Hacking Maslow’s hierarchy

Behind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lies a basic idea. Our most fundamental needs—food, shelter, companionship—must be satisfied before we can satisfy our higher ones—fulfilment via work, appreciation, respect. 

It’s a solid idea, but it’s a theory of psychology. A conceptual take on how our mind works. Which makes me wonder: can we hack the hierarchy? Our minds are remarkably pliant and flexible. Do we need to feel safe and secure to achieve self-actualisation? Can we manufacture those feelings in order to move up the hierarchy of needs more quickly, and get to self-actualisation more rapidly?


Credit: By FireflySixtySeven – Own work using Inkscape, based on Maslow’s paper, A Theory of Human Motivation., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36551248

The pyramid is split into five levels: Physiological. Safety. Love/belonging. Esteem. Self-actualisation.

Physiological needs are what we need to survive: food, water, clothing, shelter, warmth. Without an adequate supply of these things, we die. 

Safety means freedom from abuse and trauma, physical and psychological health and can extend to financial security. 

Love and belonging comes next. This is the need for family, friendship, intimacy and community. The need to be a part of something bigger than yourself, that involves more than just you. 

Then comes esteem. We need respect from others and respect for ourselves. Typically, we gain this by being a person worthy of respect (whatever that means in your culture) and making a contribution to the society we live in. 

Finally, after all those things are satisfied, we get to self-actualisation. This is where we realise our potential and attempt to fulfil it.

To reach the upper level of the hierarchy, it seems a lot has to come into alignment. But maybe we don’t need to satisfy all of those needs? In fact, I think the only level we need to satisfy is the first, our physiological needs. We need to know we’re not going to die immediately. But once we’ve done that, once we know that, do we really need to satisfy all these other levels to achieve self-actualisation? I think not.

Safety: Viktor Frankl found self-actualisation through his experience in the concentration camps of World War Two. His suffering is what gave his life meaning. His lack of safety and security was the seed, not the inhibitor, of his self-actualisation.

Love and belonging: We understand that it’s possible to be surrounded by people and feel alone. So why not the opposite? Who’s to say we can’t be isolated, devoid of contact and communication with others, and still feel a part of humanity? And still feel like a piece of a bigger picture?

Esteem: We can function without respect from others. Especially if we realise that other’s opinion doesn’t have a causal relationship with our self-worth. And we can achieve self-respect for ourselves anytime we want, regardless of external circumstances.

Really, of the five levels, we need only barely satisfy the lowest to achieve the highest. If our physiological needs are met, then we are free to achieve self-actualisation. We don’t need safety, we don’t need to be surrounded by people, and we don’t need validation from others. Sure, those things are nice. Sure, they’re useful. But they’re not necessary. They’re not essential. We can do without them. 

All we need to be able to live to our fullest potential is be able to survive. Because if we can survive, we can thrive too.