What is Self-Actualization? A Psychologist's Definition [+Examples]

self-actualization

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.

Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values and self-compassion and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students or employees.

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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.

 

Abraham Maslow

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 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
  • Safety
  • Love
  • Esteem
  • Self-actualization

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

A father can reach self-actualizationNow 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.

These included:

  • 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!

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 300 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching or workplace.

  • Bernard, M.E., Froh, J.J., DiGiuseppe, R., Joyce, M.R., Dryden, W. (2010). Albert Ellis: Unsung hero of positive psychology. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(4), 302-310. doi:10.1080/17439760.2010.498622
  • Compton, W.C. (2001). Toward a tripartite factor structure of mental health: Subjective well-being, personal growth, and religiosity. Journal of Psychology, 135(5), 486-500.
  • Couture, M., Desrosiers, J., Leclerc, G. (2007). Self-actualization and poststroke rehabilitation. International Journal of Rehabilitation Research, 30(2), 111-117. doi:10.1097/MRR.0b013e32813a2ea5
  • Frick, W.B. (2000). Remembering Maslow: Reflections on a 1968 interview. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 40(2), 128-147. doi:10.1177/0022167800402003
  • Goud, N. (2008). Abraham Maslow: A personal statement. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 48(4), 448-451. doi:10.1177/0022167808320535
  • Hoffman, E. (2008). Abraham Maslow: A biographer’s reflections. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 48(4), 439-443. doi:10.1177/0022167808320534
  • Kenrick, D.T., Neuberg, S.L., Griskevicius, V., Becker, D.V., Schaller, M. (2010). Goal-Driven Cognition and Functional Behavior: The Fundamental-Motives Framework. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 63-67. doi: 10.1177/0963721409359281
  • Kim, Y., Kasser, T., Lee, H. (2003). Self-concept, aspirations, and well-being in South Korea and the United States. Journal of Social Psychology, 143(3), 277-290.
  • Krems, J.A., Kenrick, D.T., Neel, R. (2017). Individual Perceptions of Self-Actualization: What Functional Motives Are Linked to Fulfilling One’s Full Potential? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(9), 1337-1352. doi:10.1177/0146167217713191
  • Maslow, A.H. (1970). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper & Row. Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review 50(1), 370-396. doi:10.1037/h0054346
  • Maybury, K.K. (2013). The Influence of a Positive Psychology Course on Student Well-Being. Teaching of Psychology, 40(1), 62-65. doi:10.1177/0098628312465868
  • Seligman, M.E.P., Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology – An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.56.1.89
  • Whitehead, P. M. (2017). Goldstein’s self-actualization: A biosemiotic view. The Humanistic Psychologist, 45(1), 71–83. https://doi.org/10.1037/hum0000047

About the Author

Joaquín Selva, Bc.S., Psychologist is a behavioral neuroscience researcher and scientific editor. Joaquín was both a teaching assistant and a research assistant and conducted research that led to the publication of three peer-reviewed papers. Since then, his work has included writing for PositivePsychology.com and working as an English editor for academic papers written by non-native English speakers.

Comments

  1. Dr. Nadir Kheir

    Hello;
    My name is Nadir Kheir. I am an academic, pharmacist, and my area is social pharmacy. I live and work in Auckland, New Zealand. In that capacity, I teach, and research, areas associated with ethics, professional practice, and I use motivation and empowerment as strategies in my teaching. I always believed that I am more of a psychologist than a pharmacist! I stumbled several time on the term ‘self-actualization’ and the possibility that it could be adapted to be applied to pharmacy practice intrigued me. My question to you, would it be possible to adapt or develop a tool to assess self-actualization of pharmacists? The underpinning rational is that pharmacists have globally embarked on a significant change in their practice. The launch of the philosophy and practice of Pharmaceutical Care by Prof. Douglas Hepler and Linds Strand in 1990 shifted the focus of pharmacy practitioners from tasks of drug dispensing to becoming more patient-focused and outcome-oriented. This was a huge undertaking, and for decades, pharmacy started to move towards new horizons. This move affected how pharmacy is taught, and new paradigm is taking over. Pharmacists are in the middle of these changes; some doing better than others. I think we would be doing a great service to the profession if we could bench-mark and assess how pharmacists, as professionals, feel about themselves. Professionally, socially, and personally. Could a tool, or even Maslow’s hierarchy of needs be adapted, or modified, to be applicable to measuring self-actualization of pharmacists (or any professional group)? I would love to embark in such a project; and I could not find in the literature any tool for that purpose.

