Being happy is one of those things that seems like it shouldn’t be a lot of work, and yet, anyone who strives to live a happy life takes active steps towards that happiness. In order to figure out what needs to be done to be happy, we need to understand happiness, what it is and what it isn’t.

We know right off the bat that happiness is more than just a moment of pleasure. We also know that happiness doesn’t come from material wealth or external recognition. Instead, (as we just saw in the Happy documentary) happiness is related to relationships, sense of fulfillment from serving the community, staying active and cultivating a sense of awe.

But, being the obsessive compulsive person that I am, I have searched high and low for a model that could provide a little bit more structure to our search for happiness. Enter Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and why it exists

maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy is a model that the psychologist created in the ’50s to express the levels of needs that human beings strive to meet. Despite rigorous questioning, and alternative methods that have been suggested, Maslow’s hierarchy and the classic pyramid depiction has stayed with us to present day.

The only way that this hierarchy is useful to us is if we assume that fulfilling each of the needs in the pyramid, leads to fulfillment, and ultimately happiness. If we don’t believe that happiness can be achieved by fulfilling all of our basic and higher level needs, then the model isn’t worth much. However, I happen to believe that understanding what our needs are, and reflecting on how they’ve been met, or how they aren’t met, is a sure-fire path to happiness.

Let’s take a look at each level of Maslow’s pyramid going from the bottom up.

1. Physiological

The first level of needs are the basic physiological needs of human beings and include breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, etc. I will assume for the majority of this blog that this level of need has been met by anyone reading it, because if you’re in a position to have access to the internet and reading these words, you have probably met your basic physiological needs. If you haven’t, then you have bigger and more pressing concerns. Your goal is to figure out how to stay alive.

We live in a time when a greater proportion of the population has met their basic physiological needs than any other time in history. This is something that we should all be grateful for, and strive to help others, less fortunate, achieve this basic level.

2. Safety

The second level needs are those related to safety and security. Not necessarily just in the sense of being free from danger, but more in the sense of being secure and free from concern. This is the level at which most of us in the developed world start feeling the need to meet our higher-level needs. Our basic physiological needs are met, but we eventually get to a point where our safety needs are challenged.

Crushing debt, job dissatisfaction, general non-threatening health issues, family concerns, and a lack of wealth are all examples of states that negatively impact a person’s perception of whether or not his safety needs are fulfilled. We are only at the second level of the pyramid here, and already we see that we’ve reached a level of needs that a large portion of the population of the developed world have not satisfied.

3. Love & Belonging

Love and belonging tackles the human need for relationships. Strong relationships with friends, family and lovers make up this category. This is the first level of need that moves completely beyond the physical and tackles the emotional. Note that sex is often listed in the first level of physiological needs while love is listed here. The distinction is important.

However, this is also the point at which people start to question Maslow’s hierarchy. Is love really only in the middle of the pyramid? Is it not the ultimate need? One way of looking at it is that as humans we try to satisfy our need for relationships even before we satisfy our needs for safety, and perhaps even before our physiological needs, and therefore it should be closer to the base of the pyramid. The other way of looking at it is that love is the ultimate need for a person, and thus, it should be at the top of the pyramid.

4. Esteem

The fourth level of the pyramid tackles the human need for self-confidence. It is a need that is purely emotional, but that also requires external validation, because in this bucket, Maslow lumps in achievements and respect (both of and by others). As such, the need for esteem, isn’t just about being confident in one’s own ability, but also about having those abilities recognized by those around us. However, in order for the opinions of those around us to matter, we must first have respect for them.

This need seems to encapsulate the next level of human relationships. Whereas the previous need was all about those that are closest to us (friends, family and lovers), this need is all about everyone else in our surroundings and the way we interact with that group.

5. Self-Actualization

The least tangible of the five needs, self-actualization, can be defined as having a purpose or a life goal. Self-actualization is about rising above the self, and serving a greater cause. Interpretations of Maslow’s hierarchy include in this bucket: morality, creativity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, and the general giving of one’s self.

Self-actualization is the closest Maslow comes to including a spiritual component in his hierarchy of needs, but the description of the need does recall the language of many religious or philosophical worldviews. Interestingly, many of those philosophical views of happiness preach that this “self-actualization,” regardless of what it’s called in the particular doctrine, is the path to a good life and to happiness.

Maslow for his part, though, argues that humans will only start to pursue these high-level needs once all the preceding needs have been met to some degree or another.

Why Maslow’s hierarchy isn’t perfect

The biggest argument against Maslow’s hierarchy is that it assumes that people will always meet their lower level needs before fulfilling their higher level needs, when in fact, our own personal experience teaches that this is not true. How many of us know someone who purchased the latest fashion (to increase their esteem), but as a result didn’t have enough money to pay their rent (therefore putting in danger their safety)? The actions are not rational, but they are real.

