Abraham H. Maslow: Proponent of the Healthy Human

Maritha Pottenger

Abraham H. Maslow has been called the father of humanistic psychology. He is certainly one of the early leaders in turning the focus towards the psychologically healthy. If we want to learn all that people are capable of, he pointed out, why do we study so many rats and psychologically sick people? Why not investigate the highly creative, the extremely healthy among us, to find some clues that might assist others in becoming more integrated.


Along with many others, Maslow insisted on a holistic approach to people. We are organisms which operate as a unit. It is misleading to break us down into components, and analyze each little part. When we are hungry, it is not merely our stomachs which are hungry. Our perceptions and memories are involved. We focus more on things which are or could be food. We recall past meals and re-live them. The hungrier we are, the more we channel all our perceptual and cognitive skills towards satisfying the hunger.

Maslow criticizes the attempts which many scientists make to remain “value-free” by ignoring the issue of values. He points out that values are an essential part of life, and we must deal with them. He also has little patience for people he calls grumblers who express a very cynical view of life, often mocking people who believe in the innate goodness and kindness of human beings. Maslow points out that this is not only unpleasant, but not supported by the evidence. “The organism is more trustworthy, more self-protecting, self-directing and self-governing than it is usually given credit for.” Maslow emphasizes the “theoretical necessity for the postulation of some sort of positive growth or self-actualization tendency within the organism, which is different from its conserving, equilibrating or homeostatic tendency, as well as from the tendency to respond to impulses from the outside world.” (p.78) That is, human beings have an internal sense of balance, to keep stability (physiologically in terms of salt balance in the blood and many other factors) and a drive to respond to the external environment. But they also, according to Maslow (and others) have an innate urge to transcend, to become more of what they potentially can be.


Maslow constructed a theory of human personality and motivation based on what he calls needs. These are drives innate to all human beings—cross culturally (although the satisfaction of the basic drives has many different forms in different cultures). He calls them instinctoid rather than instinctual to emphasize their relative weakness and plasticity. He sees them as easily overwhelmed by culture and environment. He suggests that the majority of needs are unconscious in the average person. Conscious desires Maslow views as symptoms—surface indicators of more basic needs.

Maslow stresses that behavior is generally multi-motivated. We can seldom break it down to one specific need or drive. Motivations are inter-mingled. And, of course, the external environment (world and people) influence behavior along with internal motivations.

Maslow does suggest what he calls a hierarchy of needs. That is, needs progress from the most basic to what he calls higher needs. Most people require that the basic “lower” needs be at least somewhat gratified before the “higher” ones can become motivators. (Someone who is chronically hungry is rarely motivated toward self-actualization.) But he points out that it is NOT one hundred percent. The needs are always mixed together. One individual might meet 50% of his physiological needs before safety needs began to emerge as motivators. Another might meet 85%; another 15%. Etc. As we satisfy each need (at least partially), the next higher need can emerge as something we seek to gratify. We organize our behavior around new goals.


Maslow’s basic need hierarchy has five levels. Level one is the physiological needs. This includes food, thirst, oxygen, and perhaps a sex drive and others. When these are missing or threatened, motivation centers around them. Obviously, there are levels of satiation. Once we have a certain amount of food and drink, we look around for other pursuits.


Level two Maslow calls safety needs, our desires for stability and protection. Children and adults prefer a safe, organized, predictable, lawful, orderly world. They seem to avoid physical harm and chaos. In times of emergencies or threat, safety needs predominate. At such times, people become more susceptible to dictatorship and “law and order” outlooks. Obsessive-compulsive behavior is a good example of over-developed, neurotic safety needs. The obsessive-compulsive individual seeks total predictability, stability and control with his/her constant repetitions of words, actions, formulae.


Level three needs are for belongingness and love. People need intimacy and contact—friends, family, neighborhood. They are uncomfortable with alienation and loneliness. Love needs include giving and receiving love. Thwarted love needs, according to Maslow, are the core of many neuroses and serious disturbances. He mentions our cultural “taboo on tenderness” (p.44) which often frustrates love needs. We begin to see intermixtures of needs already if we envision sex as a physiological need which is also tied to love and self-esteem needs.


Level four Maslow calls esteem needs: self-esteem and esteem of others. (Adler pointed out the importance of these.) Desire for status, reputation, prestige, fame, attention and appreciation fit in here. Satisfaction of self esteem needs leads to self confidence, adequacy, worth. People with thwarted esteem needs tend to feel inferior, frustrated, helpless. They may compensate neurotically (e.g. be overbearing to cover their insecurity) or be chronically discouraged. Esteem from others must be based on deserved respect—real capacity or competence. When unearned, people tend to feel still frustrated in their esteem needs.


