Applying Maslow’s Theory in Times of Crisis

by | Apr 14, 2020 | Life Lessons

I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks now. It kept coming to me, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But, Aha!, I finally made the connection between Abraham Maslow’s famous theory and our current world situation. The COVID-19 crisis provides opportunity for real-world application of human motivation to achieve fulfillment. I want to share with you how you can turn Maslow’s theory into your practical journey to self-fulfillment, even during a crisis.

More on that in a moment, but first, here’s a refresh of Maslow’s theory.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed his motivation theory, more widely known as the hierarchy of needs. The premise of the theory is that human beings are motivated to act based on needs, which progress from fundamental needs for survival to higher order needs for self-fulfillment and transcendence. This hierarchy is famously depicted as a pyramid with the fundamental needs at the base of the pyramid and the highest order needs at the apex.

Originally, Maslow explained that the fundamental needs had to be satisfied before an individual would desire the next level needs and it would continue until they reached the apex. Once at the apex, an individual would continue to desire self-fulfillment because, as he explained it, we are in a continuous process of becoming. Instead of motivation decreasing, the desire would continue to be felt and even become stronger. By the way, while everyone is capable of reaching the apex, Maslow estimated that only about 2% of people would. My desire is to help more individuals reach their full potential and experience self-fulfillment.

Over time, Maslow evolved his theory. He admitted that lower level needs didn’t necessarily have to be fully satisfied before the desire for the next level needs arose. He also found that his hierarchy was more flexible that originally explained, meaning that more than one need can motivate individuals simultaneously. Even as the theory evolved over time, the basic premise has remained: human beings are motivated by a hierarchy of needs.

Current situation.

The global pandemic reached the United States in January 2020, and the result is an unprecedented and catastrophic health crisis, widespread fear and anxiety and destabilizing economic headwinds. It’s these same circumstances that brought to light for me the practicality of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and how following the hierarchy can help move individuals from a place of fear and stagnation to a place of growth and personal fulfillment.

Let me explain.

Starting from the base of the pyramid and working upward, I explain the overriding needs people desire and what they can do to meet those needs. My suggestions presume that individuals can actually meet the needs at each level. It’s true that in some parts of the world, and even here in the U.S., some people can’t meet certain basic needs. This article does not address their unfortunate reality. Most of us, however, can take steps to move through the hierarchy with intentionality.

1. Physiological needs: homeostasis, food, water, breathing, shelter, sleep, sex.

 This is the most basic of human needs. Without these needs being met, individuals will perish.

What to do:

  • Stock up on non-perishable foods and fresh produce; eat nutritious meals
  • Hydrate; drink an average of eight glasses of water/day to boost energy, filter out toxins
  • Take deep breaths throughout the day to promote calmness
  • Get eight hours of sleep to improve cognition and reduce stress

2. Safety needs: emotional and financial security, employment, physical safety, health and wellbeing

This second level is concerned with security, safety, stability, and freedom from fear.

What to do:

  • Share your feelings and seek support from those you trust
  • Establish a financial plan, budget, and emergency fund to help relieve stress
  • Maintain solid performance at work; stay up-to-date on changes in the business
  • Exercise regularly to improve strength, prevent chronic disease, help boost mood

3. Love and belonging needs: friendships, intimacy, family, work colleagues, community

This third level in the hierarchy is also called social needs because individuals desire  interpersonal connection and some fear being alone.

What to do:

  • Stay connected to family, friends, coworkers; use video chat and online meeting tools
  • Develop or honor family rituals (e.g., date night, family movie night)
  • Check on work colleagues and offer to collaborate on a project
  • Help an elderly neighbor; join your church/synagogue/mosque service virtually

4. Esteem needs: respect from others, self-respect, personal mastery, freedom

This fourth level in the hierarchy is characterized by individuals’ needs for respect and acceptance, from self and others.

What to do:

  • Pursue challenging goals and celebrate achievements
  • Participate in professional activities, academic courses, athletic contests
  • Invest time in your hobbies
  • Learn from failures

5. Self-actualization needs: reach one’s full potential, personal growth, self-fulfillment

This fifth level represents the highest order needs in Maslow’s original depiction of the hierarchy. It’s based on the need to be the best that one can be.

What to do:

  • Invest in personal growth and development
  • Create joyful experiences (peak experiences)
  • Engage in creative projects
  • Discover and live in alignment with core values and meaning for life

By understanding the five needs that drive human behavior, you can navigate your way through any crisis. When your basic needs (physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem) are met, you can put more of your energy into growth needs, self-actualization, to become your highest and best self.

It’s also believed that if you focus your energy on the overall direction you want for your life, you will be able to keep your sights high and experience greater fulfillment. That means, keep your eyes on the ultimate desire for your life. You will not only survive this crisis, but you will thrive.

But wait.

There’s one more thing. In 1970, Maslow found there were needs beyond self-actualization. He called this level self-transcendence because while all other levels are focused primarily on self, these highest-level needs are other-centered. At this level, individuals are motivated by values which transcend self, spirituality, religious faith, nature, the cosmos and service to others.

Explaining self-transcendence, Maslow said, “Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.” (link)

I wish for you that all of your needs be met, that you journey toward self-actualization and transcendence, and that you emerge even stronger after this current crisis abates. Because it will.


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