    Reply
  2. Mike Gale

    I think it interesting how you say “lay perceptions of realizing one’s full potential are linked to the fundamental motive of achieving status and esteem”.
    It seems to me that people who are sufficient unto themselves will want self-esteem and not be swayed much by status. Those who require external validation, extroverts if you will, will desire status. The less self sufficient they are the less they value self-esteem.
    Your definition can be seen to apply to those with mixed motivations, or simply to statistical calculation on a group.
    In my view Maslow deliberately handled this issue in the way he did.
    It is inevitable that examples for a general audience be of individuals who are likely to be known. That seems to me, to require people who are “famous” and in some sense have “status”. This may cloud the issue for some, and hinder their appreciation of the self part of self-actualisation.
    I’m more in favour of the Maslow idea. Where the individual has and desires locus of control, they will “become themselves”. Where a person is driven by external factors they will not become themselves so much as become what they think others admire, respect or fear.

    Reply
    • barbara

      Excellent commentary. I agree. Especially the statement clarifying Maslow’s idea, “where the individual has and desires locus of control, they will “become themselves.” Where a person is driven by external factors they will not become themselves so much as become what they think others admire, respect or fear. Exactly describes my own journey and confirms what I already figured out on my own. Now, I am just being the best me. And that is freedom.

      Reply
    • Ginger

      I agree in part with what you wrote, Mike. But regarding extroverts… I am an extrovert “an outgoing, overtly expressive person,” but I am driven by my passion and striving to do what makes me truly joyful, and not by the need for external validation. So I encourage you to rethink your position that extrovert = need for external validation.
      The rest I agree with. Maybe it’s not so easy to find the non-famous self-actualized people because you would have to go looking for them in a more intensive search than finding people who are famous.
      Cheers!

      Reply
  3. Marcelo Mainzer

    Thank you for this thoughtful article.
    “While Abraham Maslow’s groundbreaking theory of motivation and hierarchy of needs are still taught today, it is important to contextualize his idea of self-actualization within the positive psychology movement. Self-actualization is actually related to positive psychology in two distinct ways: as a component of well-being and as a way to measure the nurturing of genius.”
    Sadly, there are billions of people on this planet who are hampered by the current economic system in reaching the bottom three levels of Maslow’s pyramid. We struggle just to have a modicum of food and shelter security.
    In a Utopian world my genius as an the Imagineer of EEV MD would be recognized and would earn me food and shelter security, love and belonging which would foster self esteem.
    Although the onus is on the individual, nurturing must come from outside and is best started at birth to create a world of geniuses.

    Reply
  4. kamlesh shah

    Very true you need to find your own personal potential and it is different for every individual. Positive psychology exercises go a long deal in understanding ourselves better and also help us to realize our dreams and aspirations. Self Actualization is the need that is forgotten in today’s world where the only thing important is status and money. So read on this article that will also help you in breaking your self limiting beliefs and actualize your infinite potential.
    https://bit.ly/2yczC0m

    Reply
  5. Dr Ron Rubenzer

    While at Columbia NYC, I spent a lot of time at Maslow ‘s place of employment – Brooklyn college. I understood he had “rock-star fame”. I have followed his works for decades. It seems like meditation could act as a conduit to self actualization. With that in mind, I wrote a brief article — Self calming for Self Actualization ?
    If anyone is interested I could share this short (700 word) resource – drronrub@aol.com

    Reply
  6. Ann Mutungi

    It always leaves me thinking when self actualization is mentioned.For example in Afrcan set up,Self actualization is only in books.Its a theory which nobody lives to achieve.I have done counselling on HIV Prevention and every time am in a session I always experience individuals struggling with their inner self.From the fist step on food,shelter and security nothing seems to work.The Maslows hierarchy of needs is only achieved when the basic is achieved.Otherwise very few or even non will be able to reach the self actualization stage regardless of gender not status

    Reply
  7. Linda H

    I was feeling good and positive until the last sentence. I realized one of my dreams was a swimming pool, and “things” seem to be something I want. So, would it be true that I would only be truly happy and self-actualized if I had a swimming pool? That I’ll never feel “complete” sit back and be completely at peace and pleased with myself, pat on the back? This pool, it’s not to gain status. It’s because I love water and the warning of the sun. The happiest I am is on a beach, in the heat, clear blue skies. Closing my eyes to nap… I am happy to be totally alone. I wonder your life cab then ever be totally content if they still desire something they know they will never have, but the only dream of? A silly proposition but a simple question. Also, if people are being treated for psychological problems, taking medication that changes their moods and way of thinking, for their best interest, can ever feel self-actualized because they are not truly their honest self but a medicated version? Achieving one’s dreams seems to be almost impossible in these cases. I wonder what opinion anyone else had on these matters. One glitch makes reaching the top of the pyramid impossible. I do know only a couple of people that I would consider self-actualized. BTW How does anyone know what Abraham Lincoln desired or worried about or the flaws that most people have didn’t exist?

