Living a Self-Actualized Life

maslowWe can generally observe that we are motivated to seek happiness. The word happiness is a rather slippery term that means different things to different people. Typically, the qualities that we believe will bring us happiness are directly related to what we feel we lack. This sense of lack often originates in beliefs we form in childhood, and reinforce through our adult lives. Although a sense of lack can be a great motivator for change in our lives, the results of achieving or securing the things we lack often fail to bring sustained happiness and a sense of wholeness. Whether our lack of money, education, social-status, or respect be the motivation for our pursuits, the achievement of these things often fails to bring us to a place of completeness. The belief that fulfilling our individual sense of inferiority will make us happy seems like common-sense. However, there are many who achieve intellectual, material, and social success who continue to be extremely unhappy. So what then do we need to do to gain a sense of wholeness and completeness? It has little or nothing to do with wealth, formal education, and social clout. In fact, these three pursuits are often distractions and obstacles to true self-actualization.



Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who spent his life studying the characteristics of people who achieved contentedness. His term, self-actualization is the Westernized version of the Eastern concept of enlightenment. In fact, much of Maslow’s theory is inspired by ancient insights from Eastern thought. In 1987 Maslow published his findings after a lifetime of examining what self-actualized people believe and how they live. Maslow compiled a list of fifteen qualities that truly content people possess.

An Essential Change of Worldview

Before describing Maslow’s findings, I think it is important to discuss the idea of lack a bit further. It has been my experience that a certain attitude will greatly help anyone who wishes to begin the process of achieving true contentedness. Notice that I am not using the word happiness. Happiness is an extreme on a continuum between depression and mania. Between these two extreme experiences we find sadness, contentedness, and happiness.

Depression is what we experience when some truly devastating circumstances occur in our lives. Death of a friend, terminal illness, unbearable loss are all circumstances that bring about the experience of depression.

Sadness is what we experience when we encounter a disappointment. This can be not getting something we worked hard to achieve, or losing something that we cherished, but is not essential to life. The chief characteristic of sadness is disappointment, which is markedly different from the seriousness of depression. Often sadness has more to do with our expectations than the event that occurred. In Buddhism there is a saying, “without appointment there can be no disappointment.” In other words, often our sadness is a result of our adolescent belief that we deserve something and our inability to maturely bear the disappointment of not getting it. Some people form a habitual identity of setting others up to be the cause of disappointment in their life. It becomes a sense of self based on a blame game.

Contentedness is the middle-ground of the continuum between depression and mania. When we are content, nothing is particularly good, nothing is bad. We just are. We are in a state in which there is minimal want, little lack, and nearly no desire. Everything is okay.

Happiness is what we experience when we encounter an old friend whom we have not seen in many years. It is also the emotion we experience when we receive a gift or have an unanticipated surprise. We can experience happiness when we buy something new, or discover a new idea. Happiness is not sustainable. Happiness requires a constant renewal of buying, grasping, or working to sustain its existence. Each time we seek to sustain happiness the threshold rises. In this way, the constant pursuit of happiness shift our experiences to an irrational belief. We begin to refer to sadness as depression, contentedness as sadness, and happiness as mania -the rare state that occurs after some truly scarce experience -like winning a lottery or escaping death.

It is important to begin your exploration by putting these concepts into perspective. Begin using the words depression, sadness, contentedness, happiness, & mania appropriately. Do not call your sadness depression, and your contentedness sadness. Do not expect to live in a constant state of happiness masquerading mania. This is going to take a sincere effort to change the way you speak about these emotional experiences. Becoming aware of our misuse of these terms is an essential first-step towards contentedness and feeling a sense of wholeness.

As you change the way you describe your emotional experiences you will find that your friends, colleagues, and society as a whole are basing their sense of contentedness on a skewed system. It is a largely an effect of marketing and social one-upmanship that creates this slanted perception. You will have to maintain the new worldview and attend to make it your new habitual way of being. This is a correction of perception, one that is necessary after a lifetime of unhealthful social programming.

Marketers are in the business of telling you what you need. In other words, they motivate you to purchase their products or services by poking their finger in your sense of inferiority -what you believe you lack. Becoming aware of what your sense of lack is, what you believe makes you inferior to others- is the second step in achieving personal insight. Look for the theme is your life. Do you believe wealth, material objects, college degrees, or the envy of others will make you complete? Although material security, education, and social admiration can be positive qualities in our lives, you must give-up the belief that these things will bring you wholeness. This is not an easy belief to give up, but it is essential for your journey. You can continue to pursue and enjoy things, thoughts, and belongingness, but they are not essential qualities to sustained self-actualization.

