You’re likely familiar with the iconic pyramid representing Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid
J. Finkelstein [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In short, Maslow’s Hierarchy is a visual representation of a theory put forth by psychology Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper for Psychological Review, “A Theory of Human Motivation.”

As the title suggests, Maslow’s theory encompasses his observations and ideas on human needs and motivation.

In this article, we will take a high-level look at what Maslow’s theory is, how the hierarchy came about, and why both are still relevant for your life and career in 2019.

Who was Abraham Maslow?

Abraham Maslow, born in 1908 to Jewish immigrant parents from Kiev, was an American psychologist who was raised and educated in Brooklyn, New York.

After high school, Maslow attended the City College of New York and Cornell University before graduating from City College. He would continue his education in graduate-level psychology at the University of Wisconsin.

Over time, his research career led him to Columbia University, Brooklyn College, and Brandeis University. Maslow eventually became a fellow at the Laughlin Institute in California, where he stayed until his death in 1870.

Maslow’s Hierarchical Theory of Human Needs

In short, Abraham Maslow’s theory argues that humans have a series of needs, some of which must be met before they can turn their attention toward others. Certain universal needs are the most pressing, while more “acquired” emotions are of secondary importance.

Maslow classifies the needs that humans need as follows:

  1. Physiological
  2. Safety
  3. Belonging and Love
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-Actualization

The order in which the needs classifications is listed is not a coincidence. According to Maslow, physiological needs must be met before those under safety, and only after physiological and safety requirements are met will someone begin looking at those under belonging and love.

The goal of a human being is to incrementally meet the needs of the individual levels so that they “complete the hierarchy,” so to speak.

The Hierarchy Levels

We’ve mentioned the levels that comprise Maslow’s theory, but what are the needs that are included in each?

Physiological Needs

Needs at the physiological level are those that are almost primitive — they include things like:

  • Air
  • Sleep
  • Water
  • Food
  • Shelter

These are first-order needs that must be met continuously for the individual to be satisfied — if any are not, the person feels increasingly displeased. This displeasure is the force behind the drive to meet these needs.

Safety Needs

The level immediately above physiological is safety, which helps ensure the physical survival of the person.

Safety includes things like physical security, employment security, confidence that the resources needed to meet the body’s physiological needs will be achieved, and so on. In short, the person wants to be sure that their physical well-being is protected.

According to Maslow, only when the needs included in the physiological and safety levels are met can someone attempt to do more on a day-to-day basis.

Belonging and Love Needs

The belonging and love level is the beginning of interpersonal relationships, and the overarching goal for meeting these needs is social belonging.

Such needs include both friendships, family relationships, and intimate relationships with a partner of choice. The specifics of these relationships vary — some seek larger social circles, while others are content with smaller ones.

Maslow argues that it is crucial for humans to love others and be loved by others. The absence of this love results in things like loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

Esteem Needs

Esteem can be described briefly as the ability for someone to be comfortable in their own skin. In addition to recognizing that they’re competent and worthy of respect, people want others to recognize their competence and respect them.

Maslow differentiates between two “types” of needs when it comes to esteem:

  • Lower: the need for respect from others (e.g., prestige, attention, status, and fame)
  • Higher: the need for respect from the self (e.g., freedom, independence, strength)

Self-Actualization Needs

Maslow sums up this level as, “what a man can be, he must be.”

This level focuses on the person’s full potential and their ability to reach that potential, or the desire to accomplish all that one can to the best of one’s ability. These goals and accomplishments can include things like:

  • Parenting
  • Pursuing goals
  • Seeking happiness and personal fulfillment

Grouping the Hierarchy Levels

Generally speaking, Maslow’s hierarchy can be broken down into two different types of levels: deficit needs (D-needs) and growth or being needs (B-needs).

  • D-needs, like physiological, safety, belonging and love, and esteem, exist due to deprivation, which motivates people to meet those needs. The longer someone goes without that need being met, the stronger that desire is (e.g., thirst gets more intense as more time passes without drinking). However, once satisfied, the need goes away, and the person can focus on other needs.
  • Conversely, B-needs (self-actualization) result from the desire to grow as a person — rather than resulting from the lack of something, it is the desire to gain something intangible for the self. To meet these needs is to reach what Maslow calls self-actualization.

Criticisms of Maslow’s Theory

As we mentioned above, Maslow developed his theory based on observation, which according to some scientists, results in a concept that is lacking in scientific rigor.

Additionally, Maslow’s theory is culturally biased. The physiological and safety needs seem to be universal, but the other levels reflect Western values and ideologies — other cultures may value the higher levels in an order that does not match the one presented by Maslow.

Finally, there’s an unspoken of acceptance that the hierarchy is fixed — one must meet the needs in the order specified. However, this is an idea that is reinforced by the pyramid imagery, which (as we have previously mentioned) was not included in the original paper. Maslow himself emphasized that the order is not rigid. There’s some fluidity between the levels, and people may move between levels based on circumstances.

