Self actualization is a psychological term used to describe the highest of human needs: to realize our potential. It has been said that not many of us will get to a place where that
Before one takes on a journey, it’s a good idea to have an idea of the destination. No, that’s not because if we fail to reach our goal then the whole endeavor is failure. Life is what happens on the way — if we enjoy our time on the path, make steady progress, and maintain hope, that’s all it takes to have a satisfying life. But still, view of the end helps us stay on that path.
If depression is the bottom, the worst place your psyche can be in, then self actualization is the top. It is the name psychologists gave to the pinnacle of our inner growth, the most evolved and mature state our mind can grow into.
Sadly, only a few of us reach that destination. A few more have glimpses of it, and the rest — not even close. To make the matter worse, it’s hard to know what it’s like, if you’ve never been there.
Self Actualization Defined
So, what is self actualization?
Psychologist Abraham Maslow is commonly credited for establishing the concept. According to his Hierarchy of Needs, it is the state one reaches after all lower needs are met and satisfied. I won’t repeat everything that is outlined in the excellent Wikipedia entry, but his definition gives us a succinct view:
The desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] 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.
In the other words, self actualization is not the state where we are living the life where our potential is fully and perfectly realized. (I would suggest a term self maximization to describe that state) That kind of perfection is a state we may strive for but without expecting that we fully achieve it. But self actualization is a state where all our lower needs are fully satisfied, so that we can focus all our energy and efforts into the pursuit of self maximization.
Once again, achieving the goal is not the requirement — getting on the path is.
Wikipedia’s entry on the Hierarchy of Needs gives us a thorough list describing the characteristics of self actualizing people. However, it’s a dry, academic-sounding list that suggests that these are the traits you ought to acquire if you want to achieve self actualization. While I don’t disagree with the list that psychologists have put together, I’d like to emphasize that we all have the capacity and potential to get to the self actualization, regardless of personality types. There are common characteristics found in these people, yes, and I would say some personality types are easier to foster mental maturation. But these characteristics are more of the result of them becoming self actualized, not requirements to get there.
Instead of repeating what they defined already, let me describe self actualization from another, more intuitive angle. Here are 21 qualities describing what it’s like to be a self actualized person. This is what it feels like, when you get to a place where you can focus all your resources on pursuing the highest of our needs and desires — to fully realize our potential as a human being.
21 Qualities of Self-Actualized People
- Excited. You get up in the morning and can’t wait to face the day.
- Doing what you love to do, at least most of the time. The act itself is the passion, not the rewards it brings (although rewards are nice, too). You have found your calling, the act that brings you joy and meets world’s needs at the same time.
- Sense that what you do take advantage of the unique combination of assets that you possess. This is an interesting one — you feel that what you do can only be done by you, because of the unique set of resources you bring to the table. In the other words, you have found your niche, the place in the world that needs someone like you.
- High self-esteem. Your sense of well-being and trust in your existence and your ability to navigate life are so secure, that very little upsets and discourages you.
- Abundant. The feeling that it’s building up faster than tearing down. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be materially wealthy, but you are not operating from scarcity mentality about your resources, like food, shelter or money.
- Generous. Your primary concern is to contribute to the greater whole, not build up yourself. In fact, you feel that you have so much, that you can’t help but give. Your giving is not driven by guilt or need for recognition. You give because you have so much that you are overflowing.
- No need to prove oneself. Competitions are irrelevant. No reason to boast. Recognitions are unnecessary.
- Challenged/Risk-taking, with little fear of failure. Oh, you do still fail, and perhaps often. But you have fully realized that that’s how you are challenged, that’s what it takes to grow more. So you are constantly on the look-out for opportunities to stretch yourself. You feel that what you’re doing is sufficiently challenging — and hence worth pursuing.
- Healthy. You don’t find any aspects of your being very compromised.
- Love of self. You are proud of who you are.
