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What Is Self-Actualization?

The Role it Plays in the Hierarchy of Needs

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Self-actualization involves achieving your full potential.

Self-actualization lies at the top of Maslow's needs hierarchy.

Image: Anna Bryukhanova / iStockPhoto

What Is Self-Actualization?

What exactly is self-actualization? Located at the peak of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy, he described this high-level need in the following way:

"What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization...It refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized 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."

While the theory is generally portrayed as a fairly rigid hierarchy, Maslow noted that the order in which these needs are fulfilled does not always follow this standard progression. For example, he notes that for some individuals, the need for self-esteem is more important than the need for love. For others, the need for creative fulfillment may supersede even the most basic needs.

Characteristics of Self-Actualized People

In addition to describing what is meant by self-actualization in his theory, Maslow also identified some of the key characteristics of self-actualized people:

  • Acceptance and Realism: Self-actualized people have realistic perceptions of themselves, others and the world around them.

  • Problem-centering: Self-actualized individuals are concerned with solving problems outside of themselves, including helping others and finding solutions to problems in the external world. These people are often motivated by a sense of personal responsibility and ethics.

  • Spontaneity: Self-actualized people are spontaneous in their internal thoughts and outward behavior. While they can conform to rules and social expectations, they also tend to be open and unconventional.

  • Autonomy and Solitude: Another characteristic of self-actualized people is the need for independence and privacy. While they enjoy the company of others, these individuals need time to focus on developing their own individual potential.

  • Continued Freshness of Appreciation: Self-actualized people tend to view the world with a continual sense of appreciation, wonder and awe. Even simple experiences continue to be a source of inspiration and pleasure.

  • Peak Experiences: Individuals who are self-actualized often have what Maslow termed peak experiences, or moments of intense joy, wonder, awe and ecstasy. After these experiences, people feel inspired, strengthened, renewed or transformed.

Learn more in this article about the characteristics of self-actualized people.

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References:

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50, 370-96.

Maslow, A.H. (1943). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Wahba, M.A. & Bridwell, L.G. (1976). Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance , 15, 212–240.

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