Level five needs are for self-actualization. They include doing what one is individually fitted to do—manifesting one’s potentials. Self-fulfillment is the goal, becoming all one is capable of becoming. I include here cognitive capacities: to know and understand, to be curious. Intelligent people locked into stupid life situations often fall into boredom, loss of zest for life, self-dislike and general depression of bodily functions. The intellectual life and tastes deteriorate. Maslow states he saw it often in prosperous, unoccupied women (discouraged from using their good minds). The solution was simply to involve themselves in something worthy and challenging.

People also have aesthetic needs, and Maslow feels they are universally present in healthy children. Some people literally get sick from ugliness and the only cure is beauty.


Maslow believes certain conditions are prerequisites for need satisfaction. Threats to these conditions are reacted to as if they were threats to the needs themselves. Conditions include the freedom to speak, to express one’s self, to investigate and seek information, to defend one’s self, and freedom to do as one wishes as long as no harm is done to others. He includes justice, honesty, fairness and orderliness in the group. Our cognitive capacities are a set of tools which help to satisfy basic needs. Any deprivation or blocking of their use threatens the basic needs. Secrecy, censorship, dishonesty and communication blocks endanger all the basic needs.

As the lower needs are satisfied, the higher ones emerge as motivators. The process of shifting from one need to another includes a change in values. We tend to overestimate and over-value whatever will satisfy our most powerful ungratified need. We tend to underestimate that which will satisfy our less powerful needs. We tend to underestimate and devalue that which satisfied our already gratified needs. We also change our perceptions, learning and attention (to notice what will gratify the new need). New interests are higher. Gratification tends to strengthen, improve the healthy development of the individual. (That is, Maslow defines healthy as satisfying all the needs and focusing on self-actualization.) The satisfaction of each specific need brings specific consequences, e.g. satisfying safety needs brings feelings of security, ease of sleeping, more courage, loss of fear feelings, and so on.


Maslow emphasizes that humans tend to take for granted what we already have, if we don’t work and struggle for it. We may even devalue and destroy it. (A good point for the “grumblers” Maslow criticizes for tearing down the concepts of innate goodness and democracy.) “Apparently we function best when we are striving for something that we lack, when we wish for something that we do not have, and when we organize our powers in the service of striving toward the gratification of that wish.” (p.xv, Motivation and Personality) Maslow points out that people often forget life is a journey, and constantly create their own unhappiness when perfection is not reached. Since life is a constant process of satisfying one need, only to move on to another, we “can no longer reasonably expect perfection to come to pass, or permanent happiness to be achieved.” (p. xvi) Rather, he suggests, savor the moments of happiness that come often with each partial gratification of a need.


Maslow lists some possible exceptions to his need hierarchy. Some people seem to value self-esteem over love. But usually, feels Maslow, it is a means to GET love (by acting self-confident, assertive, etc.). For some people, creativity (self-actualization needs) seems more important than anything else. The level of people’s aspirations may be deadened or lowered. E.g., chronic unemployment may lead to being satisfied simply with enough to eat.

Severe pathology may be tied to the “loss” of certain needs. Maslow suggests that if the love needs are starved in the earliest months, the individual MAY lose desire and ability to give and receive love (just as animals have critical periods for exercising certain capacities, e.g. pecking, after which the ability, if it was not used, is lost).

People may want a certain need more than another, but other factors (people, environment) will influence the behavioral outcome. Where standards and values are involved, people may become martyrs, sacrificing many basic needs.


There are two basic hypotheses about what enables people to handle having basic needs frustrated. One hypothesis is increased frustration tolerance through early gratification. That is, people who had their basic needs satisfied, especially when young, have strong healthy characters and can better withstand deprivation when older. The other hypothesis is habituation. That is, people used to having certain needs frustrated can withstand continued frustration better.

Higher needs can emerge not only after gratification of lower needs but also after forced or voluntary deprivation or renunciation (e.g. asceticism, discipline, isolation). Much more research needs to be done as to the usefulness of these various paths.

Maslow tends to place more weight on the theory of increased frustration tolerance through early gratification. (But he does, through his writing, fight against dichotomizing, stressing that life, in the words of Dr. Dobyns, is an “AND” not an “OR.” That is, usually both—or all—cases are correct.) Maslow suggests basic need gratification in early life leads to LESS neediness in later life. Loving a child well produces a child with less love neediness (dependence, clinging). Depriving a child somewhat of love encourages the child to go seeking for affection in all direction and have a constant craving.

