As humans, we’re hardwired to want to become our best and to do great things. We want to feel useful, to contribute, be creative, be healthy, and grow as a person. So why does it seem so hard to stay motivated and get on with those things? Why doesn’t our deep desires translate into commitment and motivation? Why do we start and stop and even when we’re persistent, what makes certain goals more difficult for some than others? I was able to get some insights into my own failures (and successes) after coming across Maslow’s theory of human motivation so I want to share it with the hope that something in it is helpful to you too.
Maslow was one of the first psychologists to focus on happiness (instead of the roots of unhappiness) and to study human behavior and motivation. His work helped me understand that certain practical and intangible needs, if not met, can make it hard for us to stay motivated. For example, financial insecurity coupled with a lack of social support can make it extremely challenging to maintain your weight. Your waistline fluctuates when your motivation fluctuates and your motivation fluctuates when you have to redirect your focus onto a more pressing need.
What is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a psychological theory of motivation proposed by Abraham Maslow in the 1940s. A five-tier pyramid is the most common model that’s used to describe his sets of basic human needs. Maslow believed that in order for us to be motivated and do well needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up on the pyramid.
After studying Maslow’s work myself and the criticisms of the uni-directional manner of his Needs Hierarchy as well as examined his theories against my own behavior, I’ve come to the conclusion that his explanation of human motivation is still valid with important caveats: We can fluctuate between levels and don’t always attend to our lower needs first. If, for example, you have high esteem and lose your job, your self-esteem and your sense of financial security will both take a hit. You might move back and forth between the different types of needs so while most people may be motivated to attend to their lower level, financial need, first, someone else might be more motivated to take care of their self-esteem (a higher level) first.
For the purposes of explaining Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy though, let’s use the standard progression model and starting from the bottom of the pyramid, work our way up.
On our lowest most basic level is our physiological needs. These include our need for…
The basic needs of the body, when not met, make it hard for us to focus and stay motivated. A homeless person is human and may have healthy enough self-esteem and desires respect from others, but his need to find shelter and get in from the cold is what will motivate him. He might take crap from people and swallow his pride until he has shelter. Taking care of these, our physical needs, and attending to our survival are things most people in rich countries don’t have to worry about. More and more, we’re leveling up and taking even better care of our body by cutting out processed foods, smoking, and other unhelpful habits. It’s my opinion and experience that when we go over and above on one level, we can supplement the higher level.
THE COACH SAYS
This foundational level represents not only our most basic needs but is also the area over which you and I can most impact our motivation. If we don’t, we feel tired, moody, have brain fog, ADD symptoms and impaired cognition. Don’t underestimate the value in simple disciplines like daily exercise, drinking enough water and consistently getting adequate rest. If we don’t, we feel tired, moody, have brain fog and impaired cognition.
According to Maslow, once a person’s physiological needs are relatively satisfied, their safety needs take precedence and this is where they’ll find themselves most motivated. Our safety needs include:
- Personal security
- Emotional security
- Financial security
- Health and well-being
With our physiological needs sufficiently met, we’re more motivated to focus on job security and safe environments to live in. Those of us who are reinterpreting Maslow’s theory now believe that our lower level needs that were once adequate can suffer when we’re unable to secure higher needs. For example, when I was living with an emotionally abusive spouse, it made it harder for me to stick to my workouts, which I loved and had no trouble doing before.
THE COACH SAYS
Feeling unsafe can throw us off our game like nothing else. It can undermine our confidence and lead to procrastination, and in some cases when our fears are real (e.g., living paycheck to paycheck), it can make our whole life feel like it’s on hold. If you feel unsafe and insecure, the first thing I want you to do is to stop comparing yourself to people on your Facebook feed or from college who seem to be doing better. You don’t know what help and resources they had, or whether you both started off in the same position, emotionally and otherwise. The more productive thing you can do is to work on those areas where you feel insecure–or whichever of the human needs are most pressing for you.
Social needs come next on the pyramid–after physiological and safety needs. These are our need to belong and include our need for…
Whether our groups are large or small, according to Maslow, humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance among social groups. Large social groups include clubs, co-workers, religious groups, sports teams, gangs, and online communities while small social connections are family members, spouses/partners, mentors, colleagues, and confidants. Feeling loved and having someone to love makes us feel more hopeful and motivated.
