in any way. It was evident that the love and belonging that other children experienced at home were not there.
Alan and Olivia would continue on for years in our school with low self-esteem or any motivation to succeed.
Retired Navy Chief Hospital Corpsman and Combat Veteran | Author, “Fight, Flight, or Freeze: A Love Story“
Just as Abraham Maslow observed the Blackfeet Native American tribe before writing his seminal paper, I used my Iraqi interpreter’s access to detained militants’ letters to study perspectives and motivations toward self-actualization during periods in which they became refugees, were displaced and were drawn into war.
Upon my return, I researched cross-cultural communities that willingly sought austere conditions as fertile ground for enlightenment.
Standing Maslow’s triangle on its head
The original model splits the hierarchy of needs between deficiency and growth needs. It’s important to note that Maslow studied the healthiest 1% of the college student population, not those with disabilities or psychological diagnoses.
The Triangle also does not discern between individualistic and collectivistic societies.
My observations described a fusion between a lack of necessities and the development of personal enlightenment. Setbacks and tragedy brought purpose and meaning, a delay in gratification gave a chance to practice patience.
In this way, self-actualization and survival occur simultaneously. Steps of Maslow’s Triangle can occur out of sequence or may be skipped and/or revisited depending upon circumstances. Moreover, detainee letters reflected that self-actualization was the prime motivation.
The stages of growth below it are either derived from the struggle to accomplish it or a reward through fate or a higher power for one’s perseverance.
Quantities are competitive, qualities are complementary
Throughout the world’s cultural and religious communities, an allowance exists for segments of society (Ascetics, Jainism, Tibetan Buddhism, fasting among Native American tribes, etc.) during periods associated with personal growth and transformation (puberty, mourning, etc.), and although much of these rituals were solitary, they were a profoundly formative and collective experience.
But deliberately introducing the lowest levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy was part of achieving spiritual development and part of a human sense of belonging.
Partner, PurpleCrest Management Consulting
Sundar Pichai: a real-life examples of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
In his early career, Pichai was a materials engineer earning a basic salary sufficient to provide for all his physiological needs, such as shelter and food. After that, he joined McKinsey & Company, and then in 2004, he joined Google.
After joining Google’s search bar team, spearheading the launch of Google Chrome, and eventually rising to the position of head of products, Pichai could achieve his job title and job security needs while simultaneously receiving fulfillment from family and friends.
Passed up being Twitter’s head of product and Microsoft’s next CEO
Pichai, with his strengths in technology and execution, was a potentially prized catch for rivals. Sundar acquired a sense of belonging to Google and his team, much like Maslow’s Need for Love and belonging, and he stayed with Google even when asked to be the head of product development at Twitter or the next CEO of Microsoft.
Labeled as one of the World’s most reputable CEOs by Forbes
Sundar addressed his esteem needs by being globally recognized. He worked hard at Google every day, and it was his own idea to launch Google’s own web browser. Pichai led the launch of Chrome, which grew to become the world’s best browser, including Android, Apps, Maps, and YouTube.
It rewarded his relentless pursuit of being the best in the world with being featured in Forbes to Business Insider.
Finding a purpose larger than yourself
Self-actualization is achieved progressively throughout life. Sundar’s leadership promotes an environment where top talent doesn’t feel constrained.
In helping others to achieve self-actualization and becoming a philanthrope himself, Sundar is transcending personal growth and pushing into the realm of self-transcendence.
Founder and CEO, PracticeQuiz
Maslow’s Hierarchy is highly applicable in the field of Education
Each student has needs that must be met to maximize learning. Therefore, the higher up in the hierarchy a student is, the more likely the student is to excel. Students first need their physiological needs fulfilled – food, housing, water. Next, they need a safe home and school environment.
If those conditions are met, we can build a sense of belonging for students, which allows focus and goal setting.
Finally, in the self-actualization phase, the student is in a strong enough position across the rest of the pyramid and has the support and guidance to achieve self-actualization. In self-actualization, a student gains the drive to reach one’s academic, creative, and professional goals with autonomy and intellectual curiosity.
Maslow’s Hierarchy points to the need for educators to look beyond classroom needs to the whole person’s needs.
Nancy Belcher, Phd., MPA
CEO and Co-Founder, Winona
The menopause journey hits on all tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
From personal experience, I can tell you that the menopause journey hits on all tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Menopause comes with physiological impacts as hormone fluctuation can cause tiredness, meaning you will need more rest. It also includes safety and security because it involves your health and wellness, which will need special attention during this time. When it comes to belongingness and love needs, menopause affects that, too.
It’s good for women to have a support system they can turn to during this life transition.
Menopause can also affect a person’s self-esteem. In fact, a survey by the British Menopause Society found that 20% of working women surveyed said menopause affected their confidence at work. Lastly, menopause is often the catalyst for self-actualization.
Heading into a new life chapter often motivates people to blossom into the next best version of themselves.
Co-Founder & CEO, Fig Loans
If people are struggling with money, they’re less likely to thrive than someone who’s well off financially
As a personal finance expert who works with clients in various financial situations, I’ve seen the different circumstances where people find themselves most successful.
If people are struggling with money and living paycheck to paycheck, they’re less likely to thrive than someone who’s well off financially.
This cycle happens to many people at different points throughout their life. Simply the threat of losing a physiological need is enough to change someone’s personality entirely.
For example, when people are struggling financially and under threat of going hungry, they may have poor impulse control. Having impulse control is often essential to those who are trying to build financial resources, but it’s often an uphill battle. That’s because impulse control is a higher-level process as defined by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
As financial advisors, we often have to find ways to stabilize physiological needs to enable our clients to reach a point of self-actualization where they can assess their goals develop the good habits that will get them there.
A company successfully retains talented employees when it realizes the hierarchy of needs
In a business, the physiological needs are good health, a place to work, and a salary to cover their current lifestyle. Safety can apply to workplace safety, as well as the agreement that they remain employed.
Belongingness is good coworkers and a respectful relationship with bosses and managers. This can look different in each company, yet it’s the first place many businesses mess up and have trouble with retention.
Workers won’t stay long if they don’t have esteem: the feeling their work matters.
Self-actualization, the highest pinnacle, comes with having actual agency over one’s work. It means directing one’s energy to the projects and causes that someone cares about. Workers with self-actualization are the best to promote because they’re seeking that next greater challenge.
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