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Rethinking Maslow - Should it be Concentric Circles?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has long been our benchmark for the human quest for self-actualization and the determination that we are evolving as individuals throughout our lifetimes. From his long-adopted research, our actions are motivated by certain physiological and psychological needs as a model for understanding motivations for human behavior – the “why” behind our personal actions and subsequent satisfaction of needs. He defined five categories of needs stretched over two sets of needs – deficiency needs and growth needs.

As more of my own lifetime passes well into the 21st century, I have been positing a tremendous amount about our steadfast focus on needs being met on a hierarchical basis. It’s not to denigrate or dissipate the messaging of a long-adopted and wise researcher of human behavior, though to suggest that as time moves forward in evolutionary ways there is a need for reflection and contemplation as to the relevancy of structures that don’t take into account the fluidity and unforeseen progress of daily life changing over time, and more rapidly by the day at that. We talk about it so frequently, yet the advent of technology (and now holding one’s computer and lifeblood in one’s hand) cannot be underestimated as it pertains to the evolution of human behavior and satisfaction of human needs being met.

What I have been wondering about is whether a pyramid, while well-intentioned and perhaps relevant to the times when Maslow researched and wrote about self-actualization, looked through a lens of assumption that individuals have some degree of social connection to allow for a basis of hierarchical thinking which has as its foundation physiological needs such as air, water, food, shelter, sleep, and reproduction. Did Maslow research from an inherent point of view that when this first level of need, followed by the second level safety needs (including personal security, employment, resources, health, and property) truly came before the third level of need found in elements of love and belonging (friendship, intimacy, family, sense of connection)? My heart takes a momentary pause every time I think of love, belonging, and kinship as growth needs coming well down the line from water, food, and shelter as deficiency needs. It’s not merely because I am a bleeding-heart social worker seeing through a Christian lens. It’s a real question which I fundamentally feel needs a revisit, as I truly contend it’s a misgiving that is leading to epidemic levels of loneliness and social isolation.

I have spent a tremendous amount of time since launching SOAR Together thinking about our human need for connection -- its genesis, its breakdowns, and what geometrical form maps more clearly in my mind to describe our human needs in 2023 than a pyramid. The phrase that keeps coming to me is that, “Maslow’s hierarchy is outdated.” What I do see much more clearly is that in today’s world our needs are far more akin to concentric circles, each of the same size and weighted importance. There is a backdrop to the interlinked circles, which is a sense of belonging. It is the glue that binds, the most profound and significant utopic feeling from an emotional perspective that one can feel.

So yes, I believe emotional and growth needs are on-par with Maslow’s deficiency needs, for without human connection (which some correlate with love and hope), people lack the necessary grounding to aspire to and meet physical needs of food, clothing, and shelter. For many, this feeling of human connection was at its most true and highest level when in vitro, connected to another lifeforce without which we wouldn’t exist. (Note: health and developmental challenges in vitro are not to be laid aside in this conversation due to their vast impact on so many beautiful lives).

As I reflect on the concentric nature of human needs and categories into which they fall, there is most certainly a need for longitudinal research to hone assumptive suggestions while they stand as one model (amongst likely others already being studied). I think of six concentric circles which together comprise an individual’s areas of need, including: health, financial, spiritual/purpose, social (friends/family/community), service, and self-expression. The interwoven and deeper human need which layers through these circles like a tapestry is a sense of belonging. There are stages of belonging and degrees of personal fulfillment, from a singular social connection to ongoing social engagement to a deeper sense of belonging. From Maslow’s perspective, self-actualization occurs when levels of need are met from bottom to top.

I believe our social-emotional lives begin with our earliest connection, as we enter the world in need of fulfillment across equally weighted needs that are interlinked rather than atop one another. Traumas experienced in our lives cause tears in the fabric of our internal tapestries and breakages in the interlinked circles of need, all of which need repairing as we live out our daily lives. I could go simultaneously deep and flighty to say love is the answer to all things broken, or I could simply convict fundamental human needs are somehow deeper at their core than food, clothing, and shelter. Perhaps it’s that food, clothing, and shelter aren’t enough and never have been, though still elemental to existing while not to thriving.

If research is done on circles of needs and layers of belonging, it is critical to study how much social engagement is needed for someone to move from a sense of connection to engagement to belonging. My strong assumption, given the disparate nature of subjective loneliness and objective social isolation, is that the answer is based on how much trauma and what specific life challenges one has faced as the basis for how much engagement is needed for individuals to feel connected and a sense of belonging. I also know there are likely different kinds of social engagement that are more beneficial to those healing from specific traumas. For some, it may be listening to music alone and letting the beautiful, well-researched healing of certain musical rhythms take hold before more complex social interaction takes place.

For some, it is working one-on-one with therapeutic assistance to heal deep wounds which then allow for healthier social connections with those in one’s life. For others, who are more socially isolated than lonely, it is a matter of increasing daily/weekly social interactions in order to improve qualities of lives, health outcomes, and an ultimate feeling of belonging.

This epidemic of loneliness and social isolation can feel like a thimble in an ocean journey, a slippery slope or deep hole in the ground with no clear exit. But like any epidemic, there is an opportunity to work towards a cure. In this epidemic of loneliness and social isolation, we know what brings about positive results and we need to triage our approach in a measured and staged way. We stop the proverbial bleeding when we spark social connections and create programs necessary to move from singular connections to ongoing engagement, and we work together over time to heal as individuals and communities from the inside out and back in again.

One thing I know for certain – We need our mission to be one that exists in action rather than words. We can talk about loneliness as the elephant in the room for only so long until the elephant simply depresses us more. It’s time to go with what we know – serving others helps reduce feelings of depression, positive social connections correlate directly with increased moods and levels of life fulfillment, intergenerational programs are a tremendous way to tackle today’s current social problems with an aging population and youth that feel so disconnected. The answers are staring us in the face, and we need to be better and smarter and more tactical than to continue to act in ways that promote individual, hierarchical growth over lives woven together.

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