Maslow’s Characteristics of Self-Actualized People

Now that you have adjusted your use of the word happiness and you have identified your sense of inferiority, you can begin to approach a way of being that will bring about the kind of peacefulness and wholeness that you are seeking. We will achieve this through reverse-engineering. If we carefully think about and incorporate the beliefs and attitudes of self-actualizers, we will eventually come to live self-actualized, or complete, lives. Abraham Maslow studied the characteristics of self-actualized people and compiled a list of fifteen common qualities those with wisdom possess. It is important to contemplate, study, and meditate on each of these fifteen characteristics, taking-care to make each one a living attribute of your life. In time, you will naturally become that which takes meaningful effort in the beginning. This is what we call personal change.

They perceive reality accurately and fully. By incorporating the two attitudes discussed above; redefining the words we use for our emotional experiences, and becoming aware of our sense of inferiority- will lead us to a more accurate perception of ourselves and others. Knowing our sense of inferiority- what we believe we lack- is essential to understanding our worldview. One way of going about this is to become aware of when we become defensive and feel the need to “set the record straight”. Often extreme emotional defensiveness points towards an aspect of our character that we do not wish to acknowledge. When you feel defensive, spend some time with the feeling, and assume that you would not be feeling such an extreme reaction if there were not some truth in the characterization. The goal here is constantly asking oneself how our worldview is serving our bias towards our habitual attitude.

In his book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, Fritz Heidder describes our tendency to perceive our actions and the actions of others in a self-serving way. In other words, we understand the world in a way that benefits us. Heidder found that when something good happens to us, we tend to attribute the cause to some personal characteristic that we possess -our hard work or our self-discipline. However, when something bad happens to us we tend to point the finger at other people or the system as the cause of our perceived misfortune. In an interesting twist, Heidder also reported that we tend to attribute the success of others not to their personal characteristics but to their external circumstances (“they don’t have to work, they have time that I do not have”), and their failures to their personal attributes (“maybe if she would have worked harder her grade would have been higher.”) We hold ourselves and others to different standards that are self-serving. Perceiving reality accurately and fully means becoming aware of our self-serving biases.

They demonstrate a greater acceptance of themselves, others, and of nature in general. Often we are caught in a trap of judgement. Our belief in the judgement of others and of ourselves is so habitually ingrained that we can find it difficult to experience ourselves an others without sizing them up. We ask what do you do? instead of what do you like to do? Our questions to others are often fed by an unhealthful sense of lack in which we seek to establish how we relate to others. When we ask what do you do? we are often seeking to establish how we relate to other socially, financially, and educationally. Learning about another person is different from judging them. Even innocent complements can be loaded with judgement. Self-actualizers observe rather than judge. They understand that sizing oneself up with others is not a taken-for-granted fact-of-life, but rather a habitualized assumption learned from our families and our society. Observing is noticing and appreciating without seeking to place oneself above, on level, or below another. It is absence of awareness of ego. Building-up one’s self-esteem exacerbates the sickness of judgement. Self-actualized people do not even notice how one compares to others. They simply observe without judgement.  By replacing judgement with observation we can begin to free ourselves of the guilt and despair that is the byproduct of the judgmental should.

They exhibit spontaneity, simplicity, and naturalness. “Simplify, simplify, simplify” Henry David Thoreau advised. In order to have the energy and personal resources it takes to pay adequate attention to our psychic lives, we must declutter and free ourselves from the unnecessary distractions in our lives. This means taking serious inventory of what is essential to our lives. This is no easy task. We often cling to our distractions, convincing ourselves that they are necessary obligations. Very little of what we obligate to are necessities, and as difficult as it might be, the sooner we free ourselves from these soul-sucking commitments, the sooner we will have time to attend to our inner-world. Freedom from “responsibilities” also allows for a more spontaneous life. True obligations to ourselves and our families are quite different from the socially-prescribed “shoulds” that distract us from higher spiritual business. Look at those whom we admire as self-possessed and self-actualized -we never see them running from one socially-prescribed obligation to the next. Much of what you choose to do with your time is up to you. If you find yourself saying, “yeah, but…” then it is time to refer to the first characteristic again. The choice to emulate self-actualization is entirely up to you, and  not dependent on your perceived obligations.

