The Conquest of Happiness


In 1954 psychologist Abraham Maslow propounded a theory of human needs.  At the bottom of his hierarchy of needs are the basic physiological needs of food and drink.  Once these needs are fulfilled human beings look for the next set of needs which are related to safety and security.  Their fulfilment takes an individual to higher levels. The figure shows Maslow’s hierarchy.  [Click on the figure to see it bigger.]

It may be noted that wealth does not find a mention anywhere in the hierarchy.  Wealth as such is not a human need.  Wealth can fulfil certain human needs such as food, shelter, security and entertainment.  Wealth can bring certain things of the higher order too such as knowledge (books, education).  What a person wants to do with wealth may determine a person’s happiness to some extent at the intermediary levels in Maslow’s hierarchy.  In fact, wealth cannot play much significant role at the higher levels of the hierarchy.  One’s mind plays most of the roles at the higher levels. 

“Maslow believed that most people become so focused on attaining satisfaction of the needs lower in the hierarchy that they spend little time focused on becoming all they can be,” say psychologists Michael W Passer and Ronald E Smith.  In other words, most people burn out their lives focusing on less significant things such as food, physical comfort, luxury, and entertainment. 

One reason why wealth plays such a huge role in our contemporary civilisation is precisely this.  Most of us are focused on things that wealth can bring into our life which may be already cramped with a lot of material possessions.  Our media also encourage us into believing that the more our possessions, the happier we are.  There is also the need to compete with the neighbour or the colleague.  This need corresponds to the fourth level in Maslow’s hierarchy: the need for approval and recognition.  If the neighbour is esteemed for his 3-bedroom apartment, I must have a 4-bedroom apartment – if not a penthouse or a villa – in order to be esteemed more.  My car must be costlier than his/hers.  My children should study in a more expensive school…

Wealth plays a very great role in one’s happiness if one is stuck at that level in Maslow’s hierarchy.  Maslow also said that one cannot ascend the hierarchy until one’s lower level needs are fulfilled.  If I am caught up with the need to rival my neighbour/colleague, I’ll remain at that level until I grow out of that need.

Contemporary psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan propounded another theory similar to Maslow’s.  Their Self-Determination Theory says that there are three fundamental psychological needs: Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness.  All these needs belong to the higher levels.  These psychologists argue with a lot of researched evidence that people are most fulfilled in their lives when they are able to satisfy these fundamental needs.

Competence refers to the need to master new challenges and to perfect skills.  This need motivates much exploratory and growth-inducing human behaviour.  At its highest, the behaviour becomes its own reward so that the person who has reached this level does not need external motivations such as praise, award, or esteem.  The music becomes the musician’s reward, the art is the artist’s reward, and so on. 

Autonomy represents an attempt to achieve greater freedom and regulation by the self, rather than by external forces.  It leads to greater self-integration, feelings of personal control, and self-actualisation.  The individual who has reached this level determines the course of his/her own life.  He/she is the source of his/her happiness.  Such happiness may have little to do with wealth, appreciation from others, or any other external factor. 

Autonomy, however, does not mean that the individual should become an isolated entity cut off from his/her society.  Far from it, rather.  Relatedness refers to the individual’s desire to form meaningful bonds with others. Autonomy and relatedness are complementary to each other.  Psychologists Ryan & Lynch showed that adolescents who feel that their autonomy is acknowledged and supported by their parents feel a strong sense of relatedness to their parents.  The same is applicable to the adult vis-a-vis his/her society.

Maslow as well as Deci & Ryan were speaking about self-actualisation rather than happiness.  Happiness is a very elusive thing.  It means different things to different persons.  For the physically hungry person the happiest thing would be a hearty meal.  For psychologically hungry person happiness may mean appreciation from others.  Self-actualisation comes only when the individual has conquered those basic hungers. 

Is self-actualisation equal to happiness?  Ask that to Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa… Or Dr Binayak Sen, Arundhati Roy, Medha Patkar…   

PS.  I’m indebted to Professors Passer & Smith for much of the information contained in this blog.

About matheikal

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7 Responses to The Conquest of Happiness

  1. dawnanddew says:

    Pleasure is mean and luxury is evil. If they understand this, certainly happiness is at hand.
    Thanks for giving a wonderful reading experience!

    • matheikal says:

      I wouldn’t say pleasure is mean and luxury is evil. I would rather place those things at the lower end of the continuum from where one can always ascend if one wishes. Pleasure and luxury are at one level of the essential continuum.

  2. Aditi says:

    Matheikal, this was an interesting read. Self actualisation is defined as realising the full potential. But the way you have discussed it, it translates into reaching a state where putting others’ needs before that of self and working for that is ‘self actualisation’, is that really the whole truth?

    If by definition self actualisation comes after conquering the basic hungers, including the hunger of appreciation of target groups, vindication of belief (e.g. just doing God’s work, I know the best for the people I work for) and recognition, I doubt if any of the examples that you gave would ever qualify. They could still be happy doing what they did/are doing, but whether they actually fulfilled the self-actualisation need , I am not too sure…..

    • matheikal says:

      Aditi, thanks.
      Have I really said anywhere that self-actualisation is about putting others’ needs before one’s own?
      The examples I have placed at the end might have given you that impression. Let me confess that the whole list from Abe Lincoln to Mother Teresa is taken ditto from the two professors of psychology from whom I took much of the material. The second list [Sen, etc]is my contribution. I chose, just as the professors did, people who are well-known so that readers may understand the message. It doesn’t really mean that only those who have sacrificed their life for others are self-actualised people. Albert Einstein must have been, in all probability, one. Jean Paul Sartre was, I’m quite sure. And Sartre was an atheist and an Existentialist who believed in individualism. But if I chose such examples I might merely sound obscure or incomprehensible to many.

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