Why We Aren't Fulfilled: Self Actualization Isn't Just About Our Stuff

Maybe you studied Abraham Maslow's theory in high school or college.  (Remember that pyramid-shaped hierarchy of needs?)  Maslow noticed that human beings seem naturally inclined to strive and improve, and most of us follow a certain progression.  

Unfortunately, in our society, many of us use our opportunities to learn and achieve not for the sake of gaining wisdom and appreciating beauty, but with the plan of earning more money so we can have more luxuries.

After all, isn't that what school is for – to prepare us to get a good job?  And if we work really hard and get into a "good" school, we have more opportunities to get an even "better" job – one with more prestige and a bigger paycheck.

That's how most of the people I know view it, anyway.


Meeting basic needs

It's nearly impossible to reach self actualization (the highest section of Maslow's pyramid) unless our basic needs are taken care of.

1.  Air, water, food, clothing, shelter

Humans need these things to survive, let alone to thrive.  Some of us seem to have much more of these than we need, while others in our world struggle for them.  Some live without clean air and water, or where it's hard to get access to either.  They may worry about how to meet their needs for food, clothing, and shelter every single day.

2.  Loving relationships, family and friends, nurture and care

These needs are at least as important as the basics above.  We know that when young children are deprived of them (such as in Romanian orphanages of the 1990's, where babies and toddlers were warehoused without affection, stimulation, or personal connection), they become severely compromised, often suffering from low IQ, along with psychological, neurological, and biological impairments.

3.  Safety and security  

In addition to the reliability and comfort of a loving family and friends, people need to have confidence that they'll be able to work and meet their basic needs in the future.  Those with no access to medical care feel helpless against injury or disease.  Others who live in fear of war, terrorism, or with a corrupt government or police force have no sense of security.

Further up the hierarchy

If you're fortunate enough to have all of the essential needs met, then you naturally begin to seek a few "extras."

4.  Education, transportation, communication

Schooling, access to transportation, even computers and the media allow us to learn and experience more about the world and each other.

5.  Opportunities for achievement and self-respect

Many people in our world (especially women) are still longing for more opportunities to pursue a career, own a business, or participate in a democratic government.

At the top of the pyramid

happy man
After acquiring all of these things, a human being is free to focus on the highest values in Maslow's hierarchy.

6.  Spirituality

Spirituality deepens our life experience, strengthens our sense of purpose, and inspires kindness, peace, and generosity.

7.  Beauty and creativity

These things grow from and inspire each other.  To be able to imagine, to think deeply about an idea, and then to make it a reality, is a truly unique human desire and achievement.

Possessions won't help us achieve self-actualization.

In our privileged society, all of these things are available to most of us, even if we're not among the very rich.  Most of us have the opportunity for self-actualization.

Unfortunately, we often get stuck acquiring more and more of the things that are lower on the list, even though we already have plenty.  We spend so much money, time, and effort chasing after more clothes or shoes or jewelry, a bigger house, a fancier car, even out-of-season foods shipped from halfway around the world.  

We're missing out on our greatest opportunities.

Here's what we need:

  • a livable, unpolluted planet
  • seeds, sun, and rain
  • good health, working senses, basic physical ability (or tools that accommodate a disability)
  • loving family and friends
  • freedom from poverty, fear, and oppression
  • intelligence (the abilities to observe, speak, reason, and learn) and curiosity
  • wonder, awe, and God's gifts of the soul and conscience
  • mindfulness to appreciate all of these things

Some tools that contribute to self-actualization include:

  • books and libraries
  • schools
  • art
  • music
  • places of worship
  • contact with nature
  • celebrations and laughter

I think we would have happier lives if we used our time and money to cherish and cultivate these things, instead of pursuing our next purchase.

Updated June 2023


  1. There's a LOT ( TON ) of things to say about it, but I prefer to indicate 3 videos that speaks by itself:
    • "Being just beautiful"
    • "How much is enough"
    • " Do What You Love "
    Please, come back to me with comments.

    1. Thank you for sharing, but in future I prefer that you use your own words.

  2. I needed to read this. It’s interesting how I was blessed woth perfect health abd a beautiful body with a brilliant brain, instead I chose a path of self medicating and toxic unbalanced relationships. My father died when I was 26 and all of a sudden my older brother and I are now homeowners, and I see greed and I am thrown out. My mother loves me only sometimes but hates me when she feels lied to and is trying to get guardianship of my almost 2 year old daughter. I’m alone in an apartment in San Diego afraid that the father of my daughter will walk in any minute as I try to get his stuff out as soon as possible before he gets out of jail. When I had nothing I was not happier, but when my daughter was next to me I was. In high school and middle school when I had a relationship with my high power from an experience of being held by my creator and all of a sudden I was warm and put to sleep, I woke up and realized I had been touched by something not of this world but it was love. I am scared I have no one to turn to anymore. I have been trying to fill this apartment with the right “things” and buy all these toys and books for my daughter, if and when she ever gets to come home. I am afraid to go outside. I live only a few mikes from the beach. I used to draw and paint and create, I don’t know where that went? I used to want to be a writer. I wrote screenplays in high school and did short films. I have no more ideas, why? I’ve never felt so uncomfortable. I don’t want my daughters father to come to my door and beg to come in and then never leave and offer me drugs. I’m paralyzed. I’m going to start doing these things in order, from your article. Thank you.

    1. Hello. It sounds like you are at the point where you need some loving, kind relationships and true safety and security. I pray that you will find what you are seeking.


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