The Pursuit of Happiness: Self-Actualization and Maslow's Mistake

The Pursuit of Happiness: Self-Actualization and Maslow's Mistake
Image credit: Eric E Castro | Flickr

Life is about evaluating what is important. For some it’s money. For others, family. A kid may say something tangible like ice cream, while an elderly woman may declare an idea, legacy. People value most that which makes them happy – or, to be more accurate, believe will make them happy. For me, the key is valuing what will make me happy today without sacrificing tomorrow.     

Let’s begin by exploring the age-old question: Can money buy happiness? Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that money only buys happiness up until $75,000. Beyond that amount, money has no real impact. I don’t know about the exact dollar amount, but agree wholeheartedly with the idea that we demand life’s essentials to avoid being hungry, cold, unsafe – unhappy.

In grade school, my best friend – a descendant of Benjamin Franklin – used to say, “Health is wealth.” Despite the irony (his great-great-great grandfather’s face lives on the hundred dollar bill), he was correct. To find happiness, we need to look beyond the green in our wallets. 

For me, happiness begins every morning at the crack of dawn. My alarm goes off and I do something different from most -- I don’t hit snooze. I rise and grind. The happiness I experience will have a delayed kick. I have to push myself to wake up and put my feet on the ground, conscious decisions to better myself.

From the moment I put my feet on the ground, my day becomes an uphill battle. My life is dedicated to self-betterment and the endless pursuit of self-actualization. No mountain I climb, past or future, has a higher summit than Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a roadmap to unlocking happiness.

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A little background: In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow published a Theory of Human Motivation. He created a hierarchy of basic needs humans must achieve on their way to self-actualization, explained by Maslow as "what a man can be, he must be...It refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially.” 

Maslow’s basic needs are: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization.

Happiness for me is as much about the journey as it is about the view from the peak. In fact, I don’t spend much time at the top, if any at all. While I’ll spend my life ascending, clawing at life’s rocky terrain with chalky hands, I’ve often preached the importance of descending as well. That is, giving up food, water and shelter for days at a time, as I’ve done. I can’t stress how important this is. 

So how does this fit into Maslow’s hierarchy?

Frankly, it doesn’t. I believe Maslow made two fundamental mistakes.

First, The Theory of Human Motivation assumes that at the top, humans are fulfilled. I find this idea to be a paradox: the closer we get to self-actualization, the more skills we acquire, the higher our ceiling becomes, the further away we are from being self-actualized. In other words the better we get, the more potential we have so the idea of reaching our potential to be unattainable.

Second, if we accept the concept that there is a top, the people up there are not ensured happiness. The apex is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Ask anyone up there. It’s lonely and impossible to stay stagnant on top.  

Richard Cory, the focus of a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson (later made famous as a song by Simon and Garfunkel), is a perfect example. In the poem, Richard Cory was adored by the town, who viewed him and his wealth on the highest pedestal. He would have been a poster-child for Maslow’s hierarchy. But the poem ends: “And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, Went home and put a bullet through his head.” You can have everything in life and still feel utterly empty and unfulfilled. As a matter of fact, you are more likely to feel desolate if you believe you have everything.

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I offer this solution for the hierarchy: The Hierarchy should not be viewed as a one-way path to the top. Rather, imagine multiple hierarchies side by side and flattened the tops, so it is an ascending staircase that leads to a descending one, and so on; this path has both valleys and peaks. Upon approaching the top we must consciously climb back down. We must humble ourselves to remember what it’s like at the top.

The beauty of a Spartan Races, or other extreme races I’ve faced, is they strip me of my esteem, love/belonging, safety and all physiological essentials. In completing these mentally and physically demanding challenges, I’ve thrown myself mercilessly to the bottom of the hierarchy with nothing but my will to get back to the top.   

I implore those who are approaching the top to make an effort to give it all up. Allow me to elaborate. No, don’t sell your house or quit your job. Don’t go home and divorce your spouse explaining, Joe DeSena said I need to in order to be happy. Fast for a day. Go volunteer in your community helping those whose misfortune stripped them of basic physiological needs. Run one of my races. Trade comfort for perspective.

In the Pursuit of Happiness, Christopher Gardner, the down-on-his-luck protagonist contemplates happiness: “I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness… how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can actually never have it… How did he know that?” 

To me though, the pursuit IS the happiness!

I wake up each morning at the crack of dawn in search of something I’ll never find: my potential. I’ll always be hungry for more. Each time I approach the top, I see the ceiling is higher than I’d perceived from the ground.

Aiming to be self-actualized is a daunting task that requires a lifetime of dedication. I believe in the endless climb. I believe in the tireless work. I believe it’s dangerous to admire the view from the top for too long. After all, what’s the view without the journey?

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