Self-Actualization, The Death Drive, and Moral Psychology
I’m sure you have heard the name Abraham Maslow in some context or another. Along with Sigmond Freud he was one of the most notable psychologists of our time, having attempted to answer questions related to what it means to understand who we truly are. His most famous work is known as the Hierarchy of Needs. At our foundations, we have physiological needs including food, water, warmth and rest. As we move up the rungs, he goes on to include other things such as safety, love, and self-esteem and accomplishment. In many ways, he created a pyramid designed to help us understand the intricate layers of our own humanity.
After all of the base needs have been satisfied, eventually we arrive at the top of the pyramid and come across Self-Actualization.
“Self-Actualization is the desire to become the most that one can be. To become the best version of oneself. It involves striving to achieve our full potential and satisfy our creative goals. Most of us at least have an idea on how to fulfill our base needs. But self-actualization is tricky. It’s definition is vague and there is no set strategy to get there. What does it mean to achieve full potential? How do we even begin to navigate this terrain?”
A prominent psychologist at Columbia University, Scott Barry Kaufman, used a modern statistical approach to help strengthen the way we understand these characteristics in a recently published paper in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.
He identified 10 characteristics that predicts a self-actualized personality with the highest reliability. (source)
1) Purpose (α = .86)
I feel a great responsibility and duty to accomplish a particular mission in life.
I feel as though I have some important task to fulfill in this lifetime.
I have a purpose in life that will help the good of humankind.
2) Humanitarianism (α = .82)
I feel a deep sense of identification with all human beings.
I feel a great deal of sympathy and affection for all human beings.
I have a genuine desire to help the human race.
The most reliable characteristic of self-actualized people is a sense of purpose — discovering our calling in life and using such knowledge to guide us in our decisions.
Humanitarianism, the second characteristic, goes hand-in-hand with purpose.
Purpose grows from our ability to make a difference in other people’s life. We all have an innate need to do things that extend beyond ourselves.
A sense of purpose appears to have evolved in humans so that we can accomplish big things together — it is built into our DNA.
Every one of us has a WHY, a deep-seated purpose, cause or belief that is the source of our passion and inspiration.
More than any other factor finding our sense of purpose, one that is rooted in our capacity to help people around us, is the chief contributor to a self-actualized life.
As Martin Luther King Jr. expressed it: “We have a responsibility to set out to discover what we are made for, to discover our life’s work, to discover what we are called to do. And after we discover that, we should set out to do it with all the strength and all of the power that we can muster.”
This “life’s work” is what we were intended to do, as dictated by our particular skills, gifts, and inclinations.
It is our calling in life.
Finding this higher sense of purpose gives us the integration and direction we all crave.
Once we find our WHY, our moments of doubt, even our failures have a purpose — to toughen us up. With such energy and direction, our actions have unstoppable force.
As Friedrich Nietzsche noted, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
3) Equanimity (α = .79)
I am often undisturbed and unruffled by things that seem to bother most people.
I am relatively stable in the face of hard knocks, blows, deprivations, and frustrations.
I tend to take life’s inevitable ups and downs with grace, acceptance, and equanimity.
Life is unpredictable.
Just when you think that you have figured it out, life throws a curveball and disrupts everything.
If you need everything in life to be in order before you can find fulfillment, you will never ascend into self-actualization.
Equanimity is the quality of mind that can find calm in chaos. Such a mind does not need the world to be in perfect order to relax.
The first step to find equanimity is to understand a destructive flaw of our mind: Negativity Bias. Our minds have evolved to exaggerate all negative events, to blow it out of proportion.
We worry too much about things that just don’t matter. Due to an odd quirk of evolution we are stuck with a mind that is constantly worried. Which is why it is all the more important to not get carried away when it acts out.
Epictetus advices, “It is not external events themselves that cause us distress, but the way in which we think about them, our interpretation of their significance. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble. We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”
Life is not about getting rid of problems, it’s about getting better at dealing with problems. No matter how much you succeed, the mind will always find a reason to worry, it will find new problems to blow out of proportion.
When the mind does what it does, our job is to slowly pull ourselves back into reality. This equanimity is a crucial step on our path to self-actualization.
4) Continued freshness of appreciation (α = .77)
I can appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have become to others.
A sunset looks just as beautiful every time I see one.
I often feel gratitude for the good in my life no matter how many times I encounter it.
It is so easy to take life for granted. Human beings have an extraordinary capacity to habituate to things around them.
Even lottery winners, after a few months of elevated happiness, return to their baseline happiness.
We buy a new car, we are excited for a few weeks, then we don’t even notice it. Where is that excitement you felt when you bought your new iPhone?
Self-actualized individuals, on the other hand, cultivate an ability to find awe and wonder in the everyday life. They actively cultivate an ability to appreciate the beauty that surrounds them.
5) Creative spirit (α = .77)
I have a generally creative spirit that touches everything I do.
I bring a generally creative attitude to all of my work.
I am often in touch with my childlike spontaneity.
We are the only species that spends countless hours making things prettier. We are the only species that spends its precious time on earth making songs more beautiful, play with legos, write poems, paint Sistine Chapel.
We are the making ape. It is built into the core of our being.
To walk into self-actualization, we need to awaken our inner creative and embrace it’s quirkiness.
6) Peak experiences (Flow) (α = .77)
I often have experiences in which I feel new horizons and possibilities opening up for myself and others.
I often have experiences in which I feel a profound transcendence of my selfish concerns.
I often have experiences in which I feel one with all people and things on this planet.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow is one of the most cited studies in psychology. According to him, flow is more than just an optimal state of consciousness, it also appears to be the only practical answer to the question: What is the meaning of life?
There are moments that stand out from the chaos of the everyday as shining beacons… In many ways, one might say that the whole effort of humankind through millennia of history has been to capture these fleeting moments of fulfillment and make them part of everyday existence.
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Most of us have at least passing familiarity with flow. If you’ve ever lost an afternoon to a great conversation or gotten so involved in a work project that all else is forgotten, then you’ve tasted the experience.
Self-actualized people tend to spend significant portion of their life lost in a state of flow.
7) Authenticity (a = .74)
I can maintain my dignity and integrity even in environments and situations that are undignified.
I can stay true to my core values even in environments that challenge them.
I take responsibility for my actions.
8) Good moral intuition (a ..72)
I trust my moral decisions without having to deliberate too much about them.
I have a strong sense of right and wrong in my daily life.
I can tell “deep down” right away when I’ve done something wrong.
9) Acceptance (a = .71)
I accept all sides of myself, including my shortcomings.
I accept all of my quirks and desires without shame or apology.
I have unconditional acceptance for people and their unique quirks and desires.
10) Efficient perception of reality (a =.65)
I often have a clear perception of reality.
I am always trying to get at the real truth about people and nature.
I try to get as close as I can to the reality of the world.
So how does self-actualization relate to the vital life instinct, or Eros, within you? The bridge between the two we can recognize as a field of psychology known as moral psychology. First let us look at a simple image that depicts that two opposing drives within us in a simple, accessible way.