Self Actualization: Definition, Needs, Examples, and Tips
What is self-actualization and why do we have the need to become self-actualized? Maslow's hierarchy of needs tells us why and when self-actualization matters to us.
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What Is Self Actualization? (A Definition)
The idea of self-actualization comes from Maslow's theory of human motivation. In short, Maslow hypothesized that unsatisfied needs drive our behavior. Maslow proposed that once basic needs like food, water, and safety are met, we become motivated to meet others' needs, namely social connection and self-esteem. Once all these needs are met, we are finally motivated to pursue self-actualization. According to Maslow, self-actualization is about achieving our full potential. This might include things like morality, creativity, and problem-solving.
Self Actualization Needs
Maslow suggested that lower-level needs are 'deficit needs'. We need them to survive, so they take priority. However, self-actualization and beyond include 'growth needs'. Indeed, personal growth—or our ability to continue to grow and expand as a person—is considered to be a crucial precursor to well-being (Ryff, 1989). But what exactly are 'growth needs' and how do we meet these needs?
Is Self-Actualization Actually About the Self?
Maslow's original theory of needs is now considered quite old, having been created in the 1940s. But the great thing about science is that further thinking, theorizing, and testing can help us modify old theories and get closer to the 'Truth'. Older writings on Maslow's theory suggest that self-actualization is self-focused or inner-focused. However, Maslow's lifetime of studying this theory led him to a revelation.
Self-actualization—or peak human experience—actually involves moving our focus from self to others. We may develop motivations for social justice, kindness, or generosity. Or, we have some sort of calling or desire to do good for others. This even-more-fulfilling version of self-actualization is sometimes called "selfless-actualization" (Greene, & Burke, 2007).
What Is Selfless Actualization?
Much of what Maslow first described as self-actualization can be better described as selfless-actualization. For example, creativity, which is often considered a core component of self-actualization, is often a selfless pursuit. We often create with the intention to serve others. We want to solve some problem that affects many or craft something that makes a positive impact on others' lives. In this way, creativity may be viewed as a positive experience for both the self and others.
Examples of Selfless-Actualization
Why Use This Definition of Self-Actualization?
Self-actualization is all about striving to be our best selves, but if we go about self-actualization in a self-focused way, we're actually doing a disservice to our well-being. For example, research shows that if you regularly focus on yourself, you’ll likely notice any dissatisfaction, anxiety, or general malaise that you might not have otherwise noticed. And bringing your attention to these negative emotions often amplifies them (Ingram 1990).
Other research shows that valuing your own happiness and obsessively focusing on it has paradoxical effects. That is, focusing on your own happiness can make you less happy (Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, & Savino, 2011).
Plus, a whole body of research that continues to gain momentum shows that prosocial behavior—or voluntary actions that are intended to help or benefit others—is fantastic for well-being (e.g., Layous et al., 2012). Kindness, generosity, and altruism often result in peak experiences and enhanced well-being. All this suggests that self-actualization can more readily be achieved by shifting our focus onto how we can benefit others.
Video: Basic Overview of Self-Actualization
How to Become Self-Actualized
Now that you understand the more modern definition of self-actualization, we'll talk about some tips for becoming self-actualized. Some of these are derived from Maslow's work and others are from more recent research on personal growth, well-being, prosocial behavior, and goal achievement. Try out some of these self-actualization tips to explore what feels right to you.
1. Cultivate Openness and Creativity
When we think in black-versus-white or all-versus-nothing terms, we miss opportunities to learn, grow, and experience things that could bring more meaning to our lives. That's why self-actualization inherently involves being open to alternative information and points-of-view (Greene, & Burke, 2007). Creative solutions to our and others' problems generally involve looking at a problem in a different way or trying to merge existing ideas to form something new. So try to keep your perspective open and your mind flexible.
2. Reflect on Your Values, Morals, and Ethics
When striving to self-actualize and become your best self, it can be helpful to get super clear on your values, morals, and ethics (Greene, & Burke, 2007). No goal or achievement is worth sacrificing these things. In fact, reaching a goal that goes against your values, morals, and ethics is likely to leave you feeling empty or unsatisfied. That's because self-actualization is not really about reaching goals; it's about becoming your best self. And your best self is defined by you.
This is where I think a lot of us get lost. We pursue goals that our society or culture deems important. Then when we reach them, we wonder why we're not happy. It's because we didn't take the time to reflect on whether these goals fit us and our beliefs. If I become a millionaire but money is not important to me then I may be successful but not self-actualized. If I rush to get married to the first person I can find, but I truly value love, then I may have achieved my goal but still be unsatisfied.
So if you have a moment, pause to reflect on these questions:
By pondering these questions, you can better assure that your efforts to self-actualize are effective.
3. Move Beyond Love & Esteem Needs
More recent research has explored how regular people think of self-actualization. Whether it's due to a misunderstanding, due to not having yet experienced true self-actualization, or due to Maslow's rather nondescript definition of self-actualization, people's definitions of self-actualization do not match Maslow's. They more closely fit with love/belonging needs or esteem needs (which are the steps below self-actualization on Maslow's pyramid). More specifically, most people in the study thought that reaching their full potential involved achieving status (an esteem need) or finding a mate (a love/belonging need; Krems, Kenrick, & Neel, 2017).
Now, there is nothing wrong with being motivated to fulfill these needs. They are absolutely essential, even more essential than self-actualization. In fact, Maslow would argue that we are not motivated to pursue self-actualization until these other needs are met. But this study highlighted how difficult it is to understand and achieve true self-actualization. Even I am currently pursuing esteem needs—needs like self-esteem, freedom, and respect. The truth is that reaching the point where we are motivated to self-actualize can take quite a bit of time, reflection, and effort.
An Alternative Perspective on Self-Actualization
Since the time of Maslow, other theories have come along. Some of these theories try to better explain things like 'personal growth' and 'optimal experience' even though they don't always call these things self-actualization. These insights can help us better understand how to reach our full potential and live fulfilling lives.
One such theory is Ryff's theory of psychological well-being (Ryff, 1989). This theory aims to incorporate older theories, including Maslow's theory of self-actualization, and conduct research to determine which parts of the theory are supported by evidence. This synthesis resulted in six needs or experiences that contribute to optimal experience (or well-being).
The six characteristics of optimal experience include:
This theory includes love/belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs, but this theory doesn't suggest a hierarchy. We can pursue these needs simultaneously or intermittently. Or, we may focus on one need over another due to a relative lack of one need versus another.
For example, you may be more likely to pursue autonomy if you're feeling trapped or pursue love if you're feeling lonely. But according to this theory, you don't need to have love or self-esteem before you can experience other important life experiences like personal growth or life purpose. For these reasons, I believe this theory offers a much more accurate description of how humans actually going about becoming self-actualized.
More Tips for Achieving Self-Actualization
Here are some more general tips and strategies for how to achieve self-actualization:
Activities for Achieving Self-Actualization
Sometimes becoming self-actualized is easier said than done. If you need help building some supportive skills, try out these activities.
Here's Some Calm Music to Aid a Self-Actualization Meditation
Self-actualization and selfless-actualization may be life-long pursuits. They require deep reflection and effort. But they are worth it because they are what creates optimal life experience and well-being.