Gratifying certain needs (e.g. sleep) clearly shows results (alertness, zest, vigor) which are NOT the encouragement of neediness (fatigue, low energy, lethargy). This approach is in opposition to learning theory which assumes the more we reward a behavior, the more it will be increased. Maslow warns against either extreme. Too much gratification, without some limits and reality testing is just over-indulgence. Too much emphasis on learning in terms of reward and punishment ignores the possibility that humans may have certain basic needs which can be gratified, and which will diminish once they are satisfied.

Maslow postulates that need gratification correlates with psychological health. He assumes positive growth tendencies within the individual. Need gratification releases people for self-actualization. The more healthy the individual, the more self-actualizing. The less healthy the individual, the more deprived. And Maslow emphasizes that love hunger is just as real and important as salt hunger or calcium hunger. Maslow sees healthy people as psychologically independent. Unhealthy people are more dependent on others, shaped by the environment. Healthy people use the environment for self-actualization. (This is parallel to Perls’ definition of maturity as moving from environmental support—dependence—to self support.)


In order to make a closer study of what Maslow calls the higher needs, he made his own subjective collection of self-actualizing people. He found the following characteristics. They perceive and judge reality and other people correctly and effectively. They easily see through sham, dishonesty, pretense. They are more comfortable with the unknown than most people, are often drawn by it. They accept themselves, others and nature—not in a self-satisfied way, but allowing what is. They tend to lack excessive guilt, shame or anxiety. They are comfortable with bodily functions.

Self-actualizers tend to be spontaneous and natural. They may be unconventional, but are not chronic rebels. They are living rather than preparing to live. They are problem-centered rather than ego-centered. They have tasks to fulfill, responsibilities to carry out. Their world views and frames of reference are the widest possible.

They enjoy solitude and have strong needs for privacy. They are more detached, objective and self-determining than average people. They are autonomous, independent of culture and environment.

They enjoy a continued freshness of appreciation. They DO count their blessing of what is already gratified and enjoy things repeatedly. Mystic or peak experiences are common among them. They have intense feelings of Gemeinschaftsgefuhl—identification with humanity, empathy, affection. Their interpersonal relationships tend to be more intense, deeper and more profound. They tend toward a few deep friends. But they can learn from anyone, and do. They can relate to anyone.

They have a clear discrimination between good and evil in their lives (although it is often not conventional). They tend to be focused on ends rather than means. Their sense of humor is philosophical and nonhostile. They often appear serious and nonhumorous to others. They are highly creative. They resolve dichotomies, find synergistic solutions. They have flaws and faults like all of us. There are no perfect human beings, just as there is no perfect happiness that lasts forever.

Maslow made the following observations about love in self-actualizing people. They drop defenses and roles. They are honest, open and natural. Sensual and sexual attraction increases over time. They are loving and loved. They use the word love sparingly, for intense experiences and relationships. Sex and love tend to fuse. They do not want sex without love. They enjoy sex wholeheartedly and intensely without guilt, shame or anxiety, but can also go long periods without it if necessary. They are able to make love playfully and laugh as well. They are independent of sex roles. Their needs tend to pool. What one needs, the other feels as his/her need as well. Cares and responsibilities are shared. Their lives, including sex have fun and merriment.


Maslow suggests that the higher needs are a later evolutionary development—more specifically human. They also may develop over time. Maslow feels infants show physiological and safety needs first, with interpersonal ties and urges to autonomy coming later. Higher needs are less imperative for sheer physical survival; we can postpone their gratification longer. It is easier for them to disappear.

Living at higher levels leads to greater biological efficiency, longevity, less disease, better sleep, appetite, etc. (Happy, creative, directed people are healthier.) The higher needs are less urgent subjectively, less perceptible, more mistakable, and easier to confuse with other needs. Gratifying higher needs leads to more subjective pleasure, e.g. happiness, serenity, rich inner life.

Maslow feels that pursuing and gratifying higher needs leads towards health and away from pathology. The higher needs have more preconditions than lower ones, and require better environmental conditions. People who have gratified both higher and lower needs value the higher ones more. (People value respect and love more than a full stomach.) The higher the need level, the wider the circle of what Maslow calls love-identification (roughly, a kind of empathy, feeling with others) where the need of the other is experienced as one’s own need.