They tend to be concerned with causes rather than with themselves. “There is no bigger ego-trip going than losing one’s ego!” exclaimed Buddhist thinker, Alan Watts. Self-actualizers live towards what is within them to become, much like under favorable circumstances an acorn becomes an oak tree. In this way, we are human becomings, rather than human beings. We are process oriented, rather than a self that is arrived at. This way of being is not preoccupied with a narcissistic, fast-food, self-improvement fads. This is a forgetting of one’s self and focusing on some greater cause than one’s own image fetish. Self-actualizers are too busy becoming to think about being. They put their energies in creating, helping, working, and cultivating something beyond their “I-ness” (ego). When one is focused on something beyond themselves, they have no awareness of what others are thinking about them. This is losing the ego, and losing the depression, anxiety, and narcissism that often accompanies it.

They have a need for detachment and privacy. Self-actualizers are not afraid to be alone with themselves. They do not rush to the distraction of television, movies, books, and conversation to fill up their idle time. Rather than frantically using socializing, reading, and television watching to avoid contact with themselves, they set-aside time each day to be alone with themselves in meditation. Self-actualizers are fully-present when they are with friends, reading books, watching television or films. They engage with others in a way that brings them closer to their inner world, rather than escaping from it. Taking time each day for solitude, reflection, and spiritual self-maintenance is a key aspect to living a self-actualized life.

They are autonomous. People who live a self-actualized life are typically motivated by presence rather than by lack. We can minimize and disengage from our habitual wants and needs, replacing that sense of lack with a drive to be fully present. When this shift happens, we become less dependent on external circumstances for our sense of well-being and more oriented towards internal peace. This is the hallmark of autonomy -self naming. Our well-being becomes a self-determined state of being, rather than one that is conditional to our circumstances. Autonomy is becoming the author of one’s own life.

They exhibit a continued freshness of appreciation. Remaining aware, present, and in-awe of our world and our experience is vital to living a self-actualized life. This means engaging meaningfully and with great appreciation for even the most mundane aspects of our life. Freshness and appreciation means being aware not only of the presence of beauty and bounty in our lives, but being aware of the potential for it to cease. When I am returning to my home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania I encounter the Delaware Water Gap. Every time I approach this incredible river passage through the mountain I am in wonder. How is it possible that five-hundred million years ago such an amazing and beautiful miracle could have formed? To continue to see and appreciate the beauty that we live in each day keeps us mindful and appreciative of what we have, rather than on what we lack.

They have periodic mystic or peak experiences. Maslow described peak experiences as, “Feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placing in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened, so that the subject is to some extent transformed and strengthened even in his daily life by such experiences.” We often hear of spiritual or religious experiences that fit this description. However, we can also have these experiences in our everyday lives. Encountering the vastness of the mountains or the ocean, being in nature, listening or making music or some other art can all lead us to encounters with the peak experience. These are rare moments in which a sense of enlightenment comes to us; what the Buddhist call satori. It is a revelatory feeling that shifts one’s way of being in the world. It is primarily something felt and experienced, rather than something intellectually thought.

They tend to identify with all of humankind. Simply put, self-actualizers tend to focus on our similarities with others rather than our differences. Focusing on our connection rather than our disconnection to others is a habitual way of being that can be fostered. Taking time to redirect our habitual tendency to see what makes us different, rather than what makes us the same, allows us to see ourselves in things we despise in others. It is an opportunity to make negative emotional reactions into opportunities to learn about ourselves and to become more empathic with others.

They develop a few, deep friendships. Developing a few, close friendships, rather than many, superficial friendships, is a characteristic of self-actualized people. Cultivating quality over quantity is a central theme in the lives of those who are truly content. This is a quality that can be seen in the relationships that they form and foster with others. Focusing on deep, close relationships with a handful of people leads to more meaningful and authentic contact with ourselves and with others.

They tend to accept democratic values. By democratic values Maslow means a sense of equality to all human beings. The self-actualized individual seems oblivious to categories of ethnicity, physical features, social class, or educational level. They tend to view other’s character, not their category.

They have a strong ethical sense. Ethics is a sense of the implications of one’s actions, rather than the permissibility of them. Whereas some choice might be legal, it might not be ethical. Self-actualized individuals have a strong sense of ethical awareness and have cultivated an internal and flexible standard for personal behavior. They are not rule-bound followers of what is right or wrong, but rather they consider the implications of each individual choice and weigh that against the effects of that choice on the whole, not just themselves. A key aspect of their strong ethical sense is flexibility and considering their ethical choices on a case-by-case basis. This is not merely a strong sense of good, but a fluid and flexible sense of what is best for all.

