Biology isn’t enough: new evidence backs up Maslow

Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Psychology got it right the first time

 What increases our sense of well-being? Is having our physical needs met sufficient to live the good life?  These are questions with a long pedigree, but in the modern world we usually turn to Abraham Maslow and his “hierarchy of needs” for an answer. 

Famously shaped like a pyramid, the “hierarchy” lays out the needs an individual has and displays the way they build on one another.   At the bottom of that pyramid are the physiological needs, e.g. food and shelter. As one goes higher up the pyramid the needs become more psychological and focused on personal development, eventually reaching “self-actualization.”

Although this theory has become foundational in psychology, critics have long claimed that there is very little data to back up Maslow’s hierarchy. In fact, in 2010 a group of evolutionary psychologists published a new version of the Hierarchy of Needs that didn’t even include “self-actualization.”  It was replaced with things like “mate acquisition” and – at the top of the pyramid – “parenting.”  (Apparently those of us who don’t want children have nothing to live for.)

Well there’s new data – and it strongly suggests that not only should self-actualization be put back on the top of the pyramid, purely psychological needs should be given even greater emphasis than Maslow originally suggested. 

A recent study by Louis Tay and Ed Diener presents the evidence. They reviewed data from a 2009 Gallup World poll which included 60,865 individuals from 123 nations. The questions included six areas of need and three types of subjective well-being. Tay and Diener looked at needs based upon a number of researchers who have written extensively about this topic. The list needs were:

  • Basic food and shelter
  • Safety and security
  • Social support and love
  • Feeling respected and pride in activities
  • Mastery
  • Self-direction and autonomy

Here is what they found.

When our basic needs (food, shelter etc.) are met, individuals in the study reported that their lives were better. They reported less negative feelings. What they did not report was an increase in life satisfaction. Improved life satisfaction was related to having all of one’s needs fulfilled. In addition, Tay and Diener found that these needs do not need to be fulfilled in a particular order.

A common approach to helping those in need is to provide or fulfill their basic needs, such as food, shelter and safety. Yet giving a family a basket of food so that they may eat is apparently not enough for long term life fulfillment. Yes, we can provide food and shelter but it would be even more beneficial to provide other for their other needs, such as: community, mastery and respect. An individual who is living in a poverty stricken community can be barely surviving but if they are able to fulfill a need for mastery or respect or social status, they may feel an increase in SWB.  Even those of us who live in poverty can still find great fulfillment and comfort in the deep and positive connections we have with others.

Not only does it help to have our own needs met but Tay and Diener also found that knowing that our neighbors are getting their needs fulfilled increases reports of positive feelings. A thriving and flourishing community increases the subjective well-being of its members.

Their research builds upon studies that have revealed that money does not necessarily increase subjective well-being. It takes more than just the satisfaction of the basic needs to increase an individuals’ personal subjective well-being.

This may not be too surprising since we are complex beings living in a complex world/society that we created. This research shows the complexity of our lives and relationships with our environment, ourselves and others. Food and shelter are needed for our basic survival, but to thrive we need so much more than just the material rewards of a society or our biological imperatives met.

– Makenna Berry