As humans, it seems that we are genetically programmed to always want more. And I suppose there is an excellent reason for the desire to always want more, to always feel that more is necessary in order to be happy and fulfilled. As much as it sucks to lose a job and then have to realign your priorities while living on unemployment, it would suck an order of magnitude more to think you are set with food for the winter, and then have mold ruin all your grain, and then starve to death with nothing to eat. So I can understand the need to always reach for more, to feel that another step has to be taken, that your situation can always be improved.
And from this, we come to Maslow.
About 10 days ago or so at a friend’s party I ended up talking to one of the girls there – who I guess had recently finished an MBA program – and we got to talking about needs as humans. My generation has so much in its favor – so many choices, so much freedom, and often so much ease at our fingertips – yet this almost paradoxically has created seemingly greater unhappiness in our culture. Maybe it stems from this feeling that nearly anything is possible and that we all can be amazingly successful. Perhaps for many people, anything short of brilliance and achievements that set the world on fire can lead to feelings of inadequacy.
But as we talked we got onto the subject of Abraham Maslow and some of the work he did with the human condition and what people search for. He came to some really interesting (and, if you’re anything like me, really frustrating) conclusions regarding what he referred to as a “Hierarchy of Needs”. Essentially, humans are creatures that are, by nature, almost never satisfied. We have basic needs which are those we require to sustain us and keep us alive. But once we have secured enough food and water to keep up alive for a while and we are not constantly worried about death by starvation, we start to look for a safe place to live – somewhere to be sheltered from the elements or from any creatures looking to do us harm. And, having satisfied those basic needs, we don’t just stop and say “Hey, this is pretty cool, I think I’m probably not going to die anytime soon. Sweet!” Nope, we start thinking “well, I’m a bit lonely now. Some other people might be nice to have around. And women. Women! They look nice. Let’s find at least one of those.”
So, having found a group of people to interact with, and a good woman to love and be loved by, do we think we have a pretty wonderful life? Maybe. But we’ll still probably want more. We want to feel good at something, and be recognized for that. So should we become chief or leader of our little group, with everyone looking up to us for advice and wisdom, what should we feel? Powerful? Satisfied in our place in the world? Well, it’s possible. But… what are we here for? What is our purpose? Can we leave the world a better place in some way? What if no one remembers us when we’re gone?
And so we come to the angst of my generation. Here in the United States, in this 21st century, when you look at people who have grown up in middle class or above families, no other group in history has had so much opportunity for education, for self-expression, for intellectual curiosity, and for choice. We may worry about car payments, but the chance we are worrying about food and shelter is pretty low. Most of us have a support network, and the safety net the government provides is there as well. And without the burden of so many basic needs worries, many of us are experiencing feelings of confusion, many are feeling lost knowing that there is something we should be doing, something we’ll be amazing at and recognized for, or some way to contribute back to the world. But for many of us, we lack the tools or training to figure out what the contribution can be. Rather than figuring out jobs that pay well, many of us are focusing on careers that will make us happy and leave us feeling fulfilled.
School doesn’t prepare us for that. We don’t receive training on self-actualization. School can provide an environment where accomplishment is recognized and rewarded, but once we leave school this is frequently absent.
So how does one navigate in this new 21st century reality? How do we adapt our society to one in which, increasingly, the bottom tiers of this hierarchy of needs will almost automatically be fulfilled and people’s efforts will go towards satisfying the top tier? What training do we need to be providing our children to successfully navigate this new psychological reality?
Well, hopefully I’ll have it figured out a little better myself so I can be a good example and teacher to my children (once I find my way out of this selfish phase and feel mature enough to have them, that is.)
And good luck to any of you feeling lost because your life is too easy!