Why We Struggle with Self-acutalization and What to do About it

“The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short.”  ~ Abraham Maslow

Few lessons I learned in high school continue with me to this day, however, I do remember one teacher who took time to delve into real-world topics, such as life and what the hell we were going to do with ours. We’ll call this above-and-beyond teacher Ms. Thurgood because she was thorough and good.

It was the final semester of my senior year of high school. While all of us students were itching for graduation and the different paths that lay ahead of us, Ms. Thurgood was intent on making sure we left school with a decent head on our shoulders.

She was a veteran teacher, which showed in her calm demeanor and the ease with which she interacted with students. She never tried to impress us; rather she dropped subtle hints to let us know that she understood what it was like to be at the crossroads of youth and adulthood.

She taught English, but her lessons often ranged well beyond the common-core curriculum she had been tasked with teaching us. For someone like me, who was constantly bored in class and felt like I was waiting out a prison sentence rather than a school year, she made the days more bearable.

There was one topic that Ms. Thurgood felt so much passion for that she devoted an entire week’s worth of our time to it. The lesson she taught us was about a man named Abraham Maslow and his study of human nature, often known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.

Maslow was interesting, because, in contrast to the norms of his time, Maslow did not focus on the study of what goes wrong with people, but instead focused on studying the positive side of human behavior. Maslow was interested in human potential, and how people can achieve that potential.

“The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side… It has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his psychological health.” Abraham Maslow

Maslow believed that deep down people are good and not evil. I think Mrs. Thurgood believed the same thing, which is why she wanted to share some of Maslow’s theories with us. I think she saw a lot of potential in us, but she also saw the risk we faced of not living up to that potential.

I’m sure she also wanted us to see others in a new light. To recognize that people are to a great extent the product of their environment. She wanted to give us hope. She wanted to provide a roadmap for success and happiness.

The pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy is the achievement of self-actualization. The term itself was originally coined by a man named Kurt Goldstein as a definition for the realization of one’s full potential. It means to become who you are meant to be through the expression of creativity, and the achievement of spiritual enlightenment and knowledge.

Maslow made the term popular when he developed a pyramid of human needs, which if satisfied, could help lead a person to self-actualization. In speaking of his research Maslow said, “Human life will never be understood unless its highest aspirations are taken into account. Growth, self-actualization, the striving toward health, the quest for identity and autonomy, the yearning for excellence (and other ways of phrasing the striving “upward”) must by now be accepted beyond question as a widespread and perhaps universal human tendency”

I believe that self-actualization is important because we all have a purpose on this earth and it would be a shame for us and everyone else not to realize that purpose. A nation of self-actualized people is a nation that can accomplish anything and rise above any challenge.

I believe that people have the ability to become self-actualized. But I’m concerned that while people have the opportunity and resources needed, they still may not be reaching the top of their potential. Below I’ve laid out some of my theories of why this is the case, included some research from others, and provided some possible solutions.

Intentional Living Abrham Maslow

Background on Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs and Self-actualization

There are a lot of great online resources for learning more about Maslow, his research, and the self-actualization pyramid. Here is one of them, and here is another.

Pyramid of Human Needs

Based on Maslow’s theory people have certain innate needs, both physical and emotional, which must be met before self-actualization can occur. While these needs are built into a pyramid, Maslow later admitted that the pyramid is not so much a ladder that must be climbed, one rung after another, but instead a general guidebook. As is the case with most things, the outcome is highly dependent on the individual.

The five needs of Maslow’s pyramid include:

  1. Biological and physiological needs (e.g., air, food, water, warmth, sex, sleep)
  2. Safety needs (shelter, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear)
  3. Love and belongingness needs(friendship, intimacy, trust and acceptance, affection love, belonging)
  4. Esteem needs (esteem for oneself and respect from others)
  5. Self-actualization needs (achieving one’s potential, self-fulfillment, personal growth and peak experiences)


Self-actualization is not about achieving wealth or prestige, but about becoming the person you have the potential to become. A few quotes from Maslow himself sum up the essence of self-actualization.

“The thing to do seems to be to find out what one is really like inside; deep down, as a member of the human species and as a particular individual”

“What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualization.”

