Throughout the 20th century, most psychological research focused on the dark and destructive side of human nature, the abnormal, the psychotic.
Abraham Maslow changed that.
Rather than focusing on phobias, neuroses, obsessions and other mental disorders, the pioneering psychologist studied individuals who lived abundant lives, making the best use of their qualities and capacities and exhibiting the highest levels of mental health.
He called these men and women self-actualizers.
Maslow believed that human beings have a hierarchy of needs. Higher needs are met only when lower ones have been fulfilled.
At the bottom, for example, we have physiological needs like oxygen, food, water and sleep. Next we have safety and security needs. These include a safe neighborhood, a secure and comfortable home, and a regular source of income.
Beyond these, we all require love and belonging. We seek friends, a romantic partner, an affectionate family, social groups and a sense of community.
Once these needs are met, we look to fulfill our esteem. People everywhere crave freedom, attention, recognition, appreciation and status.
At this point, however, many individuals stop. Things are comfortable. Life is good. Yet real satisfaction is often lacking for a very specific reason.
“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy,” said Maslow. “What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualization.”
What is it exactly?
Using a qualitative method called “biographical analysis,” Maslow chose an elite group of highly functioning people and interviewed them and the people around them or studied their words, acts and letters.
His group included such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Walt Whitman, William James, Albert Schweitzer, Benedict Spinoza and Thomas Jefferson. From his research, Maslow distilled 16 characteristics that define the self-actualizing individual:
- Openness to experience. Self-actualizers are eager to undergo new experiences and rethink old ideas.
- An efficient perception of reality. Self-actualizers see things as they really are, not as they imagine or wish them to be.
- Acceptance of self, nature and others. Self-actualizers rarely feel anxious, guilty or ashamed. They are confident in themselves and their ability to solve problems.
- Spontaneity and naturalness. Self-actualizers are genuine in their relationships. They do not wear masks or play roles.
- Focus on outside problems. Self-actualizers are not self-obsessed. Their focus is on a general “mission” to which they devote their lives.
- Detachment and privacy. Self-actualizers crave solitude and time for quiet reflection.
- Continued freshness or appreciation. The self-actualizing man or woman experiences joy in simple, everyday things: a walk on the beach, starry nights, the laughter of children, autumn leaves.
- Peak experiences. Self-actualizers experience strong, positive emotions akin to ecstasy. This may include a deep sense of peacefulness or tranquility.
- Self-actualizers are more willing to listen to and learn from people of any class, race, religion or ideology.
- Interpersonal relations. Self-actualizing people tend to have relatively fewer friends, but those relationships are likely to be deep and meaningful.
- Democratic character. The self-actualizer recognizes we all have strengths and weaknesses, but that we share a common humanity and equality.
- Discrimination between ends and means. Self-actualizers work to achieve desirable ends, but avoid wrong or hurtful means to achieve them.
- Philosophical sense of humor. Self-actualizers enjoy humor, but not at the expense of others. (As Goethe said, “Men show their character in nothing more clearly than what they think laughable.”)
- Self-actualizers enjoy using their creative abilities, whether it’s writing, drawing, making music or woodworking. (Maslow once remarked that a first-rate soup is better than a second-rate painting.)
- Resistance to enculturation. Self-actualizers are not dependent on the opinions of others or the conventions imposed by society. They have a keen sense of who and what they are.
- Awareness of imperfections. Self-actualizers are not saints. They have weaknesses and shortcomings like everyone else. But they are aware of them.
Self-actualization is not a goal. It is a philosophy of life, a continual striving, a process of development.
“One’s only rival is one’s potentialities,” said Maslow. “One’s only failure is failing to live up to one’s own possibilities. In this sense, every man can be a king.”
You achieve this by shunning the safe, the comfortable, the routine – and instead seeking opportunities for growth. Self-actualization means seeing life as a series of choices – and choosing the growth choice each time.
According to Maslow, this uniquely human need is at the core of our nature. It creates meaning in our lives.
Throughout his lifetime, Maslow received numerous honors for his original thinking and his breakthroughs in human psychology. Toward the end of his career, however, he had an epiphany – and reversed himself. Self-actualization is essential. Yet there is a higher level still: self-transcendence.
Self-transcendence, Maslow argued, is a meta-need, a higher state of consciousness where we transcend our ego and embrace a fundamental connection with the rest of the world. This transcendence is generally accompanied by intense happiness and well-being, the feeling that one is aware of “ultimate truth” and the unity of all things.
Maslow called self-transcendence the next step in human evolution.
Despite his reputation as a brilliant researcher – Maslow received the second-highest IQ score ever recorded – many of his colleagues were outraged. Critics argued that it is logically impossible for the self to transcend itself. Some referred to self-transcendence as “numinous nonsense,” claiming Maslow had abandoned the practical for the mystical.
But perhaps he only fused the two.
In the second century B.C, the great Indian sage Patanjali wrote, “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
Maslow believed self-transcendence takes us beyond rational self-interest, beyond individual self-actualization – and allows us to do something more meaningful: Help others reach their potential.
Until his death in 1970, Maslow encouraged individuals to develop their innate talents and abilities to their fullest extent. (The field of transpersonal psychology sprang up from his studies.) But he also believed he had discovered a higher wisdom, something greater than self-actualization.
Albert Einstein seemed to agree. He said, “The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.”
That sounds like transcendence to me.