    Reply
    • Mitchell Hansen

      You make good points, especially between “things” and values/virtues. I also believe those who define themselves as religious, would also have a different take on the definition. And, it is well known that Pres. Lincoln suffered from depression. Wouldn’t a self-actualized person have an innate defense against these types of mental illness?

      Reply
      • J Robinson

        I would think depression may be a common ailment among those who are selfactualized just as creativity is common amon thos with bipolar disorder. Tp have a mind that is flexible enough to selfactualize also means it is flexible enough to be at risk for illnesses of the mind. JMO.

        Reply
  8. Sally

    hello, need help here, what are the six stages of maslow’s self actualization

    Reply
  9. Tikan

    I am the one who interested with a perfect joy so but when i m in the way i knew that our life in this world it is very important for our day by day if we build our life at this moment we know that my past life is not good for the next life

    Reply
  10. William Vassilev

    I have found that fishing for an important answer, no matter in what ever meillue or arena greater focus must be placed on an enclusive/ incompused question. Picture throwing a rock in a pond, think of the # of things touched &/or effected wt your created ripples.Has the rock effect changed the affect in this cefferical question.

    Reply
  11. J Robinson

    To have a mind so flexible as to be capable of self-actualization would also mean having a mind flexible enough to be maybe even more susceptible to depression just as creativity seems to go hand in hand with bipolar disorder.

    Reply
    • Mohib

      superb saying, mind flexibility is the primary indicator causing anxiety and depression

      Reply
      • Patrick Clarke

        The notion that self-actualization potentially goes hand in hand with with anxiety and depression is misguided. Self-actualization is simply about personal growth. It involves the disposition to reflect and determine how to be and do the best you can. It certainly involves the courage to try and the aspiration to be more. It is an ideology of health. If a person is predisposed to anxiety or depression these are issues to be addressed in the effort to self-actualize. To reject such a positive approach to life is to say we should not think about how to be the best we can, to find self-acceptance, compassion, and spiritual calm. We control our thoughts . To be afraid of the pitfalls or the struggle is to hide from life.

        Reply
  12. Drew Fisher

    Thank you for this illuminating and thought-provoking article. I have also enjoyed the discussion stream it generated in the comments.
    As with Leslie’s hierarchy, I think one’s personal understanding and use of the term “needs” comes strongly into play when one is trying to get a grip on what self-actualization means. If your beliefs and values are centered within a more physical, material just world view, then you are probably going to be looking for things to define and satisfy your “needs;” as your beliefs and values become less grounded in a material world concept, you will probably find an ability and penchant for “needing” less and then spending less time dealing with the “lower” levels of Leslie’s hierarchy and more time working on the achievement and realization of the higher levels–achieving inspirations and instances of genius and ” peak” life experiences. The keys, in my opinion, are loosening one’s attachment to expectations and outcomes while cultivating a more detached perspective of worldly minutia. Good luck!

    Reply
    • Drew Fisher

      The spellchecker decided “Leslie” was a more appropriate substitute for “Maslow”. Those of you following this thread know better.

      Reply
  13. Brad Arnold

    the 2000+ year old life philosophy Stoicism actually provides the psychological tools to self-actualize without meeting the lower needs in the Maslow hierarchy. They teach the “Stoic Fork,” where you only focus or care about what you can control, which turns out to be only internals, not externals. The whole point is that they believed self-actualizing (they didn’t have that word, but called the state fitness, or excellence) only required living a life of virtue (i.e. pursuit of fitness or excellence). This life philosophy bestows amazing mental resilience, and I’ve already notice a marked positive change in both my happiness and people’s evaluation of my performance.

    Reply
    • Charles Luck

      I often find that Hindu philosophies (Yoga for example) seek to achieve Nirvana by disassociating oneself from the external world; having no interaction with the external and concentrating on the internal (breathing through mediation to elevate the Chakra, for one).

      Reply
  14. Guy Lamunyon

    “When the student is ready the master appears.”

    Reply
  15. Roni

    This was very well written. Being a fan of Maslow, I found this to be rewarding.

    Reply
  16. Advaitham

    Self actualization is a process in which dissolution of the mind is completed,but the Best of the performance exhibits with detachment(no expectations;no joy or sorrow;no involvement;total freedom;but full of energy; no goals; actions in full! Attach to detach;Detach to Attach ! Leading to eternal peace.(all Indian philosophies).Dr.Advaitham.MD.

    Reply
  17. Senya

    To support Maslow’s theory of self-actualization became a justified reasonable view for me as much as how it is relatable to my own different perspective in life since at the age of 14, just right before i’ve read an article about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which i’ve shockingly had realization that what i’m experiencing is a studied theory to evaluate myself as being a self-actualized person.

    Reply

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