The concept of self-actualization was brought into the mainstream by Abraham Maslow when he introduced his “hierarchy of needs.”
Today, self-actualization is a bit more widely known, but most psychology students still learn of it as the top level of Maslow’s pyramid.
This article will define self-actualization, review the relevant research on self-actualization, and discuss its relevance to the positive psychology movement and to the average person.
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What is Self-Actualization? A Definition
Although self-actualization is most often associated with Maslow, the term was first coined by Kurt Goldstein. Goldstein characterized self-actualization as an individuation, or process of becoming a “self,” that is holistic (i.e., the individual realizes that one’s self and one’s environment are two pieces of a greater whole) and acts as a primary driving force of behavior in humans (Whitehead, 2017).
Although Goldstein’s concept didn’t get much traction at the time, it was popularized when Maslow adopted it into his theory on the human hierarchy of needs. In his seminal paper about human motivation (in which he first introduced his hierarchy of needs), Maslow discussed self-actualization by stating, “What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization” (Maslow, 1943).
Self-actualization has also been described as:
the psychological process aimed at maximizing the use of a person’s abilities and resources. This process may vary from one person to another (Couture et al., 2007).
In other words, self-actualization can generally be thought of as the full realization of one’s creative, intellectual, and social potential through internal drive (versus for external rewards like money, status, or power).
Since self-actualization is based on leveraging one’s abilities to reach their potential, it is a very individual process and will probably vary significantly from person to person. This focus on individual motivations is a key part of Maslow’s work, and what he felt differentiated it from the contemporary motivational psychology.
As you may already know, Abraham Maslow was a prominent psychologist most known for his contributions to humanistic psychology. His interests in human motivation and self-actualization stemmed from his experiences both early on as a timid child, and later on as a father witnessing the horrors of World War II (Frick, 2000; Hoffman, 2008).
His hierarchy of needs–first introduced over 70 years ago–is still taught as a critical part of motivational psychology. In fact, there is a noticeable overlap between Maslow’s work and the work that underpins positive psychology (Goud, 2008); the emphasis on self-growth and self-development has a decidedly “positive” flavor to it.
The Theory of Self-Actualization and the Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s idea of self-actualization has far-reaching applications, but it should be considered within the context of his hierarchy of needs.
Maslow felt that human motivation needed to be studied beyond the contemporary scope of behaviorism, as he believed that the study of “[m]otivation should be human-centered rather than animal-centered” (Maslow, 1943).
Maslow first outlined his hierarchy of needs in his seminal 1943 paper on human motivation. He identified five needs:
Physiological needs refer to things that are necessary for survival, such as breathable air, food, and water. Safety needs are things that make you feel healthy (like having health care and knowing your water is clean) and physically safe (like adequate shelter or being in a large group).
Love needs are met through feeling liked, loved, and accepted by others. Esteem is achieved by feeling self-confident and respected by others. Finally, self-actualization needs are met when an individual engages in self-development and personal growth.
Maslow posited that each level of needs must be taken care of before the next one can be met. So, fulfilling one’s physiological needs is a prerequisite to their safety needs being met; one’s safety needs must be met before one’s love needs take priority, and so on. Self-actualization is the highest level, meaning that it can only be fulfilled when one’s physiological, safety, love, and esteem needs are already met.
While it was later acknowledged that there is some flexibility in the order in which these needs can be met (e.g., there are homeless people who have their esteem or self-actualization needs met while going hungry and/or without shelter), it’s generally considered a necessary prerequisite to make sure your more basic needs are being met before trying to achieve self-actualization.
This is an intuitive idea; after all, if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you will probably spend your time on figuring that out rather than worrying about whether people respect you as an authority in your field or whether you are spending enough time on developing your skills.
Examples of Self-Actualization
Now we know what self-actualization is, but what does it look like? When first describing self-actualization, Maslow described the top of his hierarchy of needs by remarking that:
“[a] musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy” (Maslow, 1943).
- Extrapolating from this quote, we can see self-actualization in examples like:
- An artist who has never made a profit on his art, but he still paints because it is fulfilling and makes him happy.
- A woman who finds joy in achieving mastery in a niche hobby.
- A father who gets a sense of purpose from raising his children to be a positive force in the world.
- An employee at a nonprofit who uses her ever-increasing skills to improve the lives of others.
To give some real-world examples of (presumably) self-actualized people, Maslow (1970) also once named a few people who he considered to have reached a level of self-actualization in their lifetimes.