According to Maslow, pursuing higher needs has desirable social and civic consequences and leads to greater, stronger, and truer individualism. The higher the need level, the easier and more effective psychotherapy can be. Therapy is not effective at lower levels. Lower needs are more localized, more tangible and more limited than are the higher needs.

Following are lists of what Maslow considers as some character traits, relationships and miscellaneous results of gratifying the basic needs (from pp. 74-75 of Motivation and Personality).


1. More calmness, equanimity, serenity, peace of mind.

2. Kindness, kindliness, sympathy, unselfishness.

3. Healthy generosity.

4. Bigness (as opposed to pettiness, meanness).

5. Self-reliance, self-respect, self-esteem, confidence, trust in self.

6. Feelings of safety, peacefulness, lack of danger.

7. Friendliness.

8. Greater frustration tolerance.

9. Tolerance of, interest in, and approval of individual differences and therefore loss of prejudice and generalized hostility (but not of judgment). Greater feeling of brotherhood, sisterhood, comradeship, love of humanity, respect for others.

10. More courage; less fear.

11. Psychological health and all its by-products; movement away from neurosis, psychopathic personality and perhaps psychosis.

12. More profoundly democratic (fearless and realistic respect for others who are worthy of it).

13. Relaxation; less tense.

14. More honesty, genuineness, and straightforwardness. Less phoniness.

15. Stronger will; more enjoyment of responsibility.


1. Better citizen, neighbor, parent, friend, lover.

2. Political, economic, religious, educational growth and openness.

3. Respect for women, children, employees, and other minorities or groups with less power.

4. More democratic, less authoritarian.

5. Less unwarranted hostility and more friendliness, more interest in others, easier identification with others.

6. Better taste in friends, sweethearts, leaders, etc. Better judge of people, better chooser.

7. Nicer person, more attractive, more beautiful.

8. Better psychotherapist.


1. Changed picture of heaven, hell, Utopia, good life, success, failure, etc.

2. Move towards higher values, “spiritual life”

3. Movement towards more expressive behavior. Changes in smile, laugh, facial, expressions, walk, handwriting, etc.

4. Energy changes.

5. Hopefulness, interest in future.

6. Changes in dream life, fantasy, early memories.

7. Changes in character-based morality, ethics and values.

8. Movement away from win-lose, adversary, zero-sum-game way of life.


I am fond of Maslow, like many of the humanistic psychologists, because he does provide a theoretical framework and research support for my basic belief in the innate goodness of people. His work stresses that a good society is necessary if we are to have large number of healthy people. Since the basic needs are instinctoid and easily overwhelmed, an unfriendly, unhealthy culture can easily overpower the drives for something higher within people. It behooves us to take a good look at the society we are creating and supporting, and to take actions to change it in ways we feel would be more healthy.

Having a strong Uranian side to my nature, I am particularly fond of the openness, tolerance and attraction to the unknown illustrated in Maslow’s system. Yes, people need a certain basic security and safety. But, within that framework, the movement towards health is also the movement towards uncertainty and ambiguity. Knowing we do not have all the answers, nor final answers, we seek further. We keep ourselves open to explore a multitude of possibilities, willing to learn from anyone and everyone.

With humanity moving into an increasingly Capricornian emphasis in the world scene, it becomes a major challenge for us to ascertain exactly what security, safety, stability needs are necessary, and to meet them. It also behooves us to determine what is excessive limitation, control, domination and to release ourselves and others from the unnecessary shackles. Integrating Uranus and Saturn is not easy, but is truly worthwhile.

Returning science in general, and particularly psychology, to the issue of values is very necessary. Here, Maslow is supported by Frankl and a variety of other leaders in the field. The subjective must be dealt with; we cannot claim objectivity just because we wish it could be so. The transcendent side of human nature calls for use and can be a valuable source of information, inspiration and support. Peak experiences provide a tremendous lift, a renewed sense of faith and willingness to continue the journey towards that ultimate ideal.

Remembering that people have a built-in desire to become all that they are capable of is extremely important. I see it symbolized also in the horoscope—a map of the myriad potentials lying within each of us. To encourage the healthy unfoldment of all the possibilities within each of us is a task of incredible magnitude and rewarding beyond anything else. I challenge the grumblers, the cynics, the hopeless to join hands and hearts with those who count their blessings, trust the universe and themselves and believe change and growth are possible. Let us all open ourselves to the excitement of becoming all that we can be, and helping others to transcend. This is a task more worthy, more satisfying than any other.

Copyright © 1982 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

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