Furthermore, as a guide to achieving fulfillment, contentedness and ultimately happiness, the notion of the hierarchy is questionable, because modern science has proven that meeting some of the higher level needs gives people the tools to better achieve the lower level needs. For instance, daily meditation can help one achieve self-actualization, and that self-actualization can lead to a higher esteem, and a higher esteem can go a long way to improving one’s career performance which makes it easier to achieve lower level needs.

From the perspective of trying to explain human behavior, I agree that Maslow’s hierarchy is flawed. However, as a starting point to examine the different needs of all humans, it does a good job of encapsulating in a convenient package all the different things that motivate us, and regardless of the order each need is satisfied in, satisfying them all is a surefire path to fulfillment. As such, it can form the basis of a strategy for achieving happiness.

How we can use Maslow’s hierarchy in our quest for happiness

We’ve already seen a few examples of why the rigid hierarchy developed by Maslow doesn’t necessarily apply to modern life, and I would not want to endorse a plan for happiness that focused on each individual need one at a time, satisfying that need and then moving onto the next, if only because satisfying higher level needs can make satisfying lower level needs that much more important.

That said, the basic needs, as I see it translate into a few different aspects of our modern lives:

1. Financial

To respond to the physiological needs we all have, we need to have the means to meet them. In the ancient world, meeting your physiological need to eat meant the ability to hunt. In the modern world, meeting the need to eat means having enough money to put food on the table. Finances, however, are not just limited to physiological needs, but also impact our safety needs. Recall that safety is also about being free from concern, and having a basic level of financial security allows one to meet those safety needs.

As such, despite the fact that finances don’t often appear in many conversations about happiness, I put a lot of stock in a basic level of financial happiness. In order to be happy, one needs to be able to meet all of their physiological and safety needs, and the only way to do this is to achieve a certain level of financial freedom. You will never need millions to be happy, but to be happy and in debt, and worrying about whether your family will have a roof over their heads next month, is virtually impossible.

Money can buy happiness, just not all of it.

2. Physical

Returning to the need for safety and security, a large portion of that need comes from preserving health. You are safe when your physical well-being is not threatened. As such, in order to meet the need for safety, we must work on the physical aspects of our lives. A person who does not care for their body, will either in the short term, or in the long term begin to suffer the consequences of this. Not only is the actual physical harm to one’s health dangerous, the mental stress of dealing with physical ailments is something that can be avoided by the majority of us, just by making a few lifestyle changes.

As such, despite the fact that it’s not part of the normal conversation about happiness, part of the path to happiness must go through achieving certain purely physical goals. If we ignore the physical to focus solely on the internal, we’re actually making our lives more difficult, because our bodies are the vessels that allow us to move through life and pursue our happiness. Without keeping these bodies in good working order, we have no hope of attaining our goals.

3. Emotional

I do not think I’d have to argue long to say that emotions play a large part in the pursuit of happiness. Working on emotional happiness touches on the third and fourth levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Developing healthy and loving relationships, and developing the emotional maturity to have confidence and esteem are both emotional goals.

As such, in order to meet all of our human needs, we need to spend a considerable amount of time dealing with our emotions. Controlling them, understanding them, and seeing how they affect others.

4. Mental

We now start getting into the top of the pyramid, the highest level needs that humans strive to achieve: self-actualization. Earlier I described part of self-actualization as creativity and problem-solving. I interpret this as a sort of intellectual fulfillment. In order to be truly and completely happy, humans need to push their boundaries and be constantly learning and pushing their mental limits.

Ignorance may be bliss, but bliss is temporary, and usually ignorance is followed by a rude awakening. So instead of remaining ignorant, we should strive to be as educated as possible. That being said, we must also recognize that no matter how much we push ourselves, we will always be at least a little bit ignorant.

5. Spiritual

The final part of the hierarchy of needs that is not covered by any of the previous four aspects of happiness is the spiritual. While the mental aspect meets a part of the need for self-actualization, the spiritual completes it. Spiritual does not mean religious. We do not need to be religious in order to be spiritual, nor do we need to be religious in order to be happy. However, to achieve fulfillment and ultimately happiness, we need a certain level of spirituality. This spirituality allows us to find our place in the universe and to make peace with every day events that are outside our control. It allows us to accept that which is outside of our control and allows us to constantly have something to strive for once all of our physical needs are met.

Even philosophers who denounce religion are in touch with spirituality. Whether it’s talking about God, or talking about our place in the universe, there is a notion of humans being part of a larger whole that is important to fulfillment and happiness.

Putting it all together

Happiness Cycle

When we put together all these pieces, what we are then saying is that the path to happiness goes through fulfillment, and to be fulfilled, we have to strive to achieve all five aspects of happiness: financial, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Each of these five aspects influence the other, and so none can be pursued in isolation. However, pursuing all in unison allows us a clearer path to fulfillment and ultimately to happiness.

As we move forward in our exploration of the pursuit of happiness, every strategy, tactic and idea we explore will be related to one or more of these five aspects of happiness. They will be our roadmap to fulfillment and happiness.