- Abraham Lincoln
- Thomas Jefferson
- Albert Einstein
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Jane Addams
- William James
- Albert Schweitzer
- Aldous Huxley
- Baruch Spinoza
In that same book, Maslow also listed a few other potential cases of self-actualization. These included Eugene Debs, Frederick Douglas, Ida Tarbell, Harriet Tubman, George Washington, George Washington Carver, and Walt Whitman.
While all of the above names were public figures in one way or another, it is interesting to note that Maslow listed a wide variety of people, from abolitionists and authors to philosophers, politicians, and poets, meaning that there is no one “type” of person or career that lends itself to self-actualization; anyone can reach self-actualization, and they will do it in their unique way.
A recent study conducted by Krems et al. (2017) explored how non-psychologists viewed self-actualization. The authors found that “lay perceptions of realizing one’s full potential are linked to the fundamental motive of achieving status and esteem.”
In other words, participants most associated realizing their potential (and the drive to do so) with reaching some level of internally-recognized success (esteem, which is notably on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs itself) and some level of externally-recognized success (status).
This conflicts with Maslow’s (1943) initial separation of status/esteem and self-actualization; however, the authors point out that “a functional reading” of Maslow’s work, such as the one discussed by Kenrick et al. (2010), indicates that “many of the behaviors involved in pursuing one’s full potential are linked to status, both directly and indirectly” (Krems et al., 2017).
This is not to say that self-actualization must be accompanied by external status or accolades, or that external markers of success are necessary for self-actualization to be realized; but, it does underscore the link between success and self-actualization, suggesting that Maslow and Goldstein may have been right in viewing self-actualization as the driving force in our lives.
Self-Actualization and Positive Psychology
The concept of self-actualization ties into positive psychology through its connection with well-being; as you might imagine, those who are considered self-actualized are also generally high in well-being.
According to Bernard et al. (2010), the work of another renowned humanistic psychologist, Albert Ellis, indicated that “self-actualization involves the pursuit of excellence and enjoyment; whichever people choose to desire and emphasize.”
This focus on excellence and enjoyment as a symptom of the realization of potential explains the link between self-actualization and well-being; if reaching your full potential is enjoyable and fulfilling, it logically follows that well-being will also be positively affected.
Multiple studies within the field of positive psychology have examined self-actualization as a component of well-being (Compton, 2001; Kim et al., 2003), suggesting that it’s a topic that is perfectly at home amongst the other popular positive topics.
Another more recent study examined the effects of a positive psychology course on well-being and found that college students who took a course on positive psychology reported increased levels of happiness, hope, mindfulness, and self-actualization, providing correlative evidence of at least some sort of relationship between positive psychology and self-actualization (Maybury, 2013).
Aside from well-being, one of the main drives behind founding positive psychology was the reinstatement of a “fundamental [misson] of psychology” that Martin Seligman felt had been too long ignored by contemporary psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
This mission that Maslow highlighted was the goal of “nurturing genius;” since nurturing genius can logically be viewed as a precursor (and companion to) self-actualization and reaching one’s potential, this indicates that self-actualization is comfortably nestled within the field of positive psychology.
A Take-Home Message
While Abraham Maslow’s groundbreaking theory of motivation and hierarchy of needs are still taught today, it can be useful to view self-actualization within the context of the positive psychology movement.
Not only is self-actualization a worthy goal on its own, but it is also a valuable area of inquiry in positive psychology for at least two reasons: it can be viewed as a component of well-being, and it can be used as a way to measure the nurturing of genius.
So, what relevance does self-actualization hold for the average person? At the end of the day, realizing one’s potential is a personal endeavor that depends on where your creative, intellectual, or social potential lies.
Once we realize that self-actualization is not about making the most money or achieving the highest status, that it is a desirable state achieved through reaching one’s full personal potential, we open the door of possibility in our own lives.
Self-actualization is about achieving your dreams, which means that it is within your grasp–whether that means becoming a painter, a politician, a philosopher, a teacher, or anything else that sparks your passion.
If you want to take self-actualization to the next step, start with these self-actualization tests and tools to help you self-reflect and understand what self-actualization could mean for you.
As always, we’d love to hear from you in the comments. What does self-actualization mean to you? When do you feel most self-actualized, and what does it feel like? Do you think self-actualization is necessarily linked to well-being? If so, is it a vital piece of the well-being puzzle or only one of many ways to achieve well-being?
Thanks for reading!
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