“Maslow’s Real Hierarchy” by Mike Kline

Note: Createquity’s original definition of a healthy arts ecosystem included references to self-actualization as one of the benefits of the arts. We weren’t sure about how self-actualization and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs were viewed in the research field, however, so we conducted a bit of due diligence to come to a stronger understanding. This work eventually led us to a large body of research on wellbeing, about which we published a feature article in August 2015.

These initial research reports were completed in 2014 by members of the Createquity editorial team. They are intended to give a sense of our (very) preliminary thoughts on the topic in question. We welcome discussion and debate. – IDM


A bit about our process

Rather than generating specific hypotheses regarding the relationship between self-actualization and the arts, we did a scan of existing literature on self-actualization, wellbeing, and identity to get a rough sense of possible answers to the following questions:

  • How seriously do psychologists and social theorists take self-actualization today?
  • If it does have currency today, does self-actualization have a generally accepted scientific meaning and if so, what is that meaning?
  • What is the relationship between self-actualization and more “basic” needs? Is it possible to reach self-actualization without other needs having been met first?

After doing a preliminary “data dump” into Zotero, compiling articles and reports on Maslow’s theory of self-actualization and alternate theories, we paused to determine the best way to move forward. Falling down the rabbit hole of “Was Maslow right or not?” was tempting, but we decided to expand beyond self-actualization specifically while refocusing our energies in two broad areas: examining literature related to the arts and psychological wellbeing, and literature related to the arts and identity. We also each read a handful of articles that emerged during our initial scan and seemed to be particularly relevant.


Extent to which existing research addresses our research questions, and extent to which there seem to be areas of consensus and debate

We found a lot of literature on Maslow’s theory of self-actualization and its application to a range of disciplines (i.e. management theory, mental health). As noted above, whether or not Maslow was “correct” is still hotly contested. Wahba and Bridwell’s literature review of research on Maslow concludes that his theory has been generally disproven. That review, however, focused on research inside the workplace. Another seminal report, Tay and Diener’s “Needs and Subjective Well Being Around the World,” found there are specific categories of need that are consistent across cultures, and there is some suggestion of a needs “hierarchy” that is more fluid than Maslow suggested. They did not explicitly mention self-actualization in their survey, choosing instead of examine individuals’ feelings of mastery/pride in work, self-direction, and autonomy. However, in speaking about the study, one of its authors did refer to self-actualization, noting, “An important departure from Maslow’s theory is that we found that a person can report having good social relationships and self-actualization even if their basic needs and safety needs are not completely fulfilled.”

In short,  while the term continues to be bandied about with some regularity, there does not appear to be one agreed-upon definition of self-actualization and there is a lack of empirical support for Maslow’s hierarchy. In popular literature, Maslow’s pyramid is referred to “quaint and old-fashioned and badly in need of updating.” There is also another, more philosophical critique of the self-actualization idea that questions Maslow’s assumption of there being a stable Self that merely needs to be “actualized.” We didn’t find studies that directly take Maslow to task for this (and we may be  exaggerating his essentialism as we haven’t read his work ourselves), but it seems inherent in the way that postmodern theorists and identity studies scholars talk about identity formation.  From our vantage points as neophytes in psychological research, however, it appears that the concept of self-actualization has been folded into broader discussions of psychic wellbeing, and may be the cornerstone of the burgeoning field of “positive psychology,” which studies the conditions that make people happy as opposed to the conditions/symptoms of psychological distress.

Lacking an agreed-upon definition of what self-actualization is and how it can be achieved, we had difficulty moving forward on the majority of our other research questions. However, we did find a few tidbits here and there.  A rough summary of  questions and relevant notes follows:

  • What is the relationship between self-actualization and overall life satisfaction? Have there been any studies looking at both?
    • A 2004 study by Vitterso argues that self-actualization and subjective wellbeing are two separate things. The author cites a lot of literature in outlining the two concepts. Interestingly, Vitterso doesn’t cite Maslow on self-actualization and indeed we’re not sure how closely Vitterso’s use of the term resonates with Maslow (Vitterso certainly isn’t interested in the hierarchy of needs). For Vitterso, SWB is a form of happiness that is related to “being” while self-actualization is related to “doing.” Without reading up on the literature that Vitterso cites, we can’t tell how/if “self-actualization” differs from a more general sense of “personal development.” Vitterso’s use of the term certainly seems to imply that its the process of self-actualization that is important (i.e. that makes people happy) rather than being self-actualized.  Vitterso concludes that “that traditional measurements of SWB are insensitive to important aspects of human lives, and that the concept misses important aspects of psychological well-being.”
    • Tay and Diener’s international survey of subjective wellbeing doesn’t mention self-actualization at all, but instead uses terms of self-direction and autonomy.
  • What is the relationship between self-actualization and more “basic” needs? Is it possible to reach self-actualization without other needs having been met first?
    • From article on “Renovating the pyramid of needs”: The researchers state in the article that while self-actualization is interesting and important, it isn’t an evolutionarily fundamental need. Instead, many of the activities that Maslow labeled as self-actualizing (artistic creativity, for example) reflect more biologically basic drives to gain status, which in turn serves the goal of attracting mates.
    • Tay and Diener found that while there is some evidence of a consistent hierarchy across countries, it is indeed possible to fulfill “higher” needs first — i.e. to report strong social relationships and feelings of love and belonging without necessarily having all basic needs secured.
  • How do scholars who specialize in self-actualization see the arts fitting in? What are examples of other pathways to self-actualization that don’t involve the arts
    • There doesn’t seem to be much research that addresses this specifically. (We found a few articles that purport to look at the relationship between a specific art form and self-actualization, but they did not not appear to be robust studies.) The closest parallel might be Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow,” which is frequently brought up in discussion of creativity and education. Flow is not specific to the arts, however; it can be achieved through any individual activity provided that activity triggers the right combination of passion and challenge in a given person.
  • Do we have any idea how many people are self-actualized, whatever that means? How would one go about estimating this?
    • If the initial scan of the Vitterso study is correct, self-actualization doesn’t refer to a state which some people have reached and others haven’t, it refers to the a person’s relationship to a particular task/experience. Vitterso cites the theory of “flow” experiences which roughly states that people are most happy when they are challenged but able to fulfill the task.


Where do we go from here?

Unless we want to come up with our own definition of the term, self-actualization may be a dead end. However, further investigation of how psychologists and other researchers characterize subjective wellbeing, and the relationship between SWB and autonomy and creativity may be warranted. It may also be worth looking into how SWB manifests across communities, not just individuals — one critique of Maslow’s pyramid is that it is oriented to an individual’s experience at the expense of collective experience. Arts engagement cultivates both, and Tay and Diener’s work touches on how the attributes of a specific country or community can influence the likelihood of individuals reporting higher SWB.