THE COACH SAYS
Emotional eaters and people who can’t seem to follow through on health and lifestyle goals often have huge social needs deficiencies. They’re not getting the care, words of affirmation, support, and attention that helps us feel confident, and they’re less accountable and focused. Social support is very important and there are two unhelpful habits I’ve noticed many emotional eaters engaging in that makes it harder for them to succeed at weight loss: One, they often eat alone and two, if they have a family that they prepare meals for, they’ll make two; a “diet” dish for themselves and Taco Tuesdays for the family. Are you nuts? Do eat with someone whenever you can. You can afford 30 minutes to eat. People who have a regular lunch date feel better about work too. At home, learn ways to cook healthy nutritious meals that satisfy your goals and your family’s taste buds. You’re going to be so much more successful at keeping the weight off if you make your family part of your weight loss team.
People who understand that we need help, get help.
They hire personal trainers, entrepreneurial coaches, assistants, and advisers, and seek mentors and other support networks. Having support and accountability is why participants on reality makeover TV shows like The Biggest Loser do better than the average person trying to lose weight on their own. These contestants benefit from having coaches supporting them, from being away from their usual environments to be able to focus on themselves and from the accountability of knowing millions of people are watching and judging them.
Having some type of support is a great way to help yourself stay motivated on any goal.
Esteem needs are concerned with getting recognition, status, importance, and respect from others and guess what, it’s natural for even spiritual people to have this need. We all want to be SEEN. Sure, if we pursue this need boastfully and at the expense of others, we’ll be feeding the ego which spiritual teachers like Eckhart Tolle caution against. That type of ego pursuit causes us to feel separate (read: better than), which experts say work against our need to belong. Makes sense! There are two versions of esteem needs: a “lower” version and a “higher” version. The “lower” version is the need for status, fame, and prestige. The “higher” version is our need for self-respect and some healthy ways to pursue it are through self-mastery, self-confidence, independence, and freedom.
THE COACH SAYS
Mastering a skill like cooking or playing sports give us skills that are transferable to many efforts. When we have standards in how we maintain our home and our physical appearance, these give us easy confidence wins, and confidence raises our motivation.
“What a man can be, he must be.” This sums up our need for self-actualization. This level of need is what drives all human life, but according to this model, we now understand that lower level deficiencies can make the pursuit frustrating.
THE COACH SAYS
Look, feeling frustrated is understandable but knowing that you might not be as prepared as you thought, hopefully, will ease that frustration and panic. Work on those lower level needs instead so you can get to the level where you know you belong.
Where do you go from here?
Hopefully, you understand your motivation a little better now. While Maslow’s Hierarchy is not perfect, his theories help us understand that motivation doesn’t just happen. Forces, some real and tangible, could be impacting your motivation. The best thing Maslow’s work helped me to understand is that I should view my capabilities in broader, more compassionate, healthier terms. When we focus on where we struggle, we can work on them. While we’re working on them, we can temporarily supplement them.
These are my three favorite motivation supplements.
The Vurb Lifestyle
By living this Lifestyle, people with less than ideal safety and social needs can use blissiplines, routines, and healthy habits to develop the emotional and physical energy to supplement those needs.
Have better relationships
It’s clear, emotional security is crucial to our happiness and is our most important safety need. When this need is met, we have greater self-awareness and can stay focused, inspired and motivated longer.
From firsthand experiences, I know that practices like meditation help to adequately fill many of our needs until we can fill them with the real thing. Meditation helps us to tap into a higher level of human potential. People who meditate regularly…
- Stop comparing themselves to others and virtually eliminate self-doubts.
- Become self-aware and notice when their behaviors are not beneficial to change course faster.
- Take care of their physical and emotional needs and pursue “higher” version self-esteem needs.
- Have a greater sense of self-control so experience almost zero food cravings, for example.
- Get clear and more focused on their purpose and pursue it even in teeny tiny ways.
Because “Man is a perpetually wanting animal,” we will always want to look better, be healthier, make a difference, have love and to belong to someone. We will always set resolutions at the beginning of the year and so we’ll always be trying to increase or understand our motivation.
Understanding that the struggle is real but that we can do something about whatever we’re missing to make it easier on ourselves to reach our goals, is probably the most helpful insight Maslow’s theory offers.
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And always, be compassionate with yourself.