Self-actualisation: what it is, why it is important and how to work towards it.
Self-actualisation is probably the most important element of a happy and fulfilling life you haven’t heard much about.
Or maybe you have. It is not part of everyday language, but it has been discussed for decades in humanistic and positive psychology circles.
Maslow put self-actualisation at the top of his famous hierarchy of needs as the highest and most sublime need humans can have. Other psychologists have expanded on Maslow’s work in the last few decades.
But what exactly is self-actualisation? And why is it so important? Can it be developed and worked upon?
We’ll answer these and other questions below.
What is self-actualisation?
So many features and dimensions have been added to the concept of self-actualisation over the years that it no longer has a clear definition.
In A Theory of Human Motivation, Maslow defined it as “self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for the individual to become actualised in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”
In later writings, Maslow replaced the term self-actualisation with being “fully human”. For him, self-actualisation was the highest human need and being self-actualised meant being fully human or displaying the fullest humanness possible.
Self-actualisation is about being the best version of yourself, having a growth mindset, and constantly wanting to improve and learn new things.
It is also about self-awareness, listening to your nature and being your true self.
It is a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional concept.
10 characteristics of self-actualisation
Maslow wrote about many of the characteristics of self-actualised people in different papers. The psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman has looked at them in detail, and after testing them and comparing them to existing research, he has grouped them into ten characteristics.
Let’s have a quick look at these ten characteristics.
Self-actualising people like to get to the truth of things and people. They like to find out how things really are.
For Maslow, truth is one of the most fundamental human values, recognised across all cultures. It is a universal value.
Self-actualised people are driven by the search of it.
The first person one has to accept is oneself.
Before being able to love others and be compassionate to them, we need to start with ourselves.
Self-actualised people understand this. They understand they are not perfect, but they accept themselves as they are, with their quirks and desires, without shame or apology.
A favourite in this blog, purpose is essential to being a happy and fulfilled human being. It is also an essential part of self-actualisation.
Purpose is about having a mission that goes beyond one’s self-interest, knowing what it is and working towards achieving it.
Self-actualised people are authentic to themselves.
They accept themselves as they are, so they have no problem with being authentic to their real self, regardless of the situation they find themselves in.
As Barry Kaufman says, they “can maintain their dignity and integrity even in situations and environments that are undignified”.
Continued freshness of appreciation
Self-actualised people enjoy and appreciate the little things in life.
They are like grown-up children who haven’t stopped marvelling at all the wondrous things life has to offer.
Watching a sunset is wonderful, it doesn’t matter how many you have already seen. So is smelling the earth after a summer rain, listening to a moving song, watching the view from a high mountain, and other million things.
Others may have become tired of these experiences, but self-actualised people keep enjoying and savouring them as if it were the first time.
Maslow dedicated much time to studying peak experiences.
In The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, he defined peak experiences as “transient moments of self-actualisation. They are moments of ecstasy which cannot be bought, cannot be guaranteed, cannot be sought.”
They can be attained by different means. For example, giving birth to a child can be a peak experience, but so can be working in a flow state on something requiring concentration, finishing a marathon, making love or having a hallucinogenic-induced trip.
Self-actualised people have a genuine desire to help the human race to get better. They want to contribute to building a better world and a better society.
Good moral intuition
Self-actualised people know straight away when something is right or wrong. They have a well-tuned moral compass, and they are guided by it.
They don’t need to reflect on it. They just know.
The right moral intuitions guide them.
People manifest their self-actualisation through their creativity.
Self-actualised people like and want to create new things. They realise creating things is one of the most human endeavours, and they relish their creative spirit.
They squeeze their creative juices to the maximum.
That doesn’t mean all self-actualised people are artists or that they are the next Leonardo or Michel Angelo. Creativity can be applied to all human activities, not only arts, and we will all apply it in our levels of mastery, without necessarily being the next genius.
Read more: 6 Practical Tips To Unleash Your Creativity
Self-actualised people tend to take life’s vicissitudes with equanimity.
They take them with grace and acceptance.
They know that life has ups and downs, which are a necessary part of life, and they accept them as such.
A pyramid that isn’t a pyramid
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been drawn as a pyramid so many times that it is now difficult to imagine it any other way, but Maslow himself never envisaged it as such.
He thought some needs were at a higher spectrum than others and that you needed to have some basic needs covered before you could aspire to others, but Maslow never envisaged life as a videogame with different levels, where you need to cover one need before you go up to the next one.
Life is more complex and nuanced than that, and so are human needs.
As Barry Kaufman tells us, “most people are partially satisfied in all their basic needs and partially unsatisfied in all their basic needs at the same time.”