“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.”

I also think that Thomas Jefferson speaks well to the idea of what self-actualization is and what it is not; said he, “It is neither wealth nor splendor; but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness.” I’ve expounded more on this quote in relation to intentional living in a previous post, which you can find here.

How can you tell if you are a Self-actualized Person?

If you’re wondering how you can tell if you or someone else has reached the self-actualization phase, Maslow actually defined the characteristics he believed to be indicative of someone who is self-actualized.

People who are self-actualized have:

  • Efficient perceptions of reality
  • Acceptance of self, others, and nature
  • A reliance on their own experiences and judgment
  • A task their life is centered around
  • Autonomy
  • Continued freshness of appreciation
  • Profound interpersonal relationships
  • Comfort with solitude
  • Non-hostile sense of humor
  • Peak Experiences
  • Social compassion

 Are We Self-actualized?

The question I feel inclined to ask is, are the majority of people today self-actualized? If we live in a developed country, have access to education and technology, and have all of our basic needs (biological, physiological, and safety) met shouldn’t we be able to reach self-actualization quite efficiently?

The research would suggest that on the whole people who live in developed nations are not self-actualizing.  Here is some of the recent research I have found.

Harris PollBased on the Harris Poll, in 2017 only 33% of Americans surveyed said they were happy and slightly more than half of Millennials said they were frustrated with their career.

Gallop Poll: According to a recent Gallop Poll, the U.S. failed to rank in the top 10 happiest countries. Of the 155 nations included in the 2016 study, the United States ranked 14th.

Quartz Article: In her article, Ruth Whippman leans on research that shows, “The systematic packaging and selling of happiness is an industry estimated to be worth more than $10 billion.” She also describes how happiness has become the ultimate consumer product. She also shared that one-third of all people in the United States is likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder in their lifetime

“Self-actualizing people enjoy life in general and practically all its aspects, while most other people enjoy only stray moments of triumph” – Abraham Maslow

What Are the Roadblocks?

The next question to ask is why are people failing to achieve self-actualization? I have a few of my own theories, which happen to agree with some of the research. The list of items below is certainly not comprehensive, but I believe it represents the most pressing issues that many of us face.

Our Priorities are Out of Whack

In life, there are really roughly five categories of meaningful activities on which you can spend your time, such as activities related to your family, friends, education/career, health (physical and mental), and religion. There may be others (e.g., travel and entertainment) but I think they are perhaps sub-categories rather than life pursuits.

If you were to track the time you spent on each category, you would probably discover that the categories don’t receive an equal distribution of your time. For example, education/career probably receives a lot more of your time than family or friends.

I’m not going to argue here for “work-life-balance”, because I believe that it’s a misnomer, especially for highly driven people. What I would argue for is ensuring we know what our priorities are, and we’re the ones controlling the time we put into different activities.

In the same Harris Poll, I referenced above, it states that nearly 40% of Americans said that they rarely engage in hobbies and pastimes they enjoy. Just like being happy, having fun is a choice. We just have to prioritize it, so that we make that choice.

The Distraction of Technology

Technology is a big distraction for me (Me: Hi, my name is Josh and I’m addicted to Twitter. Group: Hi, Josh). We all know in our heart-of-hearts that the stuff we read on social media is not valuable, is often misleading, and is distracting us from living our real lives. Distraction and a lack of control are cited as one of the reasons Americans are not as happy as they could be.

The constant stream of information we receive from technology provides us with an information overload and also leads to FOMO (the fear of missing out). This causes us to check our phones every few minutes, distracts us from the tasks in which we’re engaged, and makes conversations with people who are actually in front of us difficult.

Social media has been proven to have a negative effect on our moods and happiness. The constant stream of images and hashtags can make it seem like everyone else is so much happier and better off than you. And comparing ourselves others is a sure-fire way to reduce happiness.

And the biggest problem with technology is that it wastes our time – valuable time that could be used in the pursuit of our life’s purpose.

Focusing on a Life of Luxury

The final thought I have about the roadblocks we face on the path to self-actualization is the trap of luxury. I recently opened a fortune cookie and inside found the message, “You will enjoy good health and be surrounded by luxury.”

