Human beings are a clingy and dependent species. We're needy, there’s no way around it, we evolved that way. In fact, according to Abraham Maslow, we’re needy five times over.
Is anyone here familiar with the hierarchy of needs? These needs, proposed by Maslow, break out all of our wants and desires into five categories, ranked from the most essential to the most opulent. It’s impossible, he argues, to have a higher need without first fulfilling the one below it, depicted here:
All humans start out with the most basic needs for survival: food, water, and shelter. These physiological needs are the most important, in that nothing can be done without them, and are therefore the base of all human wants. Safety comes next, because after we've fulfilled the base things needed for survival, we have to protect those things long-term in order to guarantee the longevity of our life. This type of safety comes in the form of a survival benefit like a tribe.
Once we have safety in a tribe, whether it be friends, family, or community, we seek love and belonging within that group. This ensures that we’ll continue to remain safe as part of the tribe, and it also gives our lives a feeling of purpose and belonging. This marks the first time that our needs deviate from the rational and towards the emotional. Before, all needs were based on our survival. Now, while love and belonging increase our chance of survival within the tribe, it also makes our emotional well being an acute human need.
From there, it's all qualitative. What comes after love in our hierarchy of needs is esteem. We want people to respect us. Self-esteem is essential to the mental health of a human, and the inability to fulfill that need is actually where a lot of our collective depression stems. If we don’t have esteem, we don’t think we're good enough, and we seek reasons and stories that support our unworthiness, so says Psychologist Tara Brach. Therefore, fulfillment of esteem is essential to our qualitative quest for purpose, because a worthy person confidently gives their own life direction.
Finally, once esteem is fulfilled, there’s only the need of self-actualization left. If able, humans can fulfill this need by realizing their full potentials and achieving their individual purposes. However, as we all know, nothing’s perfect, and it’s probable that the purpose you placed so much of your life’s value turns out to be unfulfilling and un-actualizing. So, in a sense, there’s no way to achieve full potential, and therefore, no way to fully self-actualize, which means we’re always left needing something. It seems like we're doomed to feel permanently unfulfilled, or are we?
I went snow camping a few weeks ago. Desolation Wilderness, ever heard of it? I’ll spare you the finer details, but a group of friends and me hiked 5 miles through powdery snow, sometimes over drifts as high as 10 feet, in snowshoes, carrying all our backpacking equipment, to a base camp where we spent the next few days hiking and exploring. It sounds crazy when I say it out loud, but I promise you, it was a blast.
And it also taught me an important lesson: when almost every action you take is based on the physiological needs for survival, all your emotional needs take a necessary backseat, and it’s possible to find quiet calm and contentment.
Sounds woo-woo, but I promise you its true. It happened to me. With no running water, you’re reduced to boiling snow with a backpacker’s stove if you want to stay hydrated. And at 8,500 feet, with miles to hike, you can get dehydrated pretty quickly. And how about food? We had some dry food, sure, but if you want to keep sane, you also need some heartier dinner meals that require hot water. So, more boiling.
Oh, and did I mention the trenches and holes we dug to protect our tents from the wind? Or the oft-forgotten fact that you’ll have to strap on snowshoes and head down from camp just to use the bathroom. Or that the bathroom is really a tree? The point is that even the most simple tasks required comparatively massive outputs of energy, and these tasks were also essential for our survival, giving us little else to think about.
And there’s the beauty: we were living to constantly fulfill our first two needs. There was no point to think about esteem and self-actualization, there was only the will to live. And in this mental headspace I felt a calm I’ve never experienced before. A quiet contentment that I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing in that moment. It was good, let me tell you, to live in those “primal needs,” needs that, in our modern world, are fulfilled so easily we forget they’re needs at all.
When you focus on your most basic needs, something else happens, too. The lower human wants naturally help you achieve your higher needs without you even realizing it.
Again, when you’re camping in 7-10 feet of snow, basic tasks become constant struggles. It helps, therefore, to rely on a group of people and ensure your collective survival. Everyone does their part and pulls their weight so the group has a better chance to succeed with less total energy output.
And naturally, when you become part of a group to increase your safety, even social safety in today’s world, you naturally begin to bond and belong. There’s a natural influx of camaraderie as each of you work collectively towards a common goal. Everyone relies on each other, therefore everyone belongs, and the third need is fulfilled without even trying.
In the wilderness, with no social media outbursts or hateful trolls, and with only a small group of people to judge you, all of whom are judging you favorably due to your contribution to the tribe, it becomes easy to achieve the fourth need of esteem. Your self-confidence and self-worth shoot sky high knowing that you're actions directly help a person or group of people. And the people you’re with respect you for what you’re adding to the collective whole.
And then, with only self-actualization left, your potential and purpose become fulfilled because the full breadth of your skills and potential are geared towards helping the tribe continue, and there’s nothing left to want or need. Your physical and emotional desires are filled with contentment gained through completing basic, but important, tasks.
Compare this to how we address our emotional needs today: all or basic needs are fulfilled without us even knowing. We find no pleasure or purpose in homeostasis or safety, because very rarely do we grow up worrying about them. But pleasure or not, with the basic needs out of the way, we should have more time to focus on the third need, right? Well, social media and other modern ways we “connect” actually fragment our sense of tribe and cause us to wander as we search for a feeling of belonging.
With no feeling of inclusion, we assume something’s wrong with us, and we are unable to achieve esteem or actualization. Stated before, this is where a lot of our depression and anxiety comes from. They grow out of fear that we aren’t good enough. A fear, admittedly, that wouldn’t exist if 10 people were relying on you for clean water.
The bottom line is that life’s become too easy, and we don’t even realize the extent of it. We have a lot of time on our hands, and we spend it worrying about qualitative things like passion, thanks to the fact that we don’t have to waste time and energy surviving. The irony being that a clear focus on basic needs helps fulfill the higher ones.
The solution? Don’t take your lower needs for granted. Focus on the joy that comes from the consistent fulfillment of your most important base desires. Appreciate your running water and you fridge full of food. Rejoice when your Subway car breaks down because at least you have a public mode of transportation at all. Then, when you do have extra time to think and ponder, fill that time with constructive tasks and experiences that further your appreciation for life as it is.
Does that mean don’t have higher goals? Hell no. But, what it does mean is that you should set a direction, and then enjoy and marvel at the everyday actions that get you there.
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