Following up with the videogame metaphor, we are all playing at all levels all the time, depending on our state of mind at the moment. I might be working on my self-actualisation because some of my lower needs are covered, but in specific moments I might feel unsafe for some reason, and my need for safety will need covering.
The psychologist John Rowan compared Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with Russian dolls: “each larger doll includes all the smaller dolls but also transcends them.” When working on a higher-purpose need such as self-actualisation, the lower-level needs don’t disappear but become integrated with the higher need.
Self-actualisation is at the peak of the pyramid that isn’t a pyramid. It is the highest-purpose need, but it is integrated with all the rest.
It includes and transcends them all.
Why is self-actualisation worth pursuing?
Self-actualisation is the higher need we humans can have, so it is essential to being happy and satisfied.
It is as simple as that.
It is what we are meant to do, but we often go astray and lose our ways. Self-actualisation is your way to go back to what you were supposed to be doing.
All babies are born with the desire and urge to grow and learn. During the first years of their life, toddlers and little children are sponges absorbing all kinds of knowledge and new skills. They explore the world and become better at being human beings.
Then most of us lose that urge and become stuck in adulthood. We get stuck in a job we don’t like, relationships we don’t enjoy, thought and behaviour patterns that make us unhappy, and unhealthy habits. We don’t learn new things, we don’t create anything new, we don’t grow.
We get stuck.
We don’t let our self-actualising nature express itself, so we wither and wilt like an untended plant.
Self-actualisation is worth pursuing because it will make us feel alive and bring a higher purpose to our life.
It is what will give us real and profound joy.
How to self-actualise
All this is great, but how do you self-actualise? Is it possible to become a self-actualised person?
First of all, self-actualisation is an ongoing process, like life itself. There is no final destination where you suddenly arrive, and hey, presto, you are now self-actualised.
You constantly self-actualise, but there is always room for improvement. It is a process of continuous becoming rather than being.
You can do different things to work on your self-actualisation, to work on this continuous becoming.
The ten characteristics mentioned above would be the best starting point. Just look at them and reflect on how you do against each.
In some, you will do great; in others, not so much, but that’s OK. You will then know now where to start.
Once you do that, you can focus on the three areas below.
Self-actualisation is about following your nature, about being your real self. It’s about doing what you are supposed to do and not what your parents or society expect from you.
To do that, first, you need to know yourself well. You need to know who you are. You need to be self-aware.
Another good option is to carry out the test on self-actualisation I mentioned above. By doing so, you will gain self-awareness in general and in all the specific dimensions of self-actualisation, so you will know where to focus more.
Once you know who you are, you just need to be yourself. Find your purpose, what you are meant to do, and try to live according to your authentic nature.
Creativity is one of the most human features.
Creating things gives us purpose and meaning, so it can be highly satisfying. It is also fun.
All human beings have their own creative impulse. Don’t ever believe you aren’t creative.
We all are.
So, create new things, build them, test them. Try and experiment with new things. Play an instrument, draw, paint, mould clay, write, try a new method or process at work, or, why not, start your own blog.
Express your creativity the way that feels best for you. We all have our own different ways of being creative.
You will know what it is when you do it.
Don’t stop learning
Learning is the source of one of the biggest joys in life, but it is an unappreciated joy for many.
Don’t be one of those many. Appreciate the joys learning brings.
There is so much knowledge, so many skills, so many interesting facts, so many valuable tips… so many things to learn out there, that you can learn something new every minute for the rest of your life, and you will still have plenty of things left to learn.
But that’s fine, it’s not a race.
The self-actualised person doesn’t compete with anybody else, only with him or herself. They want to become the best version of themselves, get as close as possible to their potential as a human being.
To do that, the self-actualising person needs to keep learning and improving.
They keep learning not because they must so they can get better but because of the joy it brings them.
Learning is not a means to an end; it’s the end itself.
Towards full humanness
For Maslow, self-actualisation meant being fully human.
Working towards self-actualisation means working towards full humanness. It means being the best version of ourselves, making the most of our most human capabilities.
It means listening to our inner self, knowing who we really are, and using that knowledge to live the life we are meant to live. It also means being creative, never stopping learning new things and living by our values.
An ideal world would be one where everybody, the entire population, was encouraged and had the time and everything they needed to work towards their self-actualisation.
A better future would be one where self-actualisation was a value and a state of mind cherished by society, where we all made an effort to be the best version of ourselves.
It is a distant future, but not impossible. We are born to self-actualise, but some of us forget about it. We can build a society where we don’t forget it, and everyone is allowed to live the life they are meant to live.
Wouldn’t it be great to live in such a world?
It is in our hands to build it. What are we waiting for?