Self-Actualization: The Ultimate Achievement

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Self-Actualization: The Ultimate Achievement

No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings. (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1799)

This above all — to thine own self be true. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

Without doubt the best-known motivational theory is that of Maslow (1954). It often seems as if people who have been given only one lecture on psychology in their entire lives have had it dedicated to Maslow’s theory.

Maslow supposed that people have five types of needs that are activated in a hierarchical manner, and are then aroused in a specific order such that a lower-order need must be satisfied before the next higher-order need is activated. Once a need is met, the next highest need in the hierarchy is triggered, and so forth.

Physiological needs are the lowest-order most basic needs and refer to satisfying fundamental biological drives such as the need for food, air, water and shelter.

Safety needs are activated only after physiological needs are met. Safety needs refer to needs for a secure, predictable, habitable, non-threatening environment, free from threats of either physical or psychological harm.

Social needs are activated after both physiological and safety needs. They refer to the need to be affiliative — to have friends, to be liked, included and accepted by other people.

Esteem needs refer to a person’s desire to develop self-respect and to gain the approval of others. The desires to achieve success, have personal prestige and be recognized by others all fall into this category.

Self-actualization needs refer to the need for self-fulfilment — the desire to become all that one is capable of being, developing one’s potential and fully realizing one’s abilities.

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But what is self-actualization; how do you recognize a self-actualizer?

Maslow came up with 15 characteristics. They still make a good checklist.

1 A good grip on reality. Maslow called it an efficient perception of reality. It means that, quite simply you see, accept and face things as they are and not through a filter of ego defence mechanisms such as repression, denial, etc. They are fake sensitive, and clear perceivers of others.

2 They do almost fatalistic acceptance. They admit their own and others’ frailties, mistakes and shortcomings. They don’t hide, conceal or talk-up these problems. They are part of who they are: part of the package, part of life.

3 They have a naturalness and spontaneity that is not affected. It can look simple and childlike. It may have to do with wonder, or fascination, or being easily engrossed. They trust their intuitions and impulses.

4 They are profoundly problem-focused. They differentiate between the wheat and the chaff; the petty from the important.

5 They can be alone, and have an affinity with solitude. They are comfortable being alone. Solitude does not mean rejection, failure or boredom.

6 They are not swayed by fad or fashion. They are independent of cultural swings, preferring to follow their own inner voice and self-determined interests.

7 They have an open, fresh appreciation of things. Maslow called it a beginner’s mind. He said they seemed to be able to find awe, pleasure and fascination in the mundane.

8 They had frequent ’peak experiences’. These are sort of orgasms of the mind. They are clear, insightful, almost visions of understanding (grounded, remember, in reality).

9 They are empathic, caring, kind. They manifest a deep and genuine desire to help their fellow humans. This is a sincere, even passionate desire to make things better for others.

10 They have deep, profound private relationships with others. They trade off width for depth, preferring to spend most time and energy with a select few.

11 They respect and value all. They treat people as individuals, not as representatives of their group. It means seeing through the stereotypes.

12 They can differentiate the means and the end; the destination and the journey; the process and the product. They can enjoy the activity for its own sake, as well as being always goal-oriented.

13 They have a philosophical sense of humour. That is, they do not define a sense of humour as the keen appreciation of the foibles and failings of one’s enemies.

14 They are creative because they can see the connections between things. As a result of the freshness of their perceptions and ability to ask the naive questions, they can be genuinely innovative.

15 They resist the conformity of the crowd. Maslow called this ’resistance to enculturation’. It meant being detached from the culture-bound rules of the group.

They show inquisitiveness and curiosity; something about honesty and self-awareness; something about kindness and caring. They really do seem like attractive people — liberated from all those struggles about feeling liked or loved or lovable that lesser beings stuck at lower levels experience. Self-actualizers, as spelled out by Maslow, seem both authentic and wise; calm and energetic; people- and problem-oriented.

Maslow conceived of the dynamic forces of behaviour as deprivation and gratification. Deprivation, or lack of satisfaction with respect to a particular need, leads to its dominance and the person’s behaviour is entirely devoted to satisfying that need. However, once satisfied or gratified, it will recede in importance and the next highest level will be stimulated or activated. Thus, beginning with the lowest level, the entire process involves deprivation leading to dominance, gratification and activation of the next level.

The deficit principle. If a need is not satisfied, it generates tension and a drive to act. A satisfied need does not motivate.

The prepotency principle. Note that the needs are arranged in hierarchy. Some needs are more important and vital than others and need to be satisfied before others can serve as motivators.

The progression principle. The prepotency of needs follows up the hierarchy. This is, physiological needs must be met first, followed by safety needs, then by social needs, and so on.

The need structure is open-ended. The topmost need, self-actualization, implies striving to attain one’s perceived potential. But as we grow and develop, our conception of our potential also shifts and so full self-actualization remains a potential, something to continue to strive for but which is never fully attained. This is a necessary mechanism, otherwise people may satisfy all their needs and no longer be motivated to act.


Heylighen, F. (1992). A cognitive-systemic reconstruction of Maslow’s theory of self-actualization. Behavioral Science, 37(1), 39—58.

Kress, O. (1993). A new approach to cognitive development: ontogenesis and the process of initiation. Evolution and Cognition 2(4): 319—32.

Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). Delhi, India: Pearson Education.