How’s life going? Feeling great? Is everything going to plan, and on track to how you want it to be? Managing to survive, okay?
I’d love it if the answers to all of your questions were a resounding, “Yes”!
But for some reason life seems to get in the way. Things rarely seem to go as smoothly as we’d love them to. There always seem, to be little hiccups, or sometimes even huge roller-coaster swoops, that affect our nicely-made plans.
It sometimes seems to be an enormous mission simply to survive on a day-to-day basis. I know I’ve had nights when I’ve crashed into bed, relieved to have made it through the day – “That’s another day I of survival I can tick off,” I tell myself.
There are other nights, when everything seems black and scary, when you lie awake, tossing and turning, wondering whether you will make it through another day – I’ve been there too! The problem with those nights is that you become your own worst enemy. Your feverish mind imagines every nightmarish situation and amplifies it exponentially. You see every negative possibility and present them all to yourself as inevitable facts. Those nights are not good for your health and are totally counterproductive to you solving your current predicaments.
But when it comes down to it our first focus in life is to survive. As I learned from my most basic economics training, this means that we need to ensure that we have food, clothing, and shelter. If I think about it, most of my worst middle-of-the-night-worrying-with-a-cold-sweat moments relate to my fear of losing those basic needs. I have been in the position of losing my home overnight to home invaders, so I know how terrible it can be (I did at least have a family I could stay with, so I never fell into that absolute pit of despair).
So our highest priority has to be to do all we can to ensure that we are fed, covered in warm clothing and have some form of roof over our head. The shelter requirement is becoming a major topic of discussion in New Zealand where I live, because house prices have skyrocketed in recent years, making it much more difficult to buy property. At the same time, our population has grown, and our rental stock has stayed relatively static. Homelessness is a real issue here now, and you regularly hear of homeless families and see street beggars.
However, we desire far more than just to survive. We are not satisfied with having food in our bellies, clothing on our backs, and some form of shelter keeping us out of the ranks of the homeless. Most people want far more than this.
Abraham Maslow described this well in his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation. He created what has become known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. He depicted human needs in the form of a pyramid. At the bottom level of the pyramid, we have our food, shelter, and clothing needs. He called these needs our Physiological Needs. These are what we need for bare survival.
Our next level of need is our Safety Needs. Once we’ve ensured that we met our basic survival needs, we want to ensure that we are safe from harm. It is at this stage that we try to put in place steps to ensure that we don’t need to worry about failing to meet those basics. For instance, we look for job security, start putting money aside in a savings account, take out insurance, as well as obviously keeping ourselves safe from physical harm. We try and create a safety net protecting us from any harmful effects of accidents or sickness.
Maslow calls the third level of his pyramid Love and Belonging. Once we begin to feel safe (with our essential physical needs catered for), as humans we have a wish to belong, to be around other people whom we care about and who care about us. We want friendship. We want intimacy. We ultimately want a family. It is not uncommon for people to become clinically depressed due to their inability to meet these needs.
The fourth tier of Maslow’s pyramid is Esteem. We want more than to simply be part of a group of people. We want them to accept and value us. Often this manifests in a need to accept and value ourselves – in the form of self-respect and self-esteem.
At the peak of the pyramid of needs is Self-actualization. This is not something we consciously think about much. I can’t imagine you pondered yesterday whether you had self-actualized or not. But our ultimate level of need is to accomplish everything we are able to – often in a specific area of focus. For instance, if you are a teacher, your self-actualization need is to become the best teacher you can possibly be.
So, as you can see, life is about so much more than mere survival. Yes, you need to survive. You need to meet those basic needs at the lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid. But you then need to push yourself to thrive – to build your way up the pyramid.
A pyramid is actually a good analogy of your life. You initially work to create the foundation. You then spend the rest of your life building up the remainder of the structure, layer by layer. Yes, every so often your pyramid may suffer some form of disaster and crumble away. But you simply bring out the building blocks and keep on rebuilding your life pyramid.
It doesn’t matter how old you are, or what your history is. You can always restart your pyramid building process, and gradually meet more and more of your needs and wants.
First survive, then thrive.