One of the most influential theories in human psychology that addresses our quest for wellbeing is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
While Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs has served as a foundational guide for decades, the rapid evolution of society, technology, and our understanding of human psychology calls for a fresh examination of this timeless framework.
It is helpful to both revisit and revitalize Maslow’s hierarchy by integrating contemporary research and practical insights, providing our work with clients with a nuanced understanding of human needs in the 21st century.
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Abraham Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of human needs has profoundly influenced the behavioral sciences, becoming a seminal concept in understanding human motivation.
Maslow posited that our motivations arise from inherent and universal human traits, a perspective that predated and anticipated evolutionary theories in biology and psychology (Crawford & Krebs, 2008; Dunbar & Barrett, 2007).
Maslow developed his theory during the Second World War, a time of global upheaval and change, when the world was grappling with immense loss, trauma, and transformation. This context influenced Maslow’s emphasis on the individual’s potential for growth, peace, and fulfillment beyond mere survival.
It is noteworthy that Maslow did not actually create the iconic pyramid that is frequently associated with his hierarchy of needs (Kaufman, 2019).
The original pyramid comprises five levels:
Basic requirements for survival, such as food, water, shelter, and sleep
Security of body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, and property
Love and belonging needs:
Friendship, family, intimacy, and a sense of connection
Respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, and freedom
The desire to become the best that one can be
Hierarchy of needs
According to the original Hierarchy of Needs model, human beings have needs relating to five key domains:
Over the years, Maslow (1970) made revisions to his initial theory, mentioning that three more levels could be added:
aesthetic needs, and
transcendence needs (e.g., mystical, aesthetic, sexual experiences, etc.).
Criticisms of the Hierarchy of Needs
Criticism of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been a subject of ongoing discussion, with several key limitations identified by scholars and practitioners alike. Understanding these critiques and integrating responses to them is vital for therapists aiming to apply the hierarchy in a modernized way in their practice.
1. Needs are dynamic
Critics argue that the original hierarchy does not offer an accurate depiction of human motivation as dynamic and continuously influenced by the interplay between our inner drives and the external world (Freund & Lous, 2012).
While Maslow’s early work suggested that one must fulfill lower levels in order to reach ultimate self-actualization, we now know human needs are not always clearly linear nor hierarchical.
People might experience and pursue multiple needs simultaneously or in a different order than the hierarchy suggests. After all, personal motives and environmental factors constantly interact, shaping how individuals respond to their surroundings based on their past experiences.
2. Cultural bias
One of the primary criticisms is the cultural bias inherent in Maslow’s original model. While many human needs can be shared among cultures, different cultures may prioritize certain needs or goals over others (Tay & Diener, 2011).
It’s often argued that Maslow’s emphasis on self-actualization reflects a distinctly Western, individualistic perspective, which may not resonate with or accurately represent the motivational structures in more collectivist societies where community and social connectedness are prioritized.
3. Empirical grounding
The hierarchy has also faced scrutiny for its lack of empirical grounding, with some suggesting that there isn’t sufficient research to support the strict ordering of needs (Kenrick et al., 2010). In practice, this limitation can be addressed by viewing the hierarchy as a descriptive framework rather than a prescriptive one.
Bringing the Hierarchy of Needs to the 21st Century
Modernizing the hierarchy of needs is crucial to address the critiques above and align it with the nuances of the 21st century, ensuring its relevance and utility in understanding human motivation in today’s context.
As societies evolve, new challenges and lifestyle changes emerge, from the digital revolution and its impact on social connections to global multicultural interactions reshaping identity and belonging.
Updating the model allows for a more nuanced understanding of these contemporary issues, integrating the latest psychological research, cultural studies, and technological advancements.
This modernization not only provides a more accurate reflection of diverse human experiences but also equips mental health professionals with a flexible and culturally sensitive tool for addressing the complex needs of individuals in a rapidly changing world.
