How to make Maslow's hierarchy of Needs Theory meaningful to our lives

In psychology, the simplest concept of Maslow's hierarchy of Needs Theory is not only relevant and useful to understand human motivation, but also helps us to evaluate life's goals at any point in time and act accordingly. In other words, it helps us to make a realistic assessment of what needs to be done in specific contexts of life. This article is an attempt at discussing some aspects of how this becomes possible.


The Maslow's hierarchy of Needs theory led to many new concepts of human motivation. A landmark in understanding Organizational Behavior as well. This theory does not stop at helping us understand human motivation. It allows us to reason out how it applies to our lives at any point in time. It becomes essential to understand this contextual reference in Indian conditions. In this article, this is done with specific reference to a) Understanding the concept of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Theory b) application to normal human beings c) how it applies in practical situations and d) helping us lead far better lives.

The Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Theory

This is a very simple theory. There are five levels of needs, according to Abraham Maslow. The first is what is referred to as the "basic needs", also called as "physical" needs like food,water, shelter and, rest. These are the absolutely essential needs that we all strive for. The second level is the "safety and security". For example,our craving to have a house of our own. A good amount of decent clothing and some essential material needs. The third level is one of what we call as "social needs" that is, need to love others and be loved. This is the basic family love, of belonging, of being cared for and to care for all others. All near and dear. Of course, it also means the need to relate to peers and superiors in office. The fourth level needs are the needs for achievement and recognition,called as "self realization" needs. At the fifth and last level, is the need for "self-actualization". This is a big need and should be understood as reaching the maximum of one's own potential. Like Sachin Tendulkar. Like Vishwanathan Anand. Like A.R. Rahman.

The most important point to be noted is that reaching level five is very rare and that level is never ever fully met by a huge majority of human beings. Some experts relate this to "nirvana" or reaching the ultimate of a spiritual life. The most important point of this theory is that we go to the next level of need only after the previous level of need is fully satisfied. Furthermore, a clearer understanding of this application can also found in Clearly understanding the Needs Vs Wants Equation and what it means to us

Application to normal human beings

This theory is true of all human beings. Our existence is only to strive for food and all basic needs. We keep striving for such needs. We even do unethical things like bribing some influential person to get a job. All this is done to satisfy our basic needs. Once we are clear that our basic needs are somewhat satisfied, we aspire to be secure and we try to own a house, a car or at least a two wheeler and so on. In the third level, once we are fairly stable with our monthly income, we strive to maintain good relationships with our wives, peers and superiors, and even neighbors. We share lighter moments and we are happy when people relate to us. No man is an island, This is never ever possible. Aspiring for the third level of need consequently happens as a routine.

This even happens among unemployed youth. They always roam about in groups and share ideas. Like somehow getting a job or impressing a girl and so on. Or simply engaging in what is called "time pass".

At the fourth level, once we are sure that we have some good friends, we go all out to prove ourselves in our job. We try to impress our bosses by doing more than we ought to. We are always striving for achievement and the recognition. That is, both the monetary and non-monetary rewards. For example, we feel very elated if we are praised in public. If we are recognized for some innovative idea and several people congratulate us, we are so happy. This is the fourth level.

We do of course try to go to level five. But often such a level is always reserved for the super achievers. For those who perform with huge consistency. For example, some Management Consultants have had the status of a "Guru". The whole world would expect them to speak on any concept. The late Peter Drucker was one such. The late Dr C.K. Prahalad who made the concept of Core Competence the core of Corporate Strategies around the world was one such.

It should be noted that in modern life, more so in India, we keep striving to achieve more than one level of motivation and the need associated with such levels, at the very same time. For example, it is well known that fresh MBAs look for learning opportunities, for opportunities where they can innovate from day one. Routine jobs are a definite no in their scheme of things. Such a craving and motivation means that they hit or aim at level four on day one. Does it mean that they have sacrificed level one and will accept a job for just fifteen thousand rupees?

Definitely not. If they are from the IIMs, the starting salaries are in the fourteen lakhs per annum range. The bright guys want the money and want challenges too. The level three is important for them, but they are brash and sometimes rude. They assume that the means is not important. But ends are. It is very important that modern employers give them the individual space to perform. They are essentially individualistic, in the first five years in particular. It is very rare to find IIM graduates aspiring for mere security needs.

How it applies in practical situations

This simply means understanding where we are now. This is our "practical present position". Take for example, a fresh MBA with a Finance and HR Specializations, from a not so well known, unbranded institute, from Madurai city, in Tamil Nadu. His English is just about average and academic record is not top class. Obviously, jobs are not there for the asking. If he is so keen on finance, he should even join an ordinary trading job in an accounting role. Experience matters. His level of needs will be one and thereafter two, three and so on. It cannot be similar to the IIM fellow, as described in the previous paragraphs. However, if this fellow is shrewd, picks up English, does a further course in say, Capital Markets, goes to Mumbai, struggles in the real world for sixty months, he would have done some catching up and then can aspire for recognition and achievement. But grabbing the first job, even if is in a semi-urban town, is crucial. Without experience this fellow is a big zero. We should clearly understand the facts as they are.

Similarly, a guy having two sisters to be married and is the sole bread winner, has to necessarily strive to totally save a huge amount of money and feel secure at level two. Level three and four will come. But risk taking is something that this individual should avoid. So, the extrapolation of the theory is to clearly understand what it means to us at a particular point in time.

Helping us lead far better lives

The Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Theory helps us to re frame our priories at any point in time and look for alternatives to keep going. It helps us to be a lot more contextual in the sense that we are aware of doing something more constructive than what we are doing now. For instance, take this real world example. Mr Suresh was a good performer in a very good IT organization. However, for a new project, he had a horrible boss, who made his life miserable. Based on some informed opinion, and with the help of a good head hunting firm, he quit his job and joined another IT job, where his boss was a person who was already well known for his HR abilities and capabilities. He had even met him in two Management conferences. This helped him take the plunge. The salary increase was not huge, but Mr Suresh was not ready to sacrifice his striving for the level four need at that point in time.

It should be understood that the situation will never be the same, even for two individuals. For those who are blessed with huge family property, the striving will always be at level four. However, we can easily set goals for each level, with a five year span. For instance, we will pump all the existing resources to pay for the initial payment for the new flat and so on. Once we set such goals, our lives become that much easier. That much clearer too.

The Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a superb and simple Theory to really understand our lives better. We should understand the concept and then explore as to how it applies to us. Doing this will make us more happy and we can look forward to new possibilities and new challenges.


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