- Self Aware. You know yourself really well, including your feelings and where your vulnerabilities are. Your description of yourself and that coming from others match closely.
- Honest/no secrets out of fear. There are things we keep to ourselves, of course, but we do so more to be tactful and/or out of genuine concern for others. Not out of fear of embarrassment, judgment or rejection.
- Hopeful and optimistic. This comes naturally out of high self-esteem — you don’t worry about much, as far as your own life is concerned. There will be things you’ll be concerned about, sure, especially when it comes to your loved ones’ well-being.
- Attractive. You may not look like a model or a movie actor, but a confident, optimistic, joyful and generous person is never ugly. And people will notice your glow. You feel confident about how you look.
- Being surrounded by other self actualizers. Likewise, a self actualized person will find common grounds with other people in similar places — a community forms around you, of those who are highly evolved and mature, pushing the limits of their capabilities.
- Big-picture oriented. Because you are no longer concerned with day-to-day survival needs, you naturally focus on the big stuff. Also, because you are no longer concerned with your personal well-being, you naturally focus more on the well-being of a greater whole — your community, your society, and humanity.
- Creative. Again, being above the survival mode frees your mind to explore the realm of possibilities. When your thoughts are not limited by the box called Here and Now, you conjure up all kinds of interesting ideas.
- Disciplined. Self-actualization takes a lot of work, both internally (mental/spiritual) and externally (physical). You only get there and stay there by vigilantly acquiring and instilling good habits and discarding and keeping away bad habits.
- Deeply Connected. You have relationships in your life where you feel much closeness. You may spend time alone but you never experience prolonged sense of loneliness, as you have people with whom you feel safe to share your personal feelings.
- Sense of Integrity. You will have a highly developed, well-defined and internalized code of ethics, and that is what drives your decision-making. External influences, whether it’s a cultural protocol or you family and friends, have less say on what you decide to do.
- Grateful. How can you not be, when you are in this state? 😉
All these qualities add up to one euphoric joy. This is how good you can be.
Now, this is a list that describes the result, the outcome of self-actualization. It’s not a list where you set out to achieve or acquire these qualities (though you can look at it that way) because they will naturally come to you as you enter the realm where all lower needs are satisfied. For example, no need to force yourself to feel generous, when you don’t feel so — generosity is a result of abundance and self-esteem. You won’t be able to help but be generous when you are actualized.
That said, you can get a sense of how you are doing by assessing how much of each quality you already possess. This is not a Must-Have-All list, where you can’t call yourself self-actualized unless you hit 10 on all accounts. But you’ll find that you possess the majority of them when you are there.
6 Myths about Ideal Life
Now, let me highlight some concepts that are not included on this list. These represent the myth, ideals that some people pursue though they will never actually bring them the joy that they are after.
- Easy life. Easy life is boring. It doesn’t engage or challenge you. It only breeds stagnation, laziness, and deterioration of your inner self. Self actualized people do not, and choose not to, live an easy life. (That said, they don’t struggle, either)
- Maintenance- or effort-free. Likewise, being self-actualized is a vigorous, vigilant state, requiring constant efforts to maintain and further grow higher. It’s not a plateau that once you reach, you can just sit there. It takes a very high degree of self-discipline to stay there.
- Indulgent. Many people (particularly those materially wealthy) live the life of indulgence. Indulgence is a pursuit of self-centered interests that gorges us in shallow, surface-level entertainment. This never brings out the deeper joy one experiences from solving problems for the greater whole.
- Excessive. A sense of abundance is not the same as sheer volume of possessions. Materially wealthy have one advantage over those who are not — in that their physical survival needs are not their concern. But such riches can also be distracting and create hindrance that prevents you from self actualization.
- Commanding. Self-actualized people tend to take leadership because they are secure, mature and big-vision oriented, but being a leader with a lot of authority is not necessarily a portion of the package. Pursuit of power comes often from needs for social acceptance and justifying one’s existence/worth. Self-actualized people no longer care about that. If they lead, they do of sheer desire to serve — not because they crave authority.