By adapting and expanding the hierarchy, therapists can better guide their clients toward fulfillment and wellbeing in the context of modern life’s unique challenges and opportunities.
Why Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Matters - The School of Life
In the 21st century, the conversation around physiological needs extends beyond mere survival. Today, we consider the quality and nutritional value of food, the importance of sleep quality, and modern challenges like sedentary lifestyles.
As mental health professionals, encouraging clients to meet these needs involves addressing modern habits and conveniences that may be hindering their fulfillment.
1. Nutrition and health
Advances in nutrition science provide us with a better understanding of how different foods can affect mood, energy levels, and overall mental health. Encouraging clients to consume balanced diets rich in essential nutrients can significantly affect their psychological wellbeing.
The advent of technology and the 24-hour work cycle pose new challenges to natural sleep patterns. Educating clients about sleep hygiene and strategies to enhance quality sleep is crucial in our sleep-deprived society.
3. Physical activity
The modern sedentary lifestyle is a significant departure from the physically active lives of our ancestors. Regular physical activity is vital for not only physical health, but also mental wellbeing, impacting mood, stress levels, and even cognitive function.
Today’s safety needs have expanded to include modern anxieties around financial security, personal data, and a changing global landscape. Understanding how these aspects influence an individual’s sense of safety is key to providing comprehensive care.
1. Financial security
In an age of economic uncertainty, concerns over job security, retirement, and healthcare can significantly affect mental health (Ryu & Fan, 2023). Acknowledging and addressing these fears can help ease clients’ anxiety and improve their overall wellbeing.
2. Health and wellness
The global health landscape has evolved dramatically in recent decades (Moitra et al., 2023) with shifts in food security, conflicts, water access, and pandemics reshaping societal norms and medical practices.
Nutritional advancements, mental health awareness, environmental health movements, and rapid medical innovations, particularly in response to pandemics like COVID-19, have significantly altered how communities approach health and how mental health professionals address wellbeing, leading to new cultural and healthcare paradigms worldwide.
3. Digital safety
With the rise of the digital age, concerns over privacy, data security, identity theft, fraud, and online harassment have become significant components of personal safety. Understanding the psychological impact of these issues is essential for modern therapy.
Need for Belonging
Humans are social beings, and the need for love and belonging is as crucial as ever. However, the ways we form and maintain relationships have drastically changed.
Social media, online communities, and the fast pace of modern life all influence how we connect with others.
1. Social connections
Exploring how clients build and maintain relationships in the digital age is vital. While online communities can provide valuable support, they can also lead to feelings of isolation and comparison.
2. Family dynamics
The concept of family has altered, and with it, the dynamics within. Understanding diverse family structures and their impact on an individual’s sense of belonging is important in contemporary therapy.
3. Romantic relationships
The world of dating and marriage has also undergone significant changes. Discussions about intimacy, trust, and commitment are nuanced by the vast array of experiences and expectations in today’s society.
The Need for Esteem
Esteem needs are increasingly complex in a world where external validation is often just a click away. Balancing the desire for recognition with the need for authentic self-esteem is a delicate task in the modern age.
1. Self-esteem and social media
The impact of social media on self-esteem and self-image cannot be understated. Helping clients navigate the pressures of online personas and find genuine self-worth is a critical challenge today.
2. Achievement and recognition
In a highly competitive world, the drive for achievement can lead to burnout and a sense of inadequacy. Encouraging healthy ambition while fostering a sense of internal validation is key.
3. Respect and freedom
Discussions about respect and personal freedom are at the forefront of social discourse. Understanding how these needs interact with societal structures and personal relationships is vital.
Self-actualization remains the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Today, it encompasses a continuous journey of growth, learning, and adaptation.
Encouraging clients to pursue their true potential involves understanding the unique challenges and opportunities of the modern world.
1. Lifelong learning
The rapid pace of change requires an attitude of lifelong learning. Encouraging this mindset can help clients adapt and thrive in an ever-changing environment.
