Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

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Sun setting behind some mountains.

Life is busy, and finding the time to properly take care of ourselves is hard. Most of us spend the majority of our time working for money to pay the bills, buy food, and just survive.

Meeting basic needs can be hard, and when we have to focus so much of our energy on things such as finding food, we don’t have the energy to think about our mental health. Whether these needs are satisfied may fluctuate over time, but what they are remains fixed.

The premise satisfying basic needs before addressing others is outlined in Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation.

What is The Hierarchy of Needs?

The hierarchy of needs is an ordering of motivations humans have. Starting with basic motivations and transitioning into more complex motivations.

The purpose of the ordering is to explain the general truth that more basic needs have to be met to some extent before higher needs can be considered. This is not a hard and fast rule, but rather a guideline that helps frame the development of humans.

Theory History

Psychologist Abraham Maslow published a 1943 paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation”. In that paper, he wrote about the process of motivation and how people’s needs tend to go down the same trail.

The theory outlines the importance of basic human needs as they relate to survival, society, and self-worth.

Essentially, the relationship between basic needs of survival, complex needs, and reaching our fullest potential.

Basic Needs

The theory organized basic needs into two broad categories. Basic, or deficiency needs, and complex, or growth, needs.

According to the theory, basic needs are needs that must be met for a person to live a fuller life. For example, without the ability to get food, people can’t freely make art. Without proper shelter, they can’t even think about pursuing hobbies.

Fulfilling basic needs allows people to freely create, think, and live life to their fullest potential.

Complex Needs

The second broad category is made up of complex needs. Often referred to as growth needs, these outline needs people often seek after their basic needs are met.

These areas are both tied to community and personal feelings. Once the basic needs are met, people tend to start seeking friendships and personal prestige.

Complex needs eventually lead up to the highest level of needs, which is self-actualization. This is the point where people can achieve their full potential, freely examine their lives, and improve how they relate to others.

The 5 Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy was originally made up of 5 levels. Each level details a kind of motivation or need humans desire to satisfy. Each level is seen as a building block for the one above it—Maslow originally believed that a need can’t be met until the one below it is.


Physiological needs are incredibly important, but are sometimes overlooked. Many are lucky in that they don’t need to worry about these needs being met on a daily basis. These needs can be:

  • Food
  • Warmth
  • Rest
  • Water
  • Shelter

Essentially, anything that is needed to stay alive is a physiological need. These are bare necessities. Meeting this need will motivate people to pursue the next rung of development.

Safety and Security

Next in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is safety.

Safety can be both personal and community-spread. What one person might deem a necessity to feel safe isn’t always what someone else deems as such. Safety can cover a whole slew of things, including:

  • Law and order
  • Property
  • Freedom from fear
  • Financial security
  • Job Security

These needs can be considered societal needs as having a judicial system is difficult for one person to maintain.

Safety needs can also be fulfilled by building walls to keep predators out. Broadly speaking, developed countries don’t have to worry about predators. However, financial security and other areas can falter, making it difficult for some to feel their safety needs are met.

Love and Belonging

This first complex need on the pyramid is love and belonging. This area focuses more on personal, intimate relationships.

Once someone begins to feel safe they’ll begin to move toward interpersonal relationships. Instead of seeking others strictly for safety and survival, they begin to seek others for friendship and companionship.

From this base of safety and belonging, people can begin to move into the second complex need.


With basic needs met, and friends in tow, people can begin to pursue self-accomplishments.

The feeling of prestige and accomplishment can begin to be a motivation. Once we look inwardly, and assess how we perceive ourselves and accomplishments, we can work towards achieving personal goals. Esteem also includes:

  • Self-belief
  • Personal acceptance
  • Receiving respect
  • Personal strength

This is where people can begin to examine themselves and is key to self-actualization.


The highest level of Maslow’s original hierarchy is self-actualization. From this position, people can reach their fullest potential.

There are many characteristics of people who are self-actualized. These can include:

  • Acceptance of self and others for what they are
  • A deep appreciation of basic life-experiences
  • Able to perceive reality effectively
  • High tolerance for uncertainty

Self-actualization doesn’t necessarily mean someone has all their ducks in a row and their needs fully met. Nothing is holding them back from a healthy view of self and others, and from here, they can freely engage in life the way they want to.

It’s Not Always So Linear

Originally intended to be seen as a ladder, Malsow rescinded his stance and opted for a fluid approach to the hierarchy. Granted, shifting to this approach can be difficult, as the theory is often visualized as a pyramid.

It’s very possible that these motivations can come at different times and in different orders. Someone may seek love and belonging even though they don’t have financial safety.

We understand now that these levels are not completely dependent on each other.

Expanded Hierarchy of Needs

After the publication of his original theory, Maslow continued to study and adapt the hierarchy of needs. Later on, he added three new complex needs. One of which is at the top of the hierarchy.

Cognitive Needs

Cognitive needs were added by Maslow in the 1970s as the 5th level of the hierarchy.

This area covers the pursuit of knowledge and understanding expanding growth needs to include curiosity and seeking meaning. Philosophy and education may come to mind.

Cognitive needs are desires to understand how the world works and higher-level thoughts.

Aesthetic Needs

Added to cognitive needs, aesthetic needs is the 6th level of the hierarchy.

Aesthetic needs help expand growth needs even more. Pursuing beauty and creativity are included in aesthetic needs. This doesn’t mean a person will try to look more beautiful, but they’ll seek deep appreciation of the beauty in nature and art.


The final addition to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is transcendence.

According to Maslow, transcendence means a lot. One of his explanations includes surpassing someone’s perceived abilities. Moving into an area of life where someone can do much more than originally thought possible. This level has a deep, spiritual aspect to it.

A Compass for Growth

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is intended to track the growth of human beings. As people’s needs are being met, they tend to be motivated toward addressing other areas where their needs may be lacking.

Maslow’s hierarchy has become a popular tool in psychology, business organization, marketing, and even product development. It has a wide range of applications and is helpful for therapists when considering the needs of their patients.

The Importance of Addressing Basic Needs

Meeting basic needs is a part of the foundation for growth in mental health.

Researchers have conducted a number of studies on the difference between housing first (HF) and treatment first (TF) approaches to homeless services. These large bodies of research have found that HF has a greater ability to help those with serious mental illness.

If basic needs aren’t being met, people will not be motivated toward, or truly capable of addressing, better mental health. Instead, people will seek basic needs that they need to simply exist.

When Needs Aren’t Met

Not having needs met, according to Maslow, can lead to illness, mental health issues, and even death.

A simple example: the motivation to pursue a relationship to fulfill a need for love and belonging may turn sour after being rejected leading to depression.

Living through a time when safety or other needs were lacking will have a prolonged effect on people. Someone might have everything they need, but they might find themselves hyper-focused on specific areas, such as money.

When Needs Are Met

Having needs met makes it easier for children to grow, students to learn, and adults to improve.

Fulfilling needs does not necessarily mean someone always has perfect relationships, affluent accounts, a beautiful home, and can pursue knowledge or creativity.

As mentioned above, self-actualization includes being able to adapt to uncertainties in a healthy way. When a need isn’t being met, a self-actualized person can address it healthily.

Despite your background, financial, relational, or health situation, living to your fullest potential is an achievable goal. You just might need some help getting there.

Reaching Your Full Potential

It’s our mission to inspire healthy change by equipping people with the tools to enhance resilience and engage in a life of meaning.

We understand the struggles people face daily to live the life they want. Anxiety, addiction, OCD, and other illnesses are just some of the obstacles our clients face.

If you’re interested in an inpatient treatment program that will take your needs into account, call us to learn more.