Abraham Maslow on self-actualisation

Abraham Maslow was born 100 years ago next month. It was he who invented the phrase self-actualisation. Meaning a process through which we discover and expand our potential: our gifts, talents and personal genius.

For Maslow, most psychologists studied the wrong kind of animal. If they weren’t playing games with rats, monkeys and pigeons then (like Freud) they were examining people who were depressed, anxious or psychotic.

Surely, said Abe, psychology should focus, firstly on healthy people, and secondly on the small number of human beings who were vital, creative, warm, inspiring and truly alive people?

When we know how these people got that way then we can start to teach other people how to do the same. The result would be a psychology that contributed to the evolution of the human race.

One way to overcome anxiety, depression and anxiety is not to focus on the problems created by those mind-states but to work on creating new mind-states that are better options than those two. Moving towards self-actualisation makes it harder to get stuck in unwanted states.

Moving towards self-actualisation

Maslow once defined therapy as ‘a search for value’. Meaning that your emotional health depends on engaging in the work, relationships and and personal interests that inspire you the most and which give you opportunities to release your personal genius.

People who are high on the scale of personal evolution are activating their full personal potential. Once they establish their basic needs for things like food and shelter, a sufficient income, love, family ties, friendships, and education, they are ready to take that final step towards self-actualisation.

Characteristics of self-actualisers

Maslow studied the writings and letters and biographies of historical self-actualizers. People like Albert Einstein, William James, Goethe, Pablo Casals and Abraham Lincoln. He also carried out an observational study of 12 self-actualizers who volunteered for the research project. Most of these were people in ordinary walks of life.

Here is what he discovered. The list below shows their most common characteristics:

1. A capacity for wonder. Continually marveling at people, nature, new discoveries.
2. Great sense of humour. Able to laugh at themselves as well as with others.
3. Solution-focused. Looked at what was achievable rather than what could not be changed.
4. Independent. Not dependent on other people. Thought for themselves. Resisted conformity.
5. Comfortable with solitude and enjoyed their own company.
6. Deep friendships. Avoided shallowness and preferred a few close relationships rather than a network of acquaintances.
7. Humility. Did not see themselves as superior to others and did not pretend to be a ‘guru’.
8. Creative. This covered a wide range, from those who enjoyed making things, those who played music, wrote or painted, to great creative artists and leaders.
9. Ethical. A strong sense of values, with a deep horror of hurting or exploiting others, and a wish to help those less fortunate.
10. Spontaneous. Maslow noticed a child-like, simple, mischievous, unpredictable quality in most of those he studied.

The most important finding, however, was that self-actualisers regularly reported having what Maslow later on called ‘Peak Experiences’ – moments of spiritual connection, intense joy, or god-like awareness.

Do you fit any of these criteria?

Quotes from Abraham Maslow

If you deliberately plan on being less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be unhappy
for the rest of your life.

The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness

We fear to know the fearsome and unsavoury aspects of ourselves, but we fear even more to know the godlike in ourselves

All the evidence that we have indicates that it is reasonable to assume in practically every human being, and certainly in almost every newborn baby, that there is an active will toward health, an impulse towards growth, or towards self-actualisation.

Abraham Maslow 1908-1970

6 thoughts on “Self-actualisation.”
  1. Side note: Abraham Lincoln had multiple nervous breakdowns in his life. He was by no means perfect, nor did he reach self actualization easily and peacefully… Just a thought.

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