2. Creativity and fulfillment
Exploring avenues for creative expression and personal fulfillment is vital for self-actualization. As therapists, facilitating these explorations can lead to profound growth and satisfaction.
3. Meaning and purpose
In an increasingly complex world, finding meaning and purpose can be challenging. Helping clients explore what truly matters to them can guide them toward self-actualization.
In his later work, Maslow introduced “self-transcendence” as a new level in his hierarchy, extending beyond self-actualization (Koltko-Rivera, 2006).
This level emphasizes shifting focus from oneself to higher goals and purposes, fostering a deep connection with others, nature, or the cosmos, often through spiritual experiences or a sense of unity with a larger whole. It involves contributing to causes greater than personal interests, like altruism, spirituality, or dedicated causes.
In modern therapy, self-transcendence is a valuable tool for helping clients discover deeper life meanings and satisfaction. Clients are encouraged to engage in activities beyond personal gain, such as community service or environmental stewardship, and facilitate discussions on legacy and the impact on the broader world.
This focus on self-transcendence aids clients in navigating life’s challenges, enhancing resilience, and offering a perspective shift from inward to outward, leading to greater peace, interconnectedness, and a sense of purpose.
Embracing self-transcendence in therapy can significantly aid personal growth, especially during significant life changes, and contribute to a more empathetic and interconnected society.
Self-transcendence has a fascinating and significant link to the concept of post-traumatic growth (PTG), an area of increasing interest within psychological resilience and recovery research. PTG refers to the positive psychological change experienced because of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances and often severe trauma.
This growth isn’t about returning to the same life as it was, but instead involves undergoing profound transformations in thinking and relating to the world, often leading to a new appreciation of life, a felt sense of personal strength, and a redefined understanding of priorities and relationships (Munroe & Ferrari, 2022).
Additional Levels and Needs
As we reconsider this motivational hierarchy with fresh insights from evolutionary biology, anthropology, and psychology, it’s clear that while the core structure of Maslow’s pyramid remains valuable, it could benefit from modern enhancements.
By integrating contemporary elements, we can better illustrate how basic human motives interact with the immediate challenges and prospects of our environment.
1. Creativity and evolution
In a proposed revised hierarchy (Kenrick et al., 2010), scholars note in their work that while self-actualization is compelling and significant, it doesn’t represent a fundamental evolutionary need.
Instead, many behaviors Maslow categorized as self-actualizing, such as artistic creativity, more closely align with deep-rooted biological drives aimed at enhancing status, building close relationships, and thereby improving chances of being selected for an intimate partnership.
This claim may not sit well with the general population. It is important to clarify that these researchers are not suggesting that artists or poets are consciously focused on enhancing their reproductive success when they engage in their creative work.
Instead, they are adding to the benefits of creative work, noting that inspirational activities may also be subconsciously driven by underlying evolutionary strategies, even if they manifest in culturally sophisticated and seemingly distinct pursuits.
The most biologically fundamental human aspirations are those that build relationships and eventually lead to the propagation of our genes through future generations. The desire to reproduce is seen as the primary motivator not only for sexual activities, but also for many positive aspects of human behavior (Griskevicius et al., 2006).
This includes the creation of music and poetry, engagement in charitable activities, and efforts to enhance the world for future generations (Griskevicius et al., 2006).
2. Relationships and mating
The recent advancements outlined by Kenrick et al. (2010) and their exploration of psychological and evolutionary research have suggested an update to the hierarchy of needs to include aspects fundamental to human evolution and societal continuity: mate acquisition, mate retention, and parenting.
Human beings invest significant effort into extended courtship periods, which typically entail more time spent in nonsexual activities than in sexual ones, regardless of attractiveness. After the initial courtship phase, considerable energy is spent in nurturing a relationship and raising offspring (Ackerman & Kenrick, 2009). This rationale places relationship building at the forefront of essential human behaviors.