They have a well-developed, unhostile sense of humor. In his book on Jokes and the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud observed that one’s sense of humor points towards one’s unconscious self. We can learn a lot about ourselves and others by observing themes that occur in what makes us laugh, as well as what we do to make others laugh. Some humor is always at someone else’s expense. Others ridicule themselves in a self-deprecating way. Becoming aware of what we laugh at can lead to introspective awareness of why we laugh at. Through thoughtful contemplation we can learn about aspects of ourselves the we hide behind our jokes and laughter. We find that when anger and hostility are purged from ourselves, the enjoyment of sadistic humor often fades.

They are creative. Creating for the sake of creating, and not for some pay-off in the end is essential to our well-being. Too often we do not pursue a creative impulse because it is unlikely to have a financial payoff or provide us with social prestige. Some individuals are busy only doing things that will enhance their resumé. This is not being creative in the sense that Maslow has observed. Making something for the joy of the process is the point of living this kind of creative life. One might also become creative in business or make creativity their business, however, making time for daily creative process without expectation is a key feature of self-actualizers.

They resist enculturation. Possibly one of the most important qualities of living a self-actualized life is orienting oneself toward one’s personal voice, and remaining true to it. Many of us find safety in going with the gaggle. Blending in and conforming to “what everybody else is doing” is a survival mechanism to keep us feeling safe. Just like a deer’s coloring allows it to blend into its environment to avoid predators, people tend to dress, behave, and think like the environment they are trying to survive in. Self-actualizers are so tuned-in to their inner calling that they do not even notice what everyone else is doing. They are oblivious to fitting-in, focusing rather on tuning-in. Self-actualizers do not intentionally dress, act, and look different for the sake of being different; that kind of “individualism’ is the highest form of automaton conformity! Instead, they focus on their inner voice and follow, despite the good opinions of those around them, their own inner guide.

Why are so few people living a self-actualized life?

Abraham Maslow described self-actualization as a possibility that exists for all of us. Why, then, is it such a rare way-of-being? Maslow described four reasons that so few of us self-actualize. Knowing these reasons can help us to face the obstacles that stand between us and  possible selves.

Self-actualization is not a necessity for survival. Economic and social needs often keep us so busy that we do not have the energy to work towards self-actualization. It is difficult to find the time or energy to read philosophy when one is working to keep food on the table and a roof over one’s head. However, there are strategies for making time for thinking and self-actualizing. Short-term sacrifices typically have long-term payoffs. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Simplify, Simplify”.

Self-actualization requires difficult and often uncomfortable acknowledgement about ourselves. The work threatens our manufactured performance of how we would like others to see us, and requires us to take an honest and often brutal look at our inauthentic, phony social presentation. To become honest with oneself can be a painful letting-go of defensive character structures that keep us feeling safe. To grow we must be willing to let go of our character defenses that we cling to for safety and pride.

People who self-actualize often face social criticism and are a focus of ridicule. By the nature of being driven by an inner calling, one is often seen as a traitor to the social group. Often the individual who begins to live the self-actualized life will inadvertently bring to the attention of others their own inauthenticity. This can often result in envy, anger, or even hatred towards the person who is growing. A long-time counseling patient recounted, “my friends scolded me, ‘youv’e changed’.”  “Thank you for noticing,” was her reply. We must be willing to accept that others might be upset by our deliberate way of life.

As we age we must weigh safety over risk. In financial investing there is a basic question that one answers to identify how comfortable they are with taking financial risks; Do you want to eat well or sleep well? Eating well is a benefit of high-risk investments, whereas sleeping well is a benefit of low-risk investing. As we age, sleeping well can take precedence over eating-well. In the same way, as we age our focus often shifts more towards belongingness and safety needs. However, there is a balance that can be struck between self-actualization and safety needs.

Thinking about and acting on the fifteen characteristics of self-actualized people can be a good first-step towards living to one’s own potential. In the beginning we imitate the characteristics but in time they become a new way of being. This is a process that one begins and maintains daily for the rest of one’s life. Self-actualization is a way of being.

For a complete introductory lecture to the theories of Abraham Maslow, please listen to my lecture here.