- Recognized. Similarly, self-actualized people don’t need external recognition to affirm their existence or their work. They may become recognized as a natural outcome of doing their life’s work with passion and integrity. But they could be totally anonymous, and they don’t care. Pursuit of self-actualization doesn’t include the drive for recognition. Such a pursuit doesn’t get you closer, nor bring you lasting joy.
My Personal Assessment
So, how am I doing in my evolution? Not there yet, though close. I often have glimpses of the plateau, and it’s becoming more often, as I heal the deficiencies and wounds. I am not evolved enough to quite sustain and stay there.
One period of life where I had a prolonged sense of fulfillment was when I was 20 years old — sophomore in college. This was a very special year, as two of my biggest dreams came true. For the first time in my life, I was playing in a rock band — and a successful one at that, if in our own small world. Also, I met my wife that year, and the first year of that was nothing but sheer excitement and joy, as we explored the deep and wide common grounds we shared. I would say we had a very extended honeymoon period, because our compatibility/chemistry was so great. We have gone through excruciatingly painful times since then, but because the foundation of our relationships was very strong, we were able to weather them and stay together.
I was on cloud nine that year. It felt like there was nothing I couldn’t do. I loved playing my guitar in front of happy (if drunk ;-)) crowd. My girlfriend was about as close to ideal as I could realistically hope for. My academics were challenging, and it did stress me out, but I rose to the occasion and did very well. I was surrounded by good people, doing what I loved to do. Life couldn’t get any better.
This period offered a glimpse of how good life can be, though it was more of a preview. I had many insecurities and was far from being mature — and didn’t know what made that state possible nor how to maintain it. I wouldn’t have been able to stay there, even if I knew what I know now, as there were some deep insecurities that I discovered and healed since then. But being a musician, I can get a taste of this euphoric joy in episodes, when I’m “in the zone” being creative and fully engaged. It is a window in which I look into a different state of being.
When I’m in this state, I’m deeply engaged in something. Time flies, though it also feels very slow. My whole mind is wrapped around the problem I’m solving. Ideas keep pouring out, and the progress and the possibility excites me to no end. I get so jazzed about the outcome — in my case, the resulting music — that I want to go out and shout at the mountain top. Not to broadcast that I made it — but rather, how good it is. I also feel a sense of deep gratitude, as I feel that my creation is not my own. I’m simply the receiver, accepting and realizing signals sent from somewhere higher. I feel so grateful to be the one receiving and turning it into a form that can be used in this dimension.
This is what people call peak experience — it is a little different from self actualization. But I think of it as a momentary and intense form of self actualization. For when I’m in that state, I’m not concerned about any of my lower needs — my hunger, my safety, my esteem, or my companionship. My whole being is engaged and the feeling is pure and unadulterated joy. Now that I am more whole my “default” state is consistently close to the “zone” at all times, and it takes less effort to get there. With just a few more road blocks removed, I think I can get to the plateau of self actualization and stay there, with frequent visits to peak experience.
Of the 21 characteristics, where am I deficient? Primarily the sense of abundance, and the generosity that comes as a result of it. I must admit that I still feel quite stingy and don’t feel remotely generous — despite being relatively satisfied with our improvements in level of living and financial resources in the last few years. It’s just that we were in such a bad shape in that area, that we still don’t trust our recent growth. Plus, we are a bit bent out of shape by taking care of our 2 little children, that we (my wife and I) are severely short of personal and relationship time. I do realize that this is our own doing, but we are not mature enough to maintain our balance in the face of the overwhelming (screaming 😉 ) demands from our little ones. So the scarcity mentality on both time and money prevents me from being generous.
I don’t mean to boast, but I have a lot of the rest, and I am happy, joyful, grateful. I’m cautiously hopeful that our current growth will continue and repair the deficiencies that keep us from feeling the abundance. I just need to unscript our old default mentality based on scarcity.