Mate acquisition — attracting and choosing a partner — is a significant aspect of human behavior and can be seen as a prerequisite for the family structure and societal development.
Recognizing mate acquisition as a fundamental human need acknowledges the depth of social, emotional, and intellectual resources individuals invest in finding a partner.
Mate retention involves the strategies and behaviors individuals employ to maintain their relationships. It’s not just about sustaining a romantic partnership, but ensuring the quality and stability of the relationship, which impacts psychological wellbeing and social harmony.
Incorporating mate retention into the hierarchy underscores the importance of relationship maintenance as a continuous need, driving behaviors from conflict resolution and mutual growth to the expression of love and commitment. It acknowledges that lasting partnerships contribute significantly to individual fulfillment and social stability.
Finally, parenting is proposed as a fundamental need, reflecting the innate drive to nurture and raise offspring. This stage goes beyond the biological act of procreation, encompassing the emotional, cognitive, and social aspects of raising children.
By recognizing parenting as a fundamental need, the updated hierarchy highlights the role of child rearing in personal development, the continuation of cultural and ethical values, and the long-term wellbeing of communities.
It acknowledges the joys, challenges, and profound impact of parenting on individuals and society, promoting a broader understanding of human motivation that extends across generations.
3. Self-transcendence and future generations
Transpersonal psychology has a deep and intrinsic relationship with the concept of what Maslow would call “self-transcendence.” At the core of transpersonal psychology is the exploration of consciousness and the potential for individuals to transcend beyond the limits of their personal identity and ego (Akyalcin et al., 2008).
Here, individuals connect with a higher, collective consciousness and experience a profound sense of unity and purpose beyond their individual self. Transpersonal psychology provides theories, practices, and methodologies to understand and facilitate this level of psychological growth and spiritual awakening, making it a vital field for those seeking to understand and achieve self-transcendence.
Achieving self-transcendence can have profound implications for parenting and nurturing future generations. When individuals overcome trauma and reach a state of self-transcendence, they often develop a deeper sense of empathy, resilience, and a desire to contribute positively to the lives of others (Collier, 2016).
This personal evolution is not just an inward achievement, but extends outward in the nurturing and guidance of children. Parents who have navigated through their own healing journeys are uniquely equipped with the understanding and tools to foster resilience, empathy, and a sense of purpose in their children.
As parents embody and impart the values associated with self-transcendence — such as altruism, compassion, and a commitment to the greater good — they lay the groundwork for a more empathetic and conscientious next generation.
These children are more likely to grow into adults who value and contribute to their communities and the world at large. In this way, the ripple effects of post-traumatic growth and self-transcendence can extend far beyond the individual, influencing families and communities for generations to come, creating a legacy of strength, understanding, and connectedness that is invaluable to societal progress and wellbeing.
Use this Visualization Exercise to enhance your self-transcendence and post-traumatic growth. After completing the exercise, reflect on how your insights might positively impact future generations.
A Take-Home Message
These updated recommendations and considerations for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs reflect a deeper understanding of human behavior, the complexities of modern life, and the ultimate need for future generations to survive and flourish above the individual.
As mental health professionals, our goal is to guide clients toward a fulfilling and psychologically healthy life. Revisiting and revitalizing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with a modern lens allows us to better understand and address the complex, dynamic nature of human motivation and wellbeing.
By integrating updated research and maintaining a flexible, culturally sensitive approach, we can apply Maslow’s enduring insights in a way that meets the challenges of the 21st century.
Let’s embrace the complexity of human needs and continue our journey toward more effective, compassionate care.
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About the author
Laura Copley, Ph.D. offers her insight on healing complex trauma as a therapist, podcast host of "Tough Love with Dr. Laura Copley", and at speaking engagements around the world. Recently, she released her first book called "Loving You is Hurting Me," a self-improvement book on trauma bonding that blends storytelling, psychoeducation, and powerful activities and strategies that lead to Post-Traumatic Growth.