Intentional Living Fortune Cookie 

The part about good health I certainly appreciated, but the idea of being surrounded by luxury (and thinking it was a good thing) made me uncomfortable. A life of meaning is found in the pursuit of lasting relationships, productivity, and giving service – not in the pursuit of ease and comfort.

Don’t get me wrong, I want my home to be comfortable, but I fear that seeking after luxury flips our priorities around and sends us in the wrong direction. When possessions such as homes, cars, boats, and televisions become our driving motivators we’ve certainly lost our connection with what brings us joy.

How do We Rise Above?

Like most things self-actualization is not an event, rather it is a journey. Life gives us some ups and some downs, and we certainly won’t always be floating on a cloud. Given the self-actualization roadblocks we discussed, here are some things that can be done to improve our chances of becoming self-actualized.


Abraham Maslow said, “What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.” I believe that what Maslow meant by this, was that understanding our full potential is all the motivation we really need to begin chasing after our dreams.

Becoming aware of who we are and what we want out of life is the foundation for intentional living. I’ve written about this in the past here and here.

Maslow said, “If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.” It’s not the desire to do something that makes you who you are, it’s the actual process of doing something that makes you who you are.

If you play basketball and want to be considered a shooter, you must shoot. Shooters shoot.

If your dream is to be a writer, then you must write. Writers write.

If you want to travel, figure out how to travel. Travelers travel.

If you want to be an entrepreneur and launch your own company, then found it today. Founders found.

Set Limits

A significant challenge to discovering who you are and what you want is the constant distractions in our lives. Earlier we talked about technology and luxury and how they can hinder our progress.

It’s hard to progress personally when you can’t get away from the incessant thoughts of others.  Learn to turn off your computer or phone. Learn to be present in the moment.

Learn to be comfortable with quietness and stillness. Learn to say no to requests.

Maslow also said, “The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”

I’ll readily admit that this is something I struggle with. Listening to a phone requires much less effort than engaging with a person or accomplishing a task. Consumption is always easier than production, but it can leave you feeling empty inside.

Setting limits on technology will give us more time to focus on what really matters.

Connect with Others

Nobody should travel through this life alone. We know that we need others to be there for us and we need to be there for others.  Across research studies and surveys, one finding that appears consistently is that we need other people in order to be happy.

There is really never a time when I feel more in touch with myself and my spouse than when we spend hours alone just talking with each other. It’s fun, it builds connection, it ensures that we are on the same page.

While personal time is important, making an effort to spend more time with friends and family will lead to better mental and emotional health. It helps us to realize what our priorities should be and gives us the courage to realign our lives with those priorities.

Earlier I wrote that there are five categories of meaningful activities where we can spend our time. Friends and family are separate categories because I believe that one does take precedence over the other (hint: its family). Neglecting these two categories can have serious consequences on our short-term happiness, and our long-term sense of belonging and purpose.

I heard a powerful anecdote once that is very much in-line with my characterization of meaningful activities. I wish that I could remember where I heard it, but I don’t. Just remember that while I think this analogy is spot on, it’s not my original work.

Sometimes life is like juggling with a number of bouncy balls in the air at one time. These balls include such things as work, family, friends, health, church, etc… In life, as in juggling, you may occasionally drop a ball. When performing with bouncy balls, the balls that have fallen simply bounce back to you. In life, some things are bouncy balls and you can recover from dropping them. But other things are not bouncy balls, they’re more like glass balls, and if you drop them they don’t come back.

When prioritizing, just remember that our relationships are typically glass balls. We may not get a chance to pick them up if we drop them.

Intentional Living Broken Glass


Ms. Thurgood never laid out a plan for us to achieved self-actualization. She did a great job of introducing us to the concept, then left the rest in our hands. If I had to summarize a game plane that I believe would help lead a person to self-actualization it would look like this.

  1. Be aware of what you want and don’t be afraid to go after it.
  2. Align your life so that your activities lead you towards your goals.
  3. Avoid distractions.
  4. Stay connected with yourself and your loved ones.

If you found this post helpful or insightful, please let me know by sharing a comment below. Thanks.

Pacific Swells is a collection of short stories and helpful articles about finding happiness through intentional living.

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