21 January 2013


The Maslow Hierarchy of Needs - source

When I read about consumerism, and happiness - or more precisely contentment and fulfillment - there is one theory that comes back often, one I have learned at school: the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. Before following up of my thoughts about consumption and happiness, I though I might lightly introduce the concept.

Basically, Maslow's theory is that human needs can be categorized and ranked into 5 groups. These needs are very simply pictured by the pyramid above. The interesting point being that, as long as the needs at the bottom of the pyramid are not satisfied, one has no time or energy to think about the ones above.

To give you a specific example: someone who doesn't have enough to eat spends all their energy finding food to survive and won't care much for social status.

I find this interesting to introduce because his theory is that these needs motivate human beings. So, does it mean that if all ranks are satisfied, one can reach contentment? This might be a good trail of thoughts to follow up on the happiness post, where I suggest that objects don't make people happy, but didn't specify what could.

A few details on what contain each level to make it more concrete:

  • Basic needs: Breathing, food, water, sleep...
  • Safety needs: security of the body, stability of employment, of family...
  • Social needs: Family, friendship, physical intimacy...
  • Esteem needs: self esteem, confidence, respect of others and by others
  • Self-actualization: creativity, problem solving, acceptance of current situation...

Below, introducing a few things I've been thinking about related to this Maslow pyramid. These might deserve a whole post in the future.

A lead for consumerism thoughts

Amitai Etzioni states that the difference between consumption and consumerism is simple: consumption is when you buy objects to satisfy the basic needs, consumerism is when you buy objects to try to satisfy the higher needs of the pyramid.

Buying a bag because you need to carry your keys, credit card and phone? Consumption. Buying a bag in order to be accepted into a specific social circle? Consumerism.

If I follow this idea, it means simplifying one's approach to objects starts with asking oneself: why do I want to buy this? Minimalism wouldn't be related to what you buy but why you buy it.

On happiness and fulfillment

After venturing into the idea that buying stuff doesn't bring happiness, I'm wondering what can. And what is the difference between "happiness" and "fulfillment" really. Are we right to want to be happy? Wouldn't it be more satisfying to feel fulfilled instead? Miss A shared a very interesting article on the subject here, which made me think a lot because it questions this whole happiness thing.

What if fulfillment was reached when satisfying all levels of need on the Maslow pyramid? For example, making a difference in an association or creating something satisfies the "self-actualization" need and may lead to fulfillment, maybe even happiness really.

Another noteworthy element is that "accepting the current situation" is one of the highest human needs too. Being grateful for what you have, enjoying the present moment are ways to accept things as they are, no?


  1. I've never heard of this hierarchy of needs, but it makes a lot of sense and it is quite interesting as well.

    And once again, 'happiness' is such an interesting topic of discussion. I remember once reading that the biological explanation for feeling depressed, is that it's your body's way of telling you that what you are doing is not working and you need to try something else. Makes sense.

    So if you don't feel depressed, then surely your life is already going pretty good. There can't be any huge problems in your life. So maybe once we reach the general level of feeling non-depressed, then after that it's all to do with little nuances. Once we have reached this level, we may attempt to approach this feeling of contentment.

    To me it seems that true contentment can only be achieved by doing something that benefits not only you, but others as well. For example, creating a piece of art that touches the lives of millions, being a great teacher and inspiring many children to love learning etc.

    Hmm... such a huge, confusing topic!

    1. When reading Maslow's theories it seems these needs are sources of motivation. I wonder is there is a link between motivation and happiness.

      Also, your point about depression is very interesting. Is "being happy" equal to "not being unhappy"? Or is it something more? I agree, confusing topic!