On Our Adapting Hierarchy of Needs and Not Having Enough

photo by Reid Valmestad (Instagram @reidov)

photo by Reid Valmestad (Instagram @reidov)

American psychologist Abraham Maslow created a theory of psychological health known as the “Hierarchy of Needs” aka, “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.”

The premise as I understand it to be, is that we all have basic human requirements that must be met. Once met, we move up to achieve things giving us greater meaning and achievement, until the point at the top of the pyramid — Self-Actualization. There is a higher purpose to everything, and we must seek to fulfill it.

Most of the developed world has the bottom two stages met. Physiological, and Safety, which makes up our “Basic Needs.” Belongingness is rather tricky to calculate, as there are many ways to categorize “intimate relationships,” and “friends.” Is it quality? Quantity? Both? Do you feel society accepts you? Do you feel like you are heard? This part of the hierarchy can be a place of very deep suffering if going unmet. We are social beings. We require connection.

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However, it is not my purpose to touch on this area. Rather, to shed a light on something we often gloss over.

We are living in one of the safest times in history, (the media would have you believe otherwise), and are nearing the pinnacle of this hierarchy in our developed world.

Yet we aren’t happy.

There are places on this planet where someone may be happy just to have food. To meet basic physiological requirements. Others, that are seeking safety for themselves, and their families. And few that have yet to form deep relationships with others, for many reasons that go beyond the scope of this article.

Here we are, at the top. Upset because our leg room on our flight sucks. Wi-Fi is too slow. Someone cut us off in traffic. Power goes out for two minutes. Our Amazon Prime order didn’t show up fast enough. That Instagram post didn’t get enough likes. We missed breakfast so we got “hangry.” Which condo should we buy? Does it make sense to go to school here, or there? Why won’t so and so return my calls?

As we adapt, our problems follow. We move up the hierarchy, and our perspectives change.

In reality, what we think are serious issues which cause us an enormous amount of stress are nothing in the grand scheme of things. But we make them into something. Our brains, adapted at this new, cushy, comfortable level have us recalibrated. We over-think, we dwell on words said by others, and we let things hurt us from the inside-out.

It’s ironic though, because we built ourselves our own little fortress up here. We created this environment. We’ve confined ourselves in it with poisonous thoughts, and beliefs of where we think we should be and who we think we should be.

Psychologists have coined a term called the hedonic treadmillHedonic coming from the greek work, ‘hēdonē,’ meaning pleasure. This is a way of saying that we tend to return to a stable level of happiness, despite fluctuating levels of positive or negative events. We get nicer things, yet we fall back to this baseline level. As we make more money, we are afforded the opportunities to buy more expensive things — yet there is no change in happiness.

There shouldn’t be anything wrong with wanting new things. They can bring us happiness. But do we need them? Are they a necessity? Will they offer us value and utility, we otherwise did not have?

I offered a bit of advice in an earlier post about wanting what you already have. This is a Stoic principle that I originally learned about in a book called A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine. Practitioners and students of the Stoic philosophy such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius have all used this technique in varying degrees.

This is something that I routinely find myself practicing, with an odd sense of practical enjoyment. Food, water, roof over my head, a car, tv, cellphone, bed, couch, clothes, and many more. These are all things that I have, and I want dearly. Not newer versions of them. They all offer me specific levels of utility. Some more so than others.

What helps me want these things more is imagining it were my last time with them. Death looms around us at all times. We never know when it may consume us. This fact — that we are not invincible and our time is finite — should overshadow every decision that you make. It will recalibrate what you find important, and what you value most.

We often hear of people having a near death experience, and then drastically changing their lifestyle, purposefully restructuring their days to allow them to do what they have always loved doing the most.

In The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, Frank Ostaseski reminds us that “nothing is permanent,” and “death is with us at all times.” He suggests that we, “Don’t wait…be grateful for what is in front of us right now…don’t wait is the antidote to regret.”

We can begin living fully, right now. We shouldn’t have to wait. Not to pursue. Not to chase. Just to inhabit this moment. To participate and engage fully. To be.

Be grateful for whatever is in front of you, right now.

Take a few moments everyday to be grateful for whatever it is you have, wherever you currently are, and whomever you are surrounded be.

This moment is where life is. Be here, and be now.

It’s not worth our energy complaining about trivial things because we are already so well off. Stepping back and accepting what’s in front of us right now may be all that is needed. Having food, water, shelter, family, and a job to go to consistently every day is nothing to take for granted. Let alone the material things that fill minor need gaps in our lives, and the internet or a phone network— something you must have if you are reading this.

Before I complain, I know that I will take at least a few breaths and ground myself. Will this post get read? Will people “clap” for it? Will it positively change someone’s behaviour? I’m not entirely sure, but one things for certain: I’m just grateful to be drinking a coconut water, in a Starbucks, with a Wi-Fi connection, able to write this in good health.

Now onto the next task, with my full attention.

Paul KeefeComment