Self Actualization Can Change the World
Self actualized people naturally broadcast their joy — that’s why many write books, give speeches and workshops, and share their stories. Their joy overwhelms and overflows. It inspires others to realize that there is a better way to live.
As more people achieve self actualization, the culture and the society will change to accommodate and even encourage that shift. In the so-called “developed” corners of the society, more and more people are beginning to rise above the lower needs to fully realize their potential. And this results in a gradual shift in entire culture and society.
Our current society is still focused around our collective physical survival and that mentality creates obstacles for growth into the higher plains. Notice that our current language doesn’t even have words to describe some of the qualities of self actualization. Our cultures and societies have not experienced self actualization as a whole — and that is why we still don’t know how to foster it. Each of us achieving this state are more or less having to pave our own way.
This will change as more people evolve. Our schools and education system, our concepts of parenting, business practices — all will align to produce more self actualization. It’s because self actualized people are happy and effective. It’s in everyone’s best interest to increase the ratio of self actualized people. Without getting into specifics and politics, systems will emerge where everyone’s lower needs will be taken care of, so that each of us are free and empowered to explore the highest terrains.
You want to help make a better world? Actualize yourself. Even if you don’t get there in this life time, die trying. That is the best contribution you can make to the world. Charitable acts out of guilt and fear will only promote those same qualities. Your whole life will be a charitable act if you realize your potential, as your concern for yourself will fade into the background then. Actualize yourself, and share your stories. Your triumphs, your failures, your struggles, your growth. This aspiration and your life lived in its pursuit will then contribute to the evolution of mankind as a whole.
Conclusion and Call to Self Actualized
Self actualization is the most evolved and mature state one can achieve. I hope my description of it has whet your appetite for realizing your potential.
To sum up, I’d like to quote once again, the words of Abraham Maslow. Self actualization is:
An episode or spurt in which the powers of the person come together in a particularly and intensely enjoyable way and in which they are more integrated and less split, more open for experience, more idiosyncratic, more perfectly expressive or spontaneous, or fully functioning, more creative, more humorous, more ego-transcending, more independent of their lower needs, etc. They become in these episodes more truly themselves, more perfectly actualising their potentialities, closer to the core of their being, more fully human. Not only are these their happiest and most thrilling moments but they are also moments of greatest maturity, individuation, fulfilment – in a word, their healthiest moments. Self-actualising people, those who have come to a high level of maturation, health and self-fulfilment, have so much to teach us that sometimes they seem almost like a different breed of human being.
How to achieve self actualization is one topic I didn’t touch, as this was intended to be just a description of the destination, not the path. This entire web site essentially is about my path and what I learn from it. I wish I could write a succinct summary on how to achieve self actualization — but I am not at a point where I can put it all together myself.
Keep the big picture in mind, but focus your efforts on the next phase of your growth. There is no shame in trying to secure next month’s pay check or find your soul mate. The point is to keep trying, keep growing, and celebrate each and every step forward. I myself am in a place right below it, poking my head through the cloud occasionally, but keep getting sucked back down by road blocks that pull me down. Growth is not linear — it’s often about taking two steps forward and one step back. It can be frustrating at times, but I don’t lose hope. Neither should you.
If you feel that you are self actualized, please identify yourself, and tell us how you got there. You are an inspiration to all of us and there’s a lot we can learn from you. Notice the final line of the Maslow’s quote above — transcending other needs to explore the highest plateau of our minds is an experience that’s hard to envision unless we experience it ourselves. Those of us who are there have much to offer to those who are on the way. I myself am interested in the final break through that pushed you into that realized state more or less for good, as that is my current challenge. There are many tips on how to fill other needs — find a job, find a date, and so on. But it’s still hard to know how to put it all together into one cohesive whole.
It is my hope that I’ll share that information myself down the line, on this very blog.