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The following is a transcript of this video.

“What human beings can be, they must be.” (Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality)

In the early-20th century, psychologists were primarily concerned with the sicknesses that afflict the human mind. Abraham Maslow, aware of this one-sided approach, saw it as grossly inadequate. If the goal of psychology is not just to rid of us illnesses, but also to help us flourish, then an understanding of what constitutes optimal psychological health is crucial: “It is as if Freud supplied us the sick half of psychology”, wrote Maslow, “and now we must fill it out with the healthy half.” (Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being) Maslow’s research led him to the conclusion that what demarcates the psychologically flourishing from the sick and mediocre, is the ability to self-actualize. In this video, we’ll explore what it means to self-actualize and examine why most people struggle at this all-important task.

According to Maslow humans are driven to satisfy what he called a “hierarchy of needs”. Self-actualization occupies the pinnacle of this hierarchy and therefore we cannot begin to self-actualize until we have satisfied our more basic needs. These “basic needs” include the things necessary for our survival, such as food, water, and shelter, as well as those things required for a basic modicum of psychological health, such as safety, love, status, belongingness, and self-esteem. Only after these basic needs are satisfied we can begin down the path of self-actualization, and strive, in the words of Maslow, to become “everything one is capable of becoming” (Abraham Maslow)

“Musicians must make music, artists must paint, poets must write if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. What human beings can be, they must be. They must be true to their own nature. This need we may call self-actualization…It refers to man’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely to the tendency for him to become actually in what he is potentially.” (Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality)

When we begin the process of self-actualization, mastery of self becomes our way of life. We view our psyche as a vast unexplored terrain, and are motivated to gain a greater knowledge of its inner depths. Rather than being driven solely by wealth or status, we choose an ambitious and meaningful life-mission. As we strive to achieve our goals, we devote our energies to mastering the necessary skills, and in the process, we actualize our latent potentials.

Furthermore, as our life becomes increasingly structured around the need to self-actualize, Maslow discovered that we become more susceptible to “peak experiences”:

“Self-actualizing people have the wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have become to others.” (Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality)

Peak experiences have a deep therapeutic effect and can permanently transform our self-image and view of the world. While they cannot be voluntarily stimulated, Maslow discovered that they arise spontaneously in self-actualizers far more frequently than in the majority of the population, implying that they are a by-product of the personal growth that self-actualizers experience as they cultivate their skills and strive to realize their potential.

Another trait shared by self-actualizers is their tendency to be free from the constricting need for social acceptance and the obsession many people have with social comparison. Rather than looking to others for approval or to social standards or “authorities” to determine how to live, such individuals defer matters of judgment to their own conscience. The French philosopher Montaigne, who exhibited this characteristic, captured it in the following line from his Essays: “I have my own laws and my own court to judge me, and I refer to these rather than elsewhere.” (Montaigne, Essays) Or as Maslow explains:

“[Self-actualizers] have become strong enough to be independent of the good opinion of other people, or even their affection. The honors, the status, the rewards, the popularity, the prestige, and the love they can bestow must have become less important than self-development and inner growth.” (Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality)

With this basic understanding of self-actualization, we are left with an important question. If all of us can, in principle, self-actualize, why do so few of us end up doing so? Why, in other words, do most of us become more complacent, conformist, bitter and neurotic as we age, rather than more individualized, joyous, creative, and productive?

Maslow spent much time deliberating this question and to answer it he suggested that there exist regressive forces in the psyche which inhibit growth.

“We must understand that the dark forces are as “normal” as the growth forces.” (Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being)

While most of us will claim that actualizing our potentials is something we desire to do, in reality we are often far more attracted by the easy path of safety and comfort. We avoid challenges which would lead to personal growth, refuse to face up to our fears, and remain passive in a manner which inhibits our capacity to self-actualize.

The pull of these regressive forces places us in a dangerous position, for if we allow ourselves to succumb to them, then over time we will pay a steep price. Anxiety, guilt, shame, and self-hate will manifest and torture us internally. But the presence of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that all is lost. Rather, as Maslow suggests, if we can learn to view these symptoms not as a sign that we are ill and in need of medication, but rather as a cry from the growth forces within, warning us that a change in our life is needed, we will have taken the first step toward becoming a self-actualizer, and thus one of those rare individuals who succeed in being human.

“He who belies his talent, the born painter who sells stockings instead, the intelligent man who lives a stupid life, the man who sees the truth and keeps his mouth shut, the coward who gives up his manliness, all these people perceive in a deep way that they have done wrong to themselves and despise themselves for it. Out of this self-punishment may come only neurosis, but there may equally come renewed courage, righteous indignation, increased self-respect, because of thereafter doing the right thing; in a word, growth and improvement can come through pain and conflict.” (Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being)

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Thomas Cole - L'Allegro
The Lyricist Egon Schiele 1911
Yosemite Valley Glacier Point Trail by Albert Bierstadt
Andrea Vaccaro - Study for the head of a child
Hackert, Landschaft mit Motiven des Englischen Gartens in Caserta, 1797
Giorgione, Portrait of a Man
Alexander Austen Der Gourmet
Professor i zoologi, Japetus Steenstrup holder foredrag
Winslow Homer - An Adirondack Lake
Eastman Johnson - The Lord Is My Shepherd - Google Art Project
Eugene VON GUÉRard - Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges - Google Art Project
'The Picture Lover' by Henri de Braekeleer
Elliott Daingerfield - Landscape (c.1918)
Sunrise, Long Branch, New Jersey
Indian Canoe by Albert Bierstadt, c. 1886, oil on canvas - Blanton Museum of Art - Austin, Texas - DSC08433
Thomas Eakins - Study for Portrait of Professor Rowland (Addison Gallery of American Art)
Conscience. Mironov
George Richmond self-portrait 1840
Rembrandt Study of an Old Man with a Gold Chain - GK 233
Nikolai Dubovskoi - Calm Before the Storm - Google Art Project
Portrait of a Man, by Sebastiano Luciani, called Sebastiano del Piombo, Venice or Rome, c. 1516, oil on wood panel - Blanton Museum of Art - Austin, Texas - DSC07724
Domenico Fetti - Sleeping Girl - Google Art Project
Sleeping-Beauty-by-Victor-Gabriel-Gilbert
Charpentier, Constance Marie - Melancholy - 1801
Workshop of Sir Peter Lely - Bust Portrait of a Young Man (so-called Samuel Pepys) - 91.17 - Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Mauritz de Haas - Sunset over the waves