By Mark E. Smith
Abraham Maslow was a well-respected psychologist in the mid 20th century. In 1943, he published a paper in Psychological Review, titled, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Put simply, Maslow explored what made great people… well… great. However, his research didn’t stop there. Over the next decade, he further studied such “exemplary” individuals, as he coined, as Frederick Douglass, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein. He also studied the top 1% of college students. With this data, he then defined an exact hierarchy of five traits that formed a pyramid, where if you had all of the ideal traits – physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization – you reached the ultimate state of “what a person can be.”
With his “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid published in 1954, Maslow garnered a lot of attention. It was sort of among the first self-help paths: follow these steps and you, too, can be a fully-evolved, ultra-successful person. Yet, in the 60 years since, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has been questioned. The psychology community agrees there is a hierarchy of needs – breathing obviously comes before love – but many doubt Maslow’s sub-category rankings. For example, does sex come before intimacy, or intimacy before sex, and many argue that Maslow’s hierarchy can vary geographically, from culture to culture. Therefore, there are easily-seen holes in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
As one who’s studied Maslow since college over 25 years ago, I’ve increasingly noted a gap in his pyramid, myself. No, I’m not a psychologist, but one doesn’t need to be in order to understand what we need to be healthy, successful and fulfilled: a sense of purpose.
When we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, nowhere does he note purpose. Yet, we all know what it’s like to question our purpose, why we’re here, why we do what we do? And, when we have the answer – that is, when we feel a sense of purpose in our lives – it’s the ultimate fulfillment. I’d assert that purpose is as vital as breathing, itself. In fact, in the hospice community, we often hear of those seemingly refusing to pass until their purpose is resolved. A sense of purpose most often defines our lives in the end.
Of course, a sense of purpose is found in endless ways. As parents, striving to do best by our children, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of purpose. In our careers, if we feel that we’re truly making an impact, it gives us a sense of purpose. In our communities, if we serve others, it gives us a sense of purpose. The list goes on and on; however, there is a unifying key to all senses of purpose: we must sincerely feel we’re serving others in some way. This doesn’t mean that we need to win the Nobel Prize for medicine to feel a sense of purpose. Rather, it simply means we must feel that our actions, big or small, serve others. If you walk into a field and shovel snow, at best you’ll just get a workout. However, if you shovel your elderly neighbor’s walkway, you’re guaranteed to feel a sense of purpose.
Purpose is also wonderfully contagious, and we should never be cautious about spreading it – let purpose loose! I recently got wonderfully pulled into a flurry of purpose. A gentleman in our community saw his purpose in collecting clothing for our local men’s shelter. He emailed a single person, and she emailed another, and by the time I was added to the email chain, I was awestruck by so many finding their purpose in the project. There were collection bins being set up, locations secured, and I was like, “Heck yeah, I’ll write the PR for you!” When a purpose bus comes by, get on!
I don’t know where you’re at in your life, but for all of us, a sense of purpose is vital. Sometimes we struggle to find it, and that’s OK – having patience often leads to finding ultimate fulfillment. Sometimes, we have a sense of purpose, then lose it – it happens, and let us take time to rediscover it. And, other times we feel our purpose every day. Purpose isn’t a scorecard, but a journey.
As for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I’m writing purpose into the bottom tier because I believe it’s absolutely a foundation of our needs in life.