I’ve been studying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in class. It’s all about happiness. At the top of this well-constructed pyramid is ‘self-actualisation’, which basically means if you make it there, congratulations! You have fulfilled your maximum potential! It got me reflecting on my own life and the ways in which I’ve (we’ve) been conditioned. The theory behind the pyramid is that you can’t really achieve the next level of needs without satisfying the needs below. In class I listened to a bat shit crazy guy from Tennessee talk about the theory on YouTube. I watched another clip about how depression can be prevented using the theory. Hmm....
At the bottom of the triangle it mentions basic things like breathing, food, water, sleep. I reflected on my own life. Tick tick tick; I eat well...ish. Alright I drink too much Pepsi Max. I consume way too much sugar. I’d also eat pizza every night if I could. In terms of sleep I get about 6 hours...which isn’t enough - I stubbornly refuse to go to sleep before midnight otherwise I feel like I’ve been robbed of my day. Breathing? Yes I am breathing. So in terms of basic needs being met, I can check them off. Woohoo! Can I move up the pyramid now?
...But wait a second! How satisfied am I with those basic needs? I always finish a bag of Skittles and want more. It leaves me feeling unsatisfied. I want to be able to eat more ice cream without getting fat. I’d like better quality pasta. Or am I misinterpreting the pyramid? I can compare it to HALT – Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. These things I watch out for daily which affect my happiness. At the rare chance I’m none of these things, I’ll be sure to find something to moan about. I’m never satisfied. I still want a comfier bed, a new jumper, better incense, more sleep, more Pepsi Max. Give the things I have to a poor family living in rural Mongolia and they’d be in heaven.
Safety needs in the pyramid include employment, family, health. Well I’ve taught English all over the world to university students and I’m currently working for minimum wage making sandwiches. I’m not saying I’m ‘better’ than the people making sandwiches, but I’m not exactly fulfilling my potential. According to the pyramid, do I have to get a ‘good’ job before I can achieve confidence?
It got me thinking about cultural differences. The pyramid is a pretty westernised view of looking at things. Having lived in China I’ve experienced what it’s like not to have basic needs met. Water (drink from the tap and you get sick), sleep (lie on a wooden board with a sheet thrown over), food (chicken feet and MSG), and BREATHING which in a population of over 6 million where I lived was difficult. People wore mouth masks. I also didn’t have heat in my apartment or hot water. The students on my campus lived in much worse conditions. But they still seemed relatively happy. Obviously I can’t comment on how they actually felt, but they seemed child-like and buzzing with excitement. Families depended on each other. They seemed happy. I used to tell my students about life in the UK and they were astounded. And as much as there’s alot of ‘saving face’ in China, they are some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. When I got back from China I experienced alot of counter-culture-shock. I thought the society I lived in here was greedy, selfish and ungrateful. The first time I went food shopping I was appalled at all the choice. To be able to drink tap water was amazing. To sleep on a mattress! I could take a bath! Look at all the cereal I can have! In terms of my life, compared to what I had travelling, I was extremely satisfied. If you’d have shown me Maslow’s hierarchy of needs back then I would have reacted differently. But it didn’t take me long to revert back to my old ways. Soon enough I became lazy and unappreciative of the stuff I had. I got angry when Asda didn’t have the flavour of Ben n Jerrys I wanted. Irritated when the internet was working too slow. Today, a slow internet connection can cause me to flip out like the Hulk, whereas when I was in China, ANY internet connection made my day better. If I could connect to Google it was like Christmas.
Back to the pyramid – love and belonging, relationships, family, friends. Friends come and go. People change and grow apart. I alternate between being extremely sociable to being a hermit reading serial killer biographies. The thing with people is, is that they’re flawed. Including myself. I’ve always craved a friendship group like the ones in “Now and Then” where you get matching temporary tattoos and have sleepovers. I always had high expectations. Alas, friends never satisfied me. So I would literally have one friend growing up. I’m still trying to work that stuff out. Alot of people my age are settling now and most of my friends are married. So I’m not satisfied. Should I go down a level on the pyramid and work on my ‘safety’ needs? How many friends do I need before I am satisfied? Will I ever be truly satisfied with my friends?
And now for the big one – self esteem, confidence, respect, achievements. Again this is subjective. The way I perceive myself will be totally different to how someone else will. Others will see me as bubbly and outgoing. Others will see me as a miserable bastard. It depends on my mood which changes frequently i.e. if I feel comfortable around you, I will be silly and bubbly. If I think you don’t like me, I will be withdrawn and shut off. Sometimes I feel confident. Sometimes I have cripplingly low self esteem. No matter how perfect my job might be or how supportive my family are, I may always have confidence issues. So does that mean I can’t progress up the pyramid??
‘Self actualisation’. Pffffft. According to this pyramid, ‘creativity’, ‘spontaneity’, ‘lack of prejudice’, and ‘acceptance of facts’. Well unless I’m under an illusion, I’m pretty sure I have those abilities right now. I am creative. But what is creative? I can draw a picture. I can make up a rhyme. But I don’t fulfil all the criteria on the pyramid. Do we have to be satisfied with our job in order to have a ‘lack of prejudice’ ? Do we have to be satisfied with our family unit before we can have an ‘acceptance of facts’ ? There are always going to be things we have to work on.
And that’s what brings me to the Buddhist principles and how they relate to the pyramid. I’m trying to live a life of simplicity and to look within myself to solve unhappiness. I meditate. If I’m not happy with my job then I either get a DIFFERENT job or I adjust to the situation. Why don’t I like the job? Is it something within myself I can change? I ask myself questions and assess what is causing me discontent. Maybe I just have a crap job? Maybe I just have a bad relationship? Maybe I just need another duvet on my bed if I’m cold? What do we change and what do we keep the same? Am I trying to run away from anything? I spent years trying to fulfil my unmet needs - changing jobs, partners, locations, friends, weight, hair, clothes, careers, substances, music tastes, values. The aim is to still have our self esteem intact throughout discontentment, or whatever is going on around us. If you’re happy doing a job way below your skill level, who’s to say you’re not fulfilling your potential? So if depression is caused by Maslow’s needs not being met, then why do people still get depressed? Of course if you’re ill it’s going to affect your mood. If you lose your house it’s going to cause anxiety. But what happens when you have ‘everything’, and still feel anxious and depressed?
Thanks for reading. I'm going to eat a full tub of Phish Food now.