The concept of self-actualization is best known in the field of psychology in the context of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The decades-old idea is certainly an area of interest in modern psychology research, but many still only know it as the top of Maslow’s motivational pyramid.
This article will discuss self-actualization as it was first outlined, where self-actualization research stands today, and why self-actualization is relevant to both the positive psychology movement and the average person.
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What is Self-Actualization? A Definition
Self-actualization is a term “first coined by Kurt Goldstein” that most often refers to Abraham Maslow’s use of the term while outlining his hierarchy of needs. In his seminal paper about human motivation where he first introduced his hierarchy of needs, Maslow defined self-actualization by claiming that “[w]hat a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization” (Maslow, 1943).
Self-actualization has also been described as:
“the psychological process aimed at maximizing the use of a person’s abilities and resources. This process may vary from one person to another” (Couture et al., 2007).
In other words, for our purposes, self-actualization can be thought of as the full realization of one’s creative, intellectual, or social potential.
Since self-actualization is based on leveraging one’s abilities to reach their potential, it is a very personal process and can greatly differ from person-to-person. As we will see, this recognition of individual motivations is a key part of Maslow’s work, and what he felt differentiated it from the contemporary motivational psychology of his early career.
Abraham Maslow was a psychologist most affiliated with humanistic psychology. His interests in human motivation and self-actualization stemmed from his experiences both early on as a timid child, and later on as a father witnessing the horrors of World War Two (Frick, 2000; Hoffman, 2008). His hierarchy of needs is still taught as a critical part of motivational psychology, despite first being outlined over 70 years ago. In fact, some of Maslow’s work is even thought to cover similar ground as the positive psychology movement (Goud, 2008).
The Theory of Self-Actualization and the Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s idea of self-actualization must first be contextualized within his hierarchy of needs. Maslow felt that human motivation needed to be studied beyond the contemporary scope of behaviorism because the study of “[m]otivation should be human-centered rather than animal-centered” (Maslow, 1943).
With this goal in mind, he first outlined his hierarchy of needs in his seminal 1943 paper on human motivation.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is made up of “physiological [needs], safety [needs], love [needs], esteem [needs], and self-actualization” in a pyramid from bottom to top. Each level of needs must be taken care of before the next one can be taken care of, so ensuring one’s physiological needs (like food and water) is a prerequisite to ensuring their safety needs (like shelter), ensuring one’s safety needs is a prerequisite to ensuring one’s love needs, and so on.
The final level is self-actualization, so that once one’s physiological, safety, love, and esteem needs are taken care of one can start thinking about self-actualization.
Examples of Self-Actualization
This raises the question, what does self-actualization actually look like? When first describing self-actualization, Maslow described the top of his hierarchy of needs by remarking that:
“[a] musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy” (Maslow, 1943).
Aside from naming general types of people, Maslow (1970) also once named a few people who he considered to have reached a level of self-actualization in their lifetimes. These included:
- Abraham Lincoln
- Thomas Jefferson
- Albert Einstein
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Jane Addams
- William James
- Albert Schweitzer
- Aldous Huxley
- Baruch Spinoza
In that same book, Maslow (1970) also listed a few other potential cases of self-actualization, without weighing in on whether or not they reached the same level of self-actualization as the above nine examples. These included Eugene Debs, Frederick Douglas, Ida Tarbell, Harriet Tubman, George Washington, George Washington Carver, and Walt Whitman. While all of the above names were public figures in one way or another, it is interesting to note that Maslow listed a wide variety of people, from abolitionists and authors to philosophers, politicians, and poets.
A recent study conducted by Krems et al. (2017) was interested in how non-psychologists viewed self-actualization. The authors found that “lay perceptions of realizing one’s full potential are linked to the fundamental motive of achieving status and esteem”.
In other words, participants most associated realizing their potential (and the drive to do so) with reaching some level of internally-recognized success (esteem, which is notably on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs itself) and some level of externally-recognized success (status).
This conflicts with Maslow’s (1943) initial separation of status/esteem and self-actualization. The authors, however, point out that “a functional reading” of Maslow’s work, such as the one discussed by Kenrick et al. (2010), indicates that “many of the behaviors involved in pursuing one’s full potential are linked to status, both directly and indirectly” (Krems et al., 2017). This relation between status-seeking and self-actualization also fits in with the fact that the most obvious examples of self-actualization are of public figures who have achieved high levels of status.
Self-Actualization and Positive Psychology
Aside from Goud (2008) claiming that Maslow would have approved of the positive psychology movement’s goals, the concept of self-actualization is further related to positive psychology. According to Bernard et al. (2010), the work of another humanistic psychologist, Albert Ellis, indicated that “self-actualization involves the pursuit of excellence and enjoyment; whichever people choose to desire and emphasize”.
This focus on reaching excellence and enjoyment (even more than a focus on the realization of potential) prioritizes well-being, and shows the relation between self-actualization and positive psychology. Recently, multiple studies have even examined self-actualization as a component of well-being (Compton, 2001; Kim et al., 2003). As the examination of well-being is a main feature of positive psychology, this shows the importance of recognizing how self-actualization and well-being relate to each other.
Another interesting study examined the effects of a positive psychology course on well-being, and found that college students who took a course on positive psychology reported increased levels of happiness, hope, mindfulness, and self-actualization, further highlighting the relationship between positive psychology and self-actualization (Maybury, 2013).
Aside from well-being, one of the main drives behind outlining positive psychology was the reinstatement of a “fundamental [misson] of psychology” that Martin Seligman felt had been too long ignored by contemporary psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, M., 2000). This mission that Maslow highlighted was the goal of “nurturing genius”. Since self-actualization and striving to reach one’s potential are certainly related to nurturing genius, this shows that self-actualization is certainly an aspect of positive psychology.
A Take Home Message
While Abraham Maslow’s groundbreaking theory of motivation and hierarchy of needs are still taught today, it is important to contextualize his idea of self-actualization within the positive psychology movement. Self-actualization is actually related to positive psychology in two distinct ways: as a component of well-being and as a way to measure the nurturing of genius.
Since these were both aspects of psychology that Martin Seligman had felt were long ignored in psychology, and were both driving factors behind the outlining of positive psychology, the study of self-actualization can be a valuable tool within the field of positive psychology.
So what relevance does self-actualization hold for the average person? At the end of the day, realizing one’s potential is a personal endeavor that depends on where one’s creative, intellectual, or social potential lies. In other words, self-actualization is not about making the most money, or becoming the most famous person in the world. Instead, self-actualization is about reaching one’s personal potential, whether that means becoming a painter, a politician, a philosopher, a teacher, or anything else.
That is, at risk of sounding like a cliché, self-actualization is truly about achieving your dreams.
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- Compton, W.C. (2001). Toward a tripartite factor structure of mental health: Subjective well-being, personal growth, and religiosity. Journal of Psychology, 135(5), 486-500.
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