Is Maslow Still Relevant to Life and Work in 2019?

Given the criticism of Maslow’s theory (some of which we mentioned in an above section), is Maslow still relevant in 2019?

We think so.

As with all theories of personality, Maslow’s theory is limited in that it is only a model — it can capture certain facets of an individual’s personality, but it cannot capture individuals wholly.

Furthermore, Maslow’s hierarchy provides a basic path for self-improvement. Growth and personal development are hot topics today, and despite the lack of rigorous scientific support, it offers a general framework people can use to better themselves.

Originally employment fell into the Safety category, but today Maslow’s hierarchy in business is relevant to the upper levels of the pyramid.

NeedApplication at Work
BelongingCompany culture
EsteemRecognition by peers, industry, company
Self-actualization Finding true meaning in work

Maslow’s Theory and Its Effect on Your Career

One of the biggest uses of time for many people is paid employment, and it is instructive, with Maslow’s theory acting as a periscope, to take a closer look at work and what Maslow’s theory says about how human nature influences people’s behavior at work.

Taking Care of Yourself

Neglecting sleep, thirst, and hunger can impact your performance in the workplace, and only by prioritizing your most basic needs can you perform your best.

  • Have you slept enough?
  • Have you eaten breakfast?
  • Are you dehydrated?

We don’t need to explain how performing your best can only accelerate the trajectory of your career.

Are You Afraid of the Future?

Today, we no longer live in constant fear of being eaten by predatory animals or being at the mercy of harsh weather patterns.

However, that doesn’t mean that we all live safe and secure. Our modern economy requires money to ensure one’s survival, so financial independence (or not) is a concern for many. We have improved housing, but that doesn’t mean that we have fireproof or hurricane-proof houses.

Issues with meeting one’s physiological and psychological needs can have a significant impact on one’s performance at work — and it’s clear that stress can cause cognitive degradation that decreases efficiency at work. We’re also more attuned to the need to balance our personal and professional lives. Studies show an increasing number of young people are suffering from work-related stress, a trend driving calls for a focus on work-life balance.

The Importance of Company Culture

There’s been a lot of talk about the importance of company culture. Company culture is a crucial aspect of an employee’s life at work.

Nobody likes to feel left out, and if an environment is such that not everyone has a sense of belonging, it’s likely that you’ll see decreased productivity and overall satisfaction, which leads to decreased employee engagement and productivity. See where we’re going?

Though there is some cultural bias in Maslow’s theory, there is less regarding gender bias (e.g., women want recognition and respect just as men do). Facilitating these needs is therefore crucial to creating a positive work environment.

Recognition for Everybody

At its root, employment involves the trade of labor for financial (and other rewards), but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t relationships between multiple parties involved.

Employment engagement is good for business. The bad news? Around 70% of employees in the U.S are disengaged, not working to their full potential and holding back company growth as a result, according to a Gallup study.

One aspect of workplace relationships is the recognition that each person contributes something to the company, no matter how big or how small that contribution is. Someone needs to run the company, but someone needs to make sure all the bathroom stalls have toilet paper, too.

As such, it is essential that recognition and respect, among many other things, flow freely in the workplace.

A positive workplace is one that meets the needs of individuals, either directly (offering the employee financial security) or indirectly (fostering an environment where employees can trust one another).

Maslow’s Theory and the Workplace

What is the link between happiness, meaning, and workplace fulfillment?

First, do not mistake happiness for meaning. You can get pretty happy employees if even their lower level needs are met. Moreover, it is possible for an individual to be happy, yet lacking in purpose and meaning.

However, this is problematic. A recent survey found 75% of people scored high on levels of happiness, but low on meaning. Research from the Energy Project also revealed 50% of respondents lacked meaning at work. The study found employees who found meaning in their work were more engaged and more likely to stay with the company.

How do you create a place to work where people can do meaningful work? Begin with Maslow’s hierarchy and ensure that you’re building a space where all of your employees’ needs are being met!

Putting It All Together: Self-Actualization Today

What does self-actualization look like today?

Well, it hasn’t changed much over the years. Self-actualized individuals tend to exhibit most, if not all, of the following traits:

  • Appreciation of what they have, what they’ve been given
  • Accepting and gracious of what they cannot change
  • Authentic
  • Filled with purpose in their lives
  • Grounded in reality, letting as little bias their perceptions as possible
  • Principled, and are guided by their principles

In building meaningful lives in the 21st century, we should also determine our values. A Stanford study linked happiness to people who took more from others, and connected meaningfulness to people who gave more.

Peak Experiences

Once the routine needs are met and someone has achieved self-actualization, Maslow theorizes that one is more likely to undergo what he calls peak experiences, which are deeply profound “moments of highest happiness and fulfillment.”


While dated, Maslow’s theory is useful for both personal development and workplace growth. By identifying what humans need and what drives and motivates people, employers and employees can develop mutually beneficial relationships and positive environments conducive to work.

What do you think of Maslow’s theories? Do you think Maslow’s